Careers in engineering – A beginner’s guide

Writer and STEM ambassador Sarah Anderson takes a look at the basics of engineering, the variety involved in the sector, and the first steps required to embark on a career in engineering. 

careers in engineering

Using principles of science, technology and maths, engineers can find themselves performing a wide variety of jobs. This includes researching and designing ways to remove plastics from the ocean, building and maintaining software systems, developing or maintaining advanced communication systems, helping steam turbines to run more effectively and much more besides.

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With an average starting salary of £26,536 – higher than most graduate careers –  and a shortage of engineers in the UK, there’s never been a better time to kick-start your engineering career. In this guide you’ll find out more about the different types of engineering careers available and what skills and qualifications you’ll need to get started. We’ll also explain where you can find internships, placements and job opportunities.

What types of engineer are there?

The engineering sector is hugely diverse with dozens of different disciplines and sectors, so there’s a wide range of roles that can suit anyone interested in science, technology, construction and manufacturing.

Whether it’s your dream to work for a larger international firm such as Unilever, Airbus or Siemens or you’d prefer to make a difference in a smaller company, you’re sure to find a good match for you. Although there are many different types of engineer, it is important to familiarise yourself with the basics.

Chemical engineer

Chemical engineers help develop and troubleshoot new industrial processes to aid the transformation of raw materials into useful items. This engineering career is broad and can include everything from designing advanced fabrics for sportswear to improving the taste of food products. Bachelor degrees in chemical engineering or related fields are preferred and experience gained through internships is helpful.

careers in engineering

Electrical engineer

Electrical engineers design and develop new electrical systems, test equipment and oversee the manufacturing process. They work with everything from computers, mobile devices, household appliances, lighting and wiring of buildings, to telecommunication systems, electrical power stations and satellite communications. You don’t necessarily need a degree to start a career as an electrical engineer and can begin as an electrical engineering technician or build the relevant experience to get started.

Mechanical engineer

Mechanical engineers plan and develop engines and powered machines and their components. This can include electric generators, internal combustion engines, steam and gas turbines, air conditioning systems, refrigeration and even escalators and lifts. Mechanical engineers are in great demand and often you don’t need a degree in engineering to be accepted. Many employers offer a graduate work scheme which allows potential electrical engineers to transition into the career while gaining crucial experience.

Civil engineer

Civil engineers help ensure that our towns and cities operate as smoothly as possible. They focus on infrastructure, such as roads, water supplies, bridges and buildings. Although it is possible to get into this career without an engineering degree, it would take many years of hard work starting at an entry level position, so a related degree is preferred.

Software engineer

Software engineers design, develop, test and maintain the software technologies that are all around us. This includes apps, websites, operating systems, mobile devices and computer software. Again, an engineering degree for a career in software is not a necessity, but many employers prefer degrees in computer science, business management, computer engineering, information systems, mathematics or statistics. You’ll need to demonstrate that you have an in-depth knowledge of programming languages such as Java, Python and C++, SQL. Internships and placements are recommended.

careers in engineering

Environmental engineer

Environmental engineers specialise in finding solutions to environmental problems. Using principles of engineering and the sciences, they focus on areas such as recycling, waste disposal, water pollution, air pollution and help ensure a better quality of life for the public.

You don’t need to have studied an engineering degree for a career in environmental engineering although it helps if you’ve studied a relevant degree in science or an environmental discipline. You can also move into environmental engineering via a postgraduate qualification through a graduate scheme.

To narrow down your choice of engineering sectors, ask yourself what would suit your interests, skills and experience the best. What kind of working life would you like? Would you prefer a desk job or one that allows you to become more active and travel? What problems in the world would you most like to solve?

What qualifications and experience do I need?

Although it’s always much easier to start a career in engineering with a bachelor’s degree in engineering (BEng), there are many other ways you can enter the industry.

For many routes, a BSc in a relevant subject such as chemistry, biology, maths, statistics, environmental science or computer science can help you enter this career, as can a Master’s degree in engineering, if you’d prefer to follow the academic route.

Careers such as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and software engineering will usually allow you to enter the industry without a degree. However, you will need to show that you have relevant skills and work experience and be willing to learn through an apprenticeship or graduate scheme as you go.

Requirements do vary depending on the engineering sector, so it might help to follow the links below to access detailed information relevant to each.

How should I draft my CV?

Make sure your CV stands out when you apply for graduate engineering opportunities by ensuring that it’s clear, concise, easy to read and clear from grammatical mistakes. It should also address exactly what the employer is looking for.

Highlight any relevant education or experience, clearly linking it to the graduate opportunity or job that you are applying for. Also be clear on any software you have experience with and highlight the achievements and outcomes of your work, using facts and figures to support your claim wherever possible.

careers in engineering

Should I do an internship or a placement?

Placements and internships provide valuable work experience during your undergraduate or postgraduate course.

They can help you ‘get your foot in the door’ as they demonstrate to potential employers that you have strong commercial awareness and career motivation. They’ll also help you gain transferable work skills such communication, teamwork and time management and look excellent on your CV.

Internship

An internship is a good choice if you’re considering whether that role or industry is a good match for you. They are usually unpaid – although this depends entirely on the employer – and usually take place over the summer for a month or two.

Placement

A placement year will better emulate a real job and is a great choice for graduates who want to take their first step towards an engineering career. You’ll be paid a salary and considered a valuable part of the team. Many universities have placement offices which can connect you with positions that are available.

You can search for both internships and placements in engineering on jobs websites including The Engineer’s. It’s also worth being proactive and contacting companies directly to ask about engineering opportunities as many won’t advertise.

careers in engineering

How can I research employers?

There’s a range of potential employers and engineering recruitment consultants who are waiting to hear from graduates like you. That’s why you should send a targeted CV and covering letter that highlights why you are interested in working for their company and why they should be interested in you.

Here are a few more tips:

  1. Stay informed. Seek out engineering news and trends on social media websites and stay connected.
  2. Follow company social media sites to keep an eye open for job vacancies.
  3. Check out specialist websites for your sector.
  4. Keep your search flexible. Don’t often use the same keywords for jobs. Try different variations.

Potential employers include:

The aerospace and defence industry

The automotive industry

The food and drink manufacturing industry

The oil and gas industry

Large design and manufacturing companies

If you’re looking for a rewarding career that can make a real difference, look no further than engineering. There is a wide variety of graduate opportunities that can help kickstart your career, a huge range of engineering roles that can suit every skillset and personality, and plenty of opportunity for career advancement.