How to become an engineer

Find out why engineering is so important, and the routes you can take to build a career that could make an impact on the world.

If you’re looking for a career that makes an impact, the engineering sector is hard to beat. From aerospace to robotics, delivering the latest Queensferry Crossing or designing the next fleet of electric sports cars, the engineering field impacts every aspect of our lives.

Famous engineers in history include Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell. More recently, you have the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak. There’s no denying that engineering makes a significant contribution to the economy, employment and society.

If you’re thinking about becoming an engineer, or simply looking for more information on what it’s all about, then read on.

Why consider engineering as a career?

Here are a few reasons why engineering is a career with lots of potential.

  • Global mobility. It isn’t only the UK which is seeking engineering talent. There is a global demand for skills – from civil engineers needed to design and shape the infrastructure of developing cities, to chemical engineers sought out by energy companies around the globe
  • Salary. The Engineering UK research said that the average starting salary for engineering and technology graduates is £27,079, which compares well to the mean salary of all graduates which is £22,205. STEM professionals also earn a higher mean salary compared to all employees
  • Job satisfaction. Stephanie Fernandes, Skills and Education Lead at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, says, “In engineering, people can see that they can help improve people’s lives and come up with solutions that are going to benefit mankind.”
How to become an engineer

Image: Adobe Stock

The different types of engineering?

Because engineering is so broad, the number of roles, companies and career pathways are numerous.  Careers constantly evolve, with new processes and technology regularly creating new problems and challenges. Engineering roles can be very varied in terms of responsibilities, as well as the locations you can work in!

  • Civil Engineer: This is a broad profession, but involves designing products – from engines to machines – testing and developing prototypes, and building them. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, or a similar engineering course.
  • Electrical Engineer: These engineers design, build and test the electrical systems that are used in products and buildings. If you’re considering this profession, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in electrical or electronics engineering.
  • Materials Engineer: This role involves identifying the correct materials needed for a new product, which might involve glass, metal or plastic. They also investigate product failures and determine which materials are most up to the job. A materials science or engineering bachelor’s degree will help, but graduates with maths or science degrees are also accepted.
  • Nuclear Engineer: This a specialised profession, as these engineers design products that have nuclear power sources, from airplanes and ships, to medical devices. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree in either nuclear engineering or a related engineering subject, but some entry level positions may even require a master’s degree.

David Clift, HR Director of Stepstone UK, said,

“Have a look at what’s out there and identify the sector that really speaks to you or is most closely aligned with your current qualifications or experience. There are a lot of engineering branches out there, so make sure you take time to make the choice that’s right for you.

“For example, if you’re keen on using computer software to create designs for products such as engines, then you might want to go for civil engineering. If you’re more interested in learning about how engineering can solve environmental issues such as an oil spill, becoming an environmental engineer may be a better bet.”

“If you’re moving from a different career to engineering, make sure your expectations of the job role and salary correspond with your experience and not your age. For some, a move into engineering may be a natural progression – from car mechanic at a car company to mechanical engineering, for example. For other people, it may be a career U-turn.

“Engineering can be a tough subject, and choosing a sector that’s more closely aligned to your skills can make things easier for you.”

So, there are plenty of reasons to become an engineer, but what about how? What pathways are there to get into engineering from school or university? Can you switch from your current career and pick up the engineering skills you need to move in a new direction?

How to become an engineer

Image: Adobe Stock

What qualifications do you need to become an engineer?

There are many routes into engineering, including university, foundational degrees, diplomas, apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning.

  • Many jobhunters will have an engineering degree. However, some graduates might leave university with maths, physics or computer science degrees. If you’ve coming from a different career or education background, students of non-engineering subjects may need to complete a conversion course or a professional qualification.
  • Some jobs demand specific engineering degrees. Many engineering roles are open to anyone with a degree in an engineering discipline, but some jobs might need a specific degree – chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering positions for example.
  • Even if you’re studying, get work experience. If you’re going down the academic route, make sure you investigate ways to get as much practical experience in your chosen area of engineering as possible. This might make the transition from student to working engineer much easier.
  • Think about professional qualifications. Although not usually necessary for a first job, joining a professional body can provide access to networking opportunities and events. They can also provide training as well as other ways to develop.

What about taking up an apprenticeship in engineering?

For those who want to study and acquire vital engineering skills but can’t afford to return to study full-time without employment to support them, apprenticeship opportunities could be ideal. It’s a great option to people who want to quickly use practical skills in a technical environment.

As an apprentice, you’ll be employed by an organisation, receiving on-the-job training and studying towards an industry-related qualification, while earning a wage. Training and education costs will be covered by the employer and the Government.

Organisations big and small could offer engineering apprenticeships and flexible learning programmes. Level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships are usually aimed at school leavers, while higher and degree apprenticeships (levels 4, 5, 6 and 7) tend to be geared towards people with A-levels, or those who have already finished an intermediate or advance apprenticeships.

For most engineering apprenticeships, you’ll require previous GCSEs in STEM related subjects. You’ll be paid the National Minimum Wage, while what you’ll be doing in your apprenticeship will very much on the type you’re taking and the sector you’re working in.

In terms of study, you might be given one day per week to attend college or university, or do it in a scheduled block. It terms of assessment, that depends on the apprenticeship, but be prepared for exams, coursework and written essays. Find out more in our guide to engineering apprenticeships here.

Mark Burnard of Hartland Recruitment says, “While the current perception is that engineering is full of grease, hammers and manual labour, the reality is that the sector is much more than this and there are many types of engineering to suit many different people. “

What soft skills are needed to become an engineer?

As well as technical skill, becoming a good engineer will also require soft skills that will come very important in the workplace, such as the ability to focus on tasks at hand, communication, and time management. This can also help when it comes to job progression – people who rise in the ranks tend to be reliable and good at communicating with other people.

Soft skills are quite difficult to train, and generally comes with experience. However, that shouldn’t stop people from consciously practising to improve them.

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