Career Advice

What You Need to Know About Entry-Level Mechanical Engineering Jobs
Meghan Brown posted on December 05, 2016 | 17146 views

Mechanical engineering is a broad field, offering jobs for mechanical engineers in almost every industry.

This breadth of opportunity makes careers in mechanical engineering appealing to new engineering graduates and young professional engineers.  Some of the top industries hiring mechanical engineers today include engineering services, R&D and several sub-sectors of manufacturing.

To help you determine in which industries you might want to pursue an entry level mechanical engineering job, we have advice from engineering career development experts, salary information and details on these top-hiring industries.

Computer Aided Design

The automotive and aerospace industries are popular with mechanical engineering graduates, said James Jones, associate head of the Purdue University School of Mechanical Engineering.

“Yet what separates mechanical engineers in industry is their ability to work equally effectively in virtually any engineering industry,” said Jones, “From biotechnology, pharmaceutical, petroleum, computers and electronics, construction, food products, energy and nuclear and engineering consulting, among many others.”

This multitude of choice often leaves young engineers uncertain of the best entry-level jobs to pursue, especially given what little information may be offered in job postings.

We all know that there are many fantastic entry level engineering jobs available for newly graduated mechanical engineers–it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

 

What is an Entry-Level Mechanical Engineering Job?

For many career paths, if you’re looking for a particular job title, the job postings tend to cover the same ground in terms of experience and expectations. The sheer variety of industries that employ mechanical engineers, however, means that the entry-level job descriptions will look very different from one another depending on the company, industry and discipline in addition to the job title.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find jobs clearly marked as “entry-level,” or “junior engineer,” but don’t count on that. You may need to figure out what the job will involve based on what is given in those less-than-clear job descriptions.

This means that the qualifications a company asks for can look quite different from posting to posting – some may even sound intimidating.  Oftentimes, postings seem to ask for far more in the way of experience, skills or education than most new engineers see themselves as having right out of the gate. As a result, they may not apply because they feel underqualified.

The key thing to remember here is that job descriptions are always written to describe the “ideal candidate,” that a company hopes to find. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult to distinguish the actual entry-level positions from those definitively requiring more experience or education.

“I tell my students to apply to any position that asks for up to five years of experience,” said Lisa Dickter, senior associate director for Career Consultants at the Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering. “What employers do is say ‘Two to five years of experience,’ and write a job description that is the ideal candidate. Would they like to find someone with four years’ experience? Yes. But they don’t always, and so they will write what they want, but they will still take on students who have less experience.”

“You never know when something on your resume, one of your projects or internships, might really appeal to an employer,” Dickter added.

So, what can you to look for that will help you know if a job would be at the entry level?

Well, the skills individual employers look for will vary by industry, but according to John Archambault, assistant dean for student development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, there are still some commonalities across the mechanical engineering workforce. A strong set of technical skills, including familiarity with CAD and CAE software packages, and the ability to learn new software quickly, are high on the list.

“Solidworks, AutoCAD or other packages such as MatLab, and knowing how the software works in their organization” are all important, Archambault stated.  “Also, a strong command of basic math to do the statistical problems needed to solve issues in the organization.”

“Employers are certainly looking for students to have had a co-op or internship experience prior to their graduation—to have had some hands-on experience in an engineering capacity,” Archambault added.  “And of course you need communication skills, general problem solving skills, leadership skills.  These are all valuable.”

Tarek Zohdi, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California Berkeley, added, “A mechanical engineering education typically consists of learning various core topics, such as thermodynamics, solid mechanics, fluid mechanics, materials science and controls. When you take those things together, you can design an entire system.”

“The key part to mechanical engineering is the application of these core ideas onto a complex problem, whether it is a rocket system, car or airplane, for example.  All of these are systems that require multiple things work together in harmony, so all those core topics have to come together,” Zohdi said.

 

Career Paths for Mechanical Engineers

The great thing about having such a wide variety of employment options is that whatever your interests and desired long-term career goals, the odds are good that you’ll be able to find a great entry-level mechanical engineering job that will get you started in the right direction.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 277,500 mechanical engineers were employed throughout the U.S. in 2014. The top five industries employing those mechanical engineers cover a range of potential career paths:

While there is a certain amount of overlap between them, these five industries cover a widely diverse set of jobs, each with its own specific skill sets, qualifications and expectations. Whether you dream of designing and building systems that will travel into outer space or finding better ways to manufacture goods there’s bound to be an entry-level engineering job for you.

The diversity of entry-level positions offer novice engineers the opportunity to explore their options, gain some experience and work toward finding their niche in the engineering world.  “Do you fit better into a large Fortune 500 company, or a small privately held company?” Archambault asked rhetorically.  “It’s nice that almost every industry hires mechanical engineers, so they can really try and find the right environment and the best fit.”

In terms of career advancement, young engineers typically have two paths to follow as they grow in their careers and move up in a company.  “You will either get more technical, continuing in the technical side by learning more through experience or getting a master’s degree.  Alternatively, you’re going to become more interested in moving over towards the management side, such as managing projects,” said Dickter.

Zohdi emphasized how important a master’s degree is for mechanical engineers: “It is becoming critical to get a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, if you’re going to be successful. Mechanical engineering at the undergraduate level can leave a bit of a cliff-hanger. You learn enough where it starts to become really exciting, but then you graduate.  Taking the extra time for a master’s really finishes people off and makes them into a complete engineer.”

 

Industries Hiring Entry-Level Mechanical Engineers

So, what do you need to know to succeed in an entry-level job in one of the top five industries?  Our experts from university and college career centers across the country shared their advice and knowledge on what newly graduated mechanical engineers should know and expect about these entry level opportunities.

 

Entry-Level Engineering Services Jobs

Engineer with mechanical worker checking on production
The industry sector known as “engineering services” includes engineering consulting firms and other providers of technical services and solutions to a broad range of industries.  Most entry-level mechanical engineering positions in this field will be with dedicated consulting companies that typically work under contract or on specific projects for other businesses, organizations or government institutions.

Since this sector employs the largest percentage of mechanical engineers overall, covering a wide range of projects—from industrial process design, to construction and architecture, to systems design and engineering, to operations and maintenance projects—these firms are where many young engineers begin their careers.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Depending on their desired career path, young engineers can look for entry-level positions at firms that provide general engineering services to many different types of projects or companies, which will help young engineers build a wide range of skills. Alternately, there are consulting and services firms that specialize in a single industry, enabling engineers to develop a strong, specialized skillset for a specific career path.

Starting in an entry-level position and working up the ladder at a consulting firm is a great way to build experience and a network of contacts that can support you in your career.

Technical skills are the key to success in these positions, as mechanical engineers in a consulting services firm needs to be versatile, adaptable and able to work with industry-standard methods. Skilled knowledge of engineering software platforms such as ANSYS simulation software, Matlab, Finite Element Analysis (FEA) and computer-aided design (CAD) top the list of essential skills. Project management, communication skills and leadership skills are also valuable for the team-oriented and project-based work structure.

On top of the skills you leave school with, newly hired entry-level mechanical engineers in a consulting firm will typically go through the company’s own training program, where they will learn that company’s preferred approaches to problem solving, and all the services they can offer to clients. After that, entry-level engineers will work on project teams, and side by side with the staff at the organization that hired the consulting firm.  “You will be learning what the organization needs, how their processes are done, and then going back to put together reports, or try to come up with software solutions,” said Archambault.

 

Entry-Level Machinery Manufacturing Jobs

The machinery manufacturing industry clocks in as the second highest employer of mechanical engineers, no doubt due to their technical skills and mechanical insights.

Overall, this industry is comprised of suppliers, OEMs and assembly plants that design and manufacture industrial and commercial machinery, including parts, subassemblies and complete machines.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Engineering jobs in this industry center around the manufacture or assembly of machinery components, usually involving two or more complementary skillsets to create parts or tools to build machinery:

  • Fabrication processes, such as forging, welding, stamping, bending, and waterjet and laser cutting.
  • Machining processes, including CNC and multi-axis milling, and turning.

Engineers entering this industry at the entry-level will be expected to have a good grasp of both technical manufacturing skill sets and should be accustomed to designing parts and assemblies as well as fabricating them.  Plastic fabrication and additive manufacturing techniques are also increasingly seeing use in this industry.

Entry-level engineers should also know how to perform stress testing and heat transfer analysis for jobs in this industry, said Tarek Zohdi. Simulation skills for performing this testing are also key.

“Most employers are looking for people with the ability to simulate problems.  The product development time has shrunk so rapidly that to build every single prototype would be too expensive.  If you have confidence in your simulation tools and skills, you can simulate a thousand designs in a day, as opposed to building a thousand designs which might take you a year.  That’s very critical.”

 

Entry-Level Computer and Electronics Manufacturing Jobs

For mechanical engineers with a more digital bent, working in fields involving computers and electronics might be more appealing. Thanks to the growing number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and the emergence of Industry 4.0, connectivity is becoming prevalent in everything from cars to your home to factories– and someone needs to design and manufacture all those devices.
Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This means there are a lot of directions you can go. Mechanical engineers who work in electronics manufacturing can work on the design and production of computers, peripherals and other consumer electronics products for the telecommunications, navigation and medical industries.

The ever-increasing variety of digital devices means there will be even more directions to pursue in the future, so young engineers just starting their career should always look for opportunities to grow.

“Seek to learn as much as you can about the issues related to your task or project, so as to broaden your knowledge base,” advised James Jones, associate head of the Purdue University School of Mechanical Engineering.  “Over time, an engineer should be able to take on increasingly complex projects and tasks and provide expertise and leadership.”

Engineers in this industry also design and produce the individual component parts for larger electronics and computer assemblies, such as discrete semiconductors, integrated circuits, circuit boards, processors and storage media. Because this is another manufacturing subsector, mechanical engineers can also have a hand in designing and building the factories, processes and machinery or robotics that will be used to make these electronic products.

Heat transfer analysis is an essential skill in this industry, according to Zohdi: “You need to determine whether a product is going to fail, you have to determine if it is going to get too hot, because that could be a problem.  Once you identify the issue, then you need to redesign it.”

 

Entry-Level Engineering Research and Development Jobs

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists as an industry all its own, research and development takes place across industries and disciplines, encompassing a whole host of diverse projects. Regardless of the field, however, R&D jobs unanimously involve finding innovative solutions to engineering problems of all shapes and sizes. This could be designing new or improved products and systems, prototyping and testing, running simulations and feasibility analyses, or general problem solving.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Entry-level jobs in R&D can be found in many organizations large and small.  While many are private or company-owned R&D laboratories or facilities, there are also public and government-supported R&D organizations that will either employ engineers directly, partner with businesses or fund projects at companies or universities.

According to a recent NSF report, engineers, scientists and technical R&D managers comprise on average two-thirds of the employees at an R&D business. That means there are lots of opportunities to find entry-level engineering jobs in this industry as well as the potential for upward growth within an R&D career.

Entry-level R&D recruiters look for engineers with strong intellectual curiosity, said Archambault, though these engineers will still need the hard skills to back this up.  “Someone who has some research experience can be valuable here, because they will have that good understanding of the research process,” Archambault explained.  These engineers will also need a strong understanding of how to apply mathematics, calculations and numbers for analysis of research results.

“This field also needs someone with good writing skills, because you have to document your research in research notebooks.  You have to be able to explain what you’re working on, what you’re learning and what are the outcomes,” Archambault added.

While there are many R&D jobs that can be done with a bachelor’s degree, a lot of R&D companies do look for candidates with a master’s degree, or even a Ph.D., said Dickter.

Archambault agreed: “For some R&D companies, the Master’s might be more attractive.  Certainly at the national labs they look for Master’s and Ph.D. degrees.  More doors are likely to be open to you if you have an advanced degree.”

 

Entry-Level Aerospace Manufacturing Jobs

Mechanical engineers interested in developing and manufacturing aircraft and spacecraft will find many career options in the aerospace industry.

These engineers design and build engines and auxiliary equipment for airplanes and spacecraft, as well as military and defense technologies such as missiles, helicopters and fighter jets.

The scope of aerospace manufacturing can range from the design and manufacture of individual parts or components to designing and assembling entire vehicles or devices.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary information from Payscale.com and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It’s going to vary,” said Archambault. “Within aerospace engineering, you could have fifty different mechanical engineering job titles and roles, and each one is going to have a different sort of skillset.”

Generally, entry-level aerospace manufacturing requires candidates to have a solid understanding of machinery, operations and the capabilities of aerospace vehicles, products and processes.

Being able to critically analyze the products you design or build is also essential. This means that entry level engineers should ensure that they have a good knowledge of CAD and CAE platforms. Knowing how to work with CAD is also important if you will be involved in designing new parts.

Engineers will also be expected to know what’s involved in machining or fabricating specific parts, and how they all fit together in a final assembly.

“Again, having strong abilities for solving mathematical problems and equations, and performing analyses on parts, will be important,” said Archambault. “But I think a level of creativity in designing and developing components is also important, as are the teamwork and communication skills required of working in production lines.”

 

 

Different Career Paths for Mechanical Engineers

There’s always the chance that you’ll get to the end of your bachelor’s or master’s degree and decide that a career in manufacturing or consulting just isn’t your cup of tea.  Luckily, your mechanical engineering degree will have equipped you with skills that can serve you well in a variety of other careers.

“I always encourage students to pursue engineering,” said Archambault. “It’s a rigorous degree and it opens up a lot of career opportunities. Whether you work as a mechanical engineer or in other fields, you have studied hard, you’ve learned how to learn, how to acquire knowledge and solve problems. That’s valuable at whatever job you do.”

Hiring managers know that a mechanical engineering degree isn’t all about building mechanical devices and machines. The skills you’ve developed through mechanical engineering, such as analytical skills, innovative approaches to problem solving and project management, are versatile abilities you can also apply to a career in finance or marketing, software development, digital security or management consulting.

As a few examples, Archambault mentioned students who have taken their mechanical engineering degree into the medical and healthcare industries, begun working with intellectual property at the US Patent Office, or going into law school as some common alternative career paths.

“It really depends on the individual and their passions,” said Dickter. “I have students who go into finance, or students who want to go into marketing.”

“I had a student whose hobby was golf, and he went to work for a manufacturing company that makes golf products. He was able to tie in his side-interest, his hobby and passion, into his mechanical engineering degree.”

Zohdi also pointed out that engineers who look at careers outside of the traditional mechanical engineering paths often find it useful to get business hybrid degrees, or an Engineering Management or Engineering Business master’s degree.

“These degrees are very good,” said Zohdi. “Having the engineering knowledge to apply toward understanding products quickly and knowing how to market them, and applying the skills that you’ve learned to a business situation are areas where it might not be traditional mechanical engineering, but having the engineering knowledge is critical.”

For more on how to get hired to your dream engineering job, check out Winning Strategies to Land that Great Engineering Job.

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