How to start a career in engineering

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There are multiple pathways into an engineering career. The disciplines and vocations are versatile, with qualities and skills unique to each.

  • The spectrum of engineering career paths is vast, but the routes into each one lie in learning – university and apprenticeships are the most popular routes into the vocation
  • Core engineering skills are transferrable, and you can retrain in different vocations, however, it’s the specialisms that will define your career path as your experience grows
  • Becoming an engineer has lots of benefits, including a secure and stable salary, plenty of career opportunities, and continuous professional development

What is an engineer?

Engineers are constructors, designers, builders, inventors and problem-solvers.

Engineering is an ancient vocation that is so critical to the development of civilisation, that all infrastructure relies on it.

It has modern roots in every industry, including mechanical, electrical, civil, broadcasting and communication, energy, hydraulics, and mining and many more.

Put simply, an engineer will create, improve, and maintain structures.

But ‘structure’ is a fluid term for engineers. It can refer to railways, buildings, aeroplanes, car engines, satellites, machine components, biotechnology and genetics, and chemicals.

Who are engineers?

British engineers have become household names and recognised for their accomplishments the world over:

  • Household appliance inventor, Sir James Dyson
  • Apple’s Chief Design Officer and industrial engineer, Jonathan Ive
  • Civil engineer and mastermind behind the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Isambard Brunel
  • Mechanical engineer and ‘father of railways’, George Stephenson
  • AI engineer and DeepMind co-founder, Demis Hassabis

How do you know if you’re destined to become an engineer? Sometimes you’re in the habit of engineering and your hobbies become a career.

For example, would-be engineers often enjoy maths and science. They could be lost in a Design Technology project, be absorbed in a complex Lego or Kinetics kit, enjoy building elaborate marble mazes, or designing or constructing a treehouse.

In the workplace, engineers are interested in design, theory, construction, and operations.

But universally, they have a passion for figuring something out. They’re adept at applying their skills to devise an object and make it.

If this sounds like music to your ears, you’ve come to the right place!

What engineering career paths can you undertake?

There are almost endless ways to specialise in engineering, and it’s the specialism that will define your career path.

Engineering career paths typically fall under four core categories:

#1 Chemical engineering

Chemical engineers are all about products, processes, and power. They typically work with fuel and elements, like oil, plastic and electronics, in laboratories or industrial environments.

#2 Civil engineering

Civil engineering is the construction of infrastructure. It’s every building you can see, like bridges, hospitals, railways, and power supplies. Civil engineers create and connect pivotal structures so we can live comfortably, safely and conveniently.

#3 Electrical engineering

These engineers specialise in the design and construction of anything that uses electricity. You might work on whole constructions or focus on a single component.

Electrical engineers have vast opportunities to specialise, for example, you can become a systems or computer engineer, or even a nanotechnology engineer.

#4 Mechanical engineering

Mechanical engineering is all about applying physics, technology, and mathematics to make the world move! Mechanical engineers are at the heart of food production, rockets, robotics, prosthetics, and many, many more industries. It’s an exciting and innovative branch of engineering.

What are the benefits of becoming an engineer?

Engineering ticks lots of boxes aside from fulfilling your interests or being a hobby and passion.

1. Salary

Engineering is a lucrative profession, but it’s a sliding scale. You have to put in lots of work and energy to get your qualifications and senior titles, but it’s very worthwhile

The annual Engineering Salary Survey has recorded a 10% hike in UK engineering salaries in 2021, to £56,807.

At the start of your engineering career, or while you’re training, your pay will be lower. Engineering apprentices for example will earn minimum wage at the start of their training, with incremental increases – but it’s at the discretion of their employer what those are.

As you become a more experienced and specialist engineer, your skills will be in higher demand and the pay will increase.

  • Junior or graduate engineers take home an average pay packet of £33,725.
  • Senior managers take home an average of £56,506 annually
  • Engineering director salaries are an average of £84,091

The highest-paid engineering jobs were in oil and gas, but high earning engineers also worked in the following sectors:

  • Energy, renewables and nuclear
  • Chemicals, pharmaceuticals and medical
  • Automotive
  • Food, drink and consumer goods
  • Defence, security and marine
  • Aerospace
  • Materials
  • Rail, civil and structural
  • Academic
  • Telecoms, utilities, and electronics

But it’s not all about the money.

2. Variety

Each branch of engineering offers a spectrum of specialisms. You’re flooded with career choices and niches to explore – never a dull moment.

3. There are always new job opportunities

Engineers are in high demand all over the UK. If you’re made redundant, you’re unlikely to be out of work for very long, and if you just want a new challenge, you have the flexibility to job hop between employers and find a role you really like.

4. Stability

The demand for engineers grants you a certain degree of confidence and safety. Engineers have been around since ancient Egypt and civilisation has relied on them ever since. It’s a career for life.

5. Innovation and invention are at the heart of what you do

Your engineering duties and responsibilities move the needle. The work you do leads to discoveries and modernisation, which benefits society.

6. Every day is a learning opportunity

Engineering is packed with pioneers and forward thinkers, meaning the industry is in a perpetual state of improvement and progression. You never stop learning and working on your professional development, just to keep up.

How long does it take to become an engineer?

Your route into the profession dictates how long it will take to earn your qualifications and get into an engineering job.

An engineering apprenticeship can take anywhere between 12 months and 4 years to complete. It often depends on the complexity of the subject and the variety of skills you need to learn and apply.

However, it’s work-based learning so from the moment you start learning, and working, you’ll have an engineering job title. You’ll gain real-world experience as well as academic theory.

University engineering degrees on the other hand typically take three to four years to complete. You aren’t working as an engineer, or qualified until you complete the degree, so it’s a longer route to an engineering title.

What skills does an engineer need?

  • Problem solving
  • Creative thinking
  • Team player
  • Be calm under pressure
  • Detail-focused
  • Analytical
  • Visionary
  • Scientific
  • Be a clear communicator

What qualifications do you need to become an engineer?

There are two education routes into engineering: University and apprenticeships.

Engineering apprenticeships

The cross-section of an engineering apprenticeship specialisms is vast. For every type of engineering

At the entry-level, you don’t need any prior qualifications to sign up for an engineering apprenticeship. When you start an engineering apprenticeship you become employed as an engineer. The learning directly relates to your responsibilities and duties. Read more about engineering apprenticeships here.

Engineering degree

To win a place on a Bachelor of Engineering undergraduate degree (BEng), you need to have an idea about the specialism you’re interested in, so you can prepare with appropriate A-Levels, or equivalent studies, suited to the degree content.

You can see all the engineering degrees available on the UCAS website.

For example, would-be Chemical Engineers may want Biology, Maths, Physics or Chemistry A Levels in their UCAS application.

How to become a Chartered Engineer

A Chartered Engineer (CEng) is professional registration, which officially evidences your engineering skills and abilities.

To become a CEng you must show you have the required professional competencies and commitments in the UK-SPEC. They can be developed through your educational pathway and work experience.

To become a chartered engineer, you must join a Professional Engineering Institution licensed by the Engineering Council and record your professional development.

You can register to be an Engineering Technician (EngTech), an Incorporated Engineer (IEng) or Chartered Engineer (CEng).

Retraining to become an engineer

Regardless of what you studied at school, you can apply for an entry-level engineering role and earn while you learn.

Very few people know exactly what they want to do when they leave school and come to engineering later in life.

If your degree gave you the opportunity to deepen your understanding of a subject you love, an apprenticeship will get you into the workplace, earn and living and pick up career-building skills that will last a lifetime.

If you took a non-engineering degree, but still specialised in Maths, Physics or another STEM subject, engineering lends itself to your skillset. If you have a degree in Mathematics, you could pick up a mechanical engineering Masters degree, or even a PhD if you’re working at that level.

Retraining to become a different type of engineer

If you’re already a qualified engineer, you can retrain to change your career direction and move between the different engineering branches.

You don’t have to stop working to pivot your skills. For example, you may want to enrol on a distance learning, or part-time undergraduate degree, or Masters’ degree in a new area of engineering.

Alternatively, you can speak to one of our team about the ‘earn while you learn’ apprenticeship options. If you have relative experience, you can retrain at a higher level, provided you have the relevant understanding and experience.

Picture of Richard Hywood
Richard Hywood
Richard is TSW Training Apprenticeships’ Employer and Community Engagement Manager. His articles will help your business prepare for and manage apprentices.
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