Design engineers use technical knowledge, mathematical and design skills to create innovative solutions to problems across a diverse range of industries

As a design engineer you're involved in the initial concept, design, development and management of projects in a range of sectors such as construction and the built environment, materials, software, components, machinery and vehicles.

To succeed you will need strong technical knowledge, as well as problem solving, communication, leadership and project management skills.

Depending on the specialism, design engineers may also be known as CAD engineers, consulting engineers and product design engineers.

Types of design engineering

You can usually specialise in one area of design engineering, such as:

  • chemical engineering
  • civil engineering
  • electrical engineering
  • electronic engineering
  • mechanical engineering
  • product/industrial design engineering
  • software engineering.

Responsibilities

As a design engineer, you will be required to:

  • liaise with clients to identify their requirements
  • investigate and undertake analysis on how to improve existing projects or components
  • summarise scientific and engineering principles in an easy to understand manner
  • write technical reports to summarise findings
  • cover the concept, specification, tender and development of new projects or components
  • design the aesthetics, materials and functionality of components
  • use CAD, CAN and CAM systems to design and visualise projects
  • undertake model making, prototyping and product testing
  • identify new systems and processes to drive quality, efficiency and save costs
  • undertake complex calculations
  • communicate effectively with the clients, colleagues and contractors involved in a project
  • lead a team of engineers
  • plan effectively to ensure projects are delivered on time, to standard and to budget.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for graduate engineers range from £20,000 to £25,000+, depending on location. Graduates on programmes based in London can start on £27,000 upwards.
  • Experienced or incorporated engineers can earn between £30,000 and £40,000.
  • Chartered engineers can earn salaries of £40,000 to £50,000+. Consultants and managers can earn from £50,000 upwards.

Additional employee benefits may include a company car, a pension, health insurance, and in some cases, sponsorship for further study and Masters courses.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm, however extra hours may be required to meet project deadlines. Flexible working, such as working from home, may sometimes be possible. Short-term contracts can be available through recruitment agencies.

What to expect

  • Design work is typically office based, however you will go on visits to meet clients. Site and plant visits will also be required (depending on your engineering specialism.)
  • Dress code is professional when based in the office and meeting with clients. If visiting a construction site or production plant, a hard hat, overalls and other personal protective equipment will need to be worn.
  • Design and consulting work is to client deadlines, so at times you will be required to work extra hours to meet these.
  • Work opportunities are available nationwide. If working for international organisations, there may be opportunities to travel.
  • Females, workers with disabilities and ethnic minorities are under-represented across the engineering industries. Diversity issues are recognised by professional bodies and employers. Many employers are seeking new ways to diversify their workforce.

Qualifications

You can enter design engineering by both vocational and academic routes. Graduate-level engineers will in most cases be required to have a degree in a relevant technical subject such as civil, mechanical, electrical or chemical engineering. In some cases, non-relevant degrees will be considered and it may be possible to undertake a postgraduate conversion course.

To become a professionally incorporated engineer (IEng) or chartered engineer (CEng), you will need to successfully complete an undergraduate (BSc, BEng) degree. Some degree courses will offer the opportunity to undertake a year's work placement in industry.

Completion of a Masters (MSc or MEng) is a requirement of working towards becoming a fully chartered engineer, and can allow you to specialise in a particular area. Some employers may allow you to study part-time towards your Masters degree.

You can also enter the profession with a HNC, HND or foundation degree, to become an engineering technician (EngTech). You could also consider attending university to undertake a top-up degree, to progress to incorporated or chartered status. It is also possible to undertake an apprenticeship, which involves on the job training while working towards a qualification.

Search for postgraduate courses in engineering.

Skills

As a design engineer, you will need to have:

  • subject specific technical knowledge and expertise
  • commercial awareness of your specialist area of engineering
  • an eye for detail and a methodical work process
  • IT and CAD knowledge
  • analytical and numeracy skills
  • creative problem solving ability
  • the ability to work in a team
  • effective communication to liaise with team members, clients, contractors and others involved in the design process
  • leadership and negotiation skills
  • written communication and the ability to write reports
  • time management, organisation, and the ability to work to deadlines
  • a flexible approach to work and the ability to adapt to change
  • a driven, self-motivated attitude and the ability to use initiative.

Work experience

Your graduate employment prospects will improve if you gain practical industry experience alongside your studies. Some engineering undergraduate degrees include a year-long work placement in industry.

The most competitive graduate programmes will require relevant industry experience as well as a good degree classification. Many students who have undertaken a work placement receive a graduate job offer from their placement provider. Some students may even gain sponsorship towards the remainder of their studies.

If you are studying on a full-time undergraduate degree, you can undertake a summer placement or short-term work experience to boost your employment prospects and build contacts in industry. Opportunities can be gained by applying to summer internship programmes with large companies, or by speculative application to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Check placement websites, company websites or apply speculatively to local companies.

Some large companies offer opportunities for first-year students to apply to 'insight' days or weeks. These involve learning more about the company by undertaking work shadowing, site visits, meeting graduates and taking part in workshops about application processes.

Search for placements and find out more about work experience and internships.

Employers

Employers range from blue chip companies to SMEs, in both the private and public sector. Self-employment is possible when you are an experienced design engineer. However, some graduates do work freelance or set up their own business after graduation. This is more common in areas such as product and industrial design engineering.

Employers include:

  • aerospace and automotive industries
  • computing and software development
  • construction and building services
  • design and engineering consultancies
  • energy utilities, including nuclear
  • government agencies, local authorities, hospitals and educational institutions
  • industrial and domestic product manufacturers and retailers
  • medical engineering
  • process industries, including pharmaceuticals, food and cosmetics
  • oil and gas industries, including petrochemical industries
  • transport and highways industries
  • water treatment services.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies advertise vacancies and handle contract vacancies, particularly for experienced engineers.

Professional development

To become accredited as a chartered engineer in areas such as mechanical, electrical, electronic and chemical engineering, there are educational and working requirements that need to be fulfilled.

To complete the educational requirements of becoming chartered, you will need to complete an accredited Masters course or undertake further learning in the work place.

To complete the working requirements you will need to undertake initial professional development (IPD) which meets the work experience requirements of becoming chartered. During this process you will usually receive support from a mentor or supervisor who will help guide you and provide feedback. When your professional body has received evidence of your academic qualifications and IPD you will undertake a Professional Review interview.

The Professional Review can involve an interview, a presentation and other exercises, and measures professional competence. You can find out more about the attributes, knowledge and experience required from your corresponding professional body website:

As a professional design engineer, you will also undertake continuing professional development (CPD) to develop skills and knowledge in specialist areas such as project management, law, finance, health and safety and report writing.

Refer to your professional body website for details of training events and courses available. Later in your career you can also work towards management qualifications such as becoming a chartered manager.

Career prospects

Many graduates enter the design engineering professions via a structured graduate training programme. This will provide experience working in a range of areas that will support working towards becoming fully chartered. There is no fixed career path for design engineers, and the time it takes to work towards chartership is down to the individual.

During your undergraduate degree (or other training), you may have already chosen a specialist area of engineering in which you would like your career to develop. Undertaking further qualifications and CPD in specialist areas can help improve job prospects.

With experience you may become a senior design engineer. Later in your career you may progress into team leadership, project management, consulting and management roles.

Design engineering is one of the hardest graduate vacancies to fill in the UK according to the UKCES Employer Skills Survey 2015, resulting in a large volume of well-paid opportunities.

It is projected that over 1.82 million people with engineering skills will be needed between 2012 and 2022 (Tomorrow’s Engineers 2017). There are opportunities for design engineers to work overseas, however you would need to research the global job market to find out where jobs are available, and which level of qualification the country requires.