Mechanical engineers create solutions and solve problems, playing a central role in the design and implementation of moving parts in a range of industries

As a mechanical engineer you'll provide efficient solutions to the development of processes and products, ranging from small component designs to extremely large plants, machinery or vehicles. You'll work on all stages of a product, from research and development to design and manufacture, through to installation and final commissioning.

Most industries rely on a form of mechanical systems, and mechanical engineering is thought to be one of the most diverse of all engineering disciplines. Due to this, there are employment opportunities across several sectors.

Responsibilities

As a mechanical engineer, you'll need to:

  • research and develop products - for example, mechanical hearts if working in the medical industry
  • improve production processes - such as those in large oil refineries, or services within buildings
  • design and implement cost-effective equipment modifications to help improve safety and reliability
  • develop a project specification with colleagues, often including those from other engineering disciplines
  • develop and use new materials and technologies
  • manage people, projects and resources - this will depend on your role
  • develop, test and evaluate theoretical designs
  • discuss and solve complex problems with manufacturing departments, sub-contractors, suppliers and customers
  • make sure a product can be made reliably and will perform consistently in specified operating environments
  • manage projects using engineering principles and techniques
  • plan and design new production processes
  • produce details of specifications and outline designs
  • recommend modifications following prototype test results
  • use research, analytical, conceptual and planning skills, particularly those in mathematical modelling and computer-aided design
  • consider the implications of issues such as cost, safety and time constraints
  • work with other professionals, within and outside the engineering sector
  • monitor and commission plant and systems.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for mechanical engineers, and for those on graduate training schemes, are in the range of £20,000 to £28,000.
  • With experience this can increase to between £25,000 and £35,000. At a mid-level for lead or principle engineers, salaries are around £35,000 to £50,000.
  • When a senior level is reached, such as chief engineer, salaries of £45,000 to £60,000+ can be achieved.

Salaries vary from company to company and some sectors attract higher salaries, according to demand.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours typically include regular extra hours, but not usually weekends or shifts.

Self-employment and freelance work are possible for qualified engineers with a good track record and experience. Short-term contract or consulting work is also possible, often arranged through agencies.

What to expect

  • The work is mainly office-based with regular visits to plants, factories, workshops or building sites. Factory production areas can be noisy.
  • Women are currently underrepresented within chartered engineering, although there are initiatives in place to try and encourage more women into the industry, such as WISE and Women's Engineering Society (WES).
  • Opportunities are usually available in towns and cities that have a strong manufacturing or research base, or in regions where there is a local facility that supports specialist engineering.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent and absence from home overnight and overseas work or travel may be required.
  • There are many opportunities to work abroad, particularly throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.

Qualifications

To get into mechanical engineering you'll usually be required to have a degree. Relevant subjects include:

  • aeronautical engineering
  • agricultural engineering
  • computer-aided engineering
  • engineering science
  • manufacturing engineering
  • mechanical engineering
  • nuclear enginerring.

A good honours degree is usually required, although some employers place as much emphasis on people skills and commercial awareness as on class of degree.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is not essential but it can be useful, especially if your first degree is not in an engineering or other related subject. Masters are available in subjects such as:

  • computer-aided engineering
  • design engineering
  • manufacturing engineering
  • mechanical engineering
  • medical engineering.

It's useful if your first degree or Masters is accredited by a relevant professional body, such as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), as it can help you to achieve the status of chartered engineer at a later date. Details of accredited courses are available at Engineering Council - Accredited Course Search.

It's possible to enter the career as a trainee with an HND or foundation degree. Relevant subjects include engineering and mechanical engineering.

You could become an engineering technician without a degree, HND or foundation degree. However, to work up to the role of mechanical engineer you would need to build up the necessary skills and knowledge, and possibly take higher qualifications.

Student membership with a professional body will help you keep up to date with developments in the industry and enable you to start making contacts. Relevant organisations include:

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • a high level of technical and scientific knowledge and the ability to apply this knowledge to practical problems
  • good oral communication skills and confidence in dealing with a range of people, including clients, contractors, designers, directors and plant operators
  • precise and concise written communication skills
  • the ability to work well within a team
  • IT skills, particularly computer-aided design
  • creative ability
  • the ability to work under pressure
  • organisational skills, such as time and resource planning
  • fluency in a second language - depending on the type of industry, this may be helpful for dealing with international offices or clients.

Work experience

Work experience is valuable and many large employers offer structured internship programmes and summer placement schemes. These provide an excellent insight into the nature of the work and are often hands-on.

Some degree courses offer a year in industry, which really helps to demonstrate what the career will be like, as well as making some good contacts for future job prospects. This type of relevant experience will provide evidence of skill development and commercial awareness.

Employers

Mechanical engineers can find employment in a huge range of sectors; mechanical engineering has usually played a part in almost all the products and services we see around us.

Employers of mechanical engineers include:

  • aerospace and automotive industries
  • the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence, e.g. the Defence Engineering and Science Group (DESG)
  • construction and building services
  • energy utilities, including nuclear
  • engineering consultancies
  • government agencies
  • manufacturing industries
  • medical engineering
  • oil and gas industries, including petrochemical industries
  • process industries, including pharmaceuticals, food and cosmetics
  • the public sector, including the Civil Service, local authorities, hospitals and educational institutions
  • research establishments, both academic and commercial
  • sports engineering
  • transport, including road and railways.

Look for job vacancies at:

Recruitment agencies such as Matchtech and Hays advertise vacancies and handle contract vacancies, particularly for experienced engineers.

Find out about employers before your final year and make contact with them at engineering recruitment fairs.

Professional development

It's possible to enter the engineering industry through a graduate training scheme. If you do this, you'll complete a structured course of training, which usually involves working within a variety of disciplines.

It's likely that you'll work towards gaining chartered engineer status (CEng), which is an internationally-recognised qualification awarded by the Engineering Council. This will give you higher earning potential and improved career prospects. You'll need to be a member of a professional institution, such as IET or IMechE, so that you can apply through them for professional registration.

The process of becoming chartered is more straightforward if you have an accredited bachelors degree, along with a Masters or an accredited integrated MEng degree. To see which qualifications are accredited see the Engineering Council.

Some employers will offer opportunities to study for a part-time MSc in a relevant subject.

You'll also need to demonstrate that you're working at a particular level and have the required professional competences and commitment, as set out in the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC).

Most large firms offer structured training and encourage continuing professional development (CPD). Usually, firms offer in-service training and short courses for specific needs. This may include placements in different departments to widen your experience. Professional bodies, such as IMechE and IET, can help with CPD.

Career prospects

Most careers in engineering lead to a senior position with responsibility for other staff or larger projects and budgets. If you're required to lead teams or manage projects, developing people management skills will be helpful.

Gaining chartered status (CEng) is a significant help in career progression - this is proof that you've met a standard of experience and knowledge in the engineering profession. Also, all chartered engineers who are members of a professional engineering institution and registered with the Engineering Council are eligible to apply for European Engineer (Eur Ing) status. This is useful for working internationally.

You may decide to develop additional skills, such as business or management skills, to get involved with larger projects and take on greater responsibility. Good commercial awareness is also important for career development.

You may be able to move into business functions, such as procurement, sales and marketing or human resources (HR). Once you have developed your technical skills, you can move into senior engineering posts, such as engineering director. You could also consider moving into engineering consultancy.