Guenter Wendt was an engineer who worked for NASA in the “golden age of space” of the 1960s. He had studied in Germany before joining the German Army and fighting with the Nazis in WWII. You may know his name from the movie Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks, as Jim Lovell, quipped, “Ah, Guenter Wendt. I wonder where Guenter Wendt?” He is known by aerospace professionals as the man who controlled the launchpad. Still, the Apollo contractor refused to hire him full time. In fact, when the fire erupted on the Apollo One mission and killed three astronauts, Wendt was at home. The astronauts of Apollo Seven refused to fly their mission unless Wendt was reinstated as Pad Leader.
Why is this important to a discussion of engineer technician jobs? Wendt was an engineer, not a technician. The fact remains that he was a “background” person. Still, the astronauts considered him indispensable. Many people who work as engineering technicians are background people as well, but they are vital to the industries where they are employed.
Individuals interested in working in the engineering field who are unable to spend several years in college often choose to become engineering technicians. In many industries, engineering technicians are considered the “doers” because they are the ones who do the hands-on work while working alongside engineers. Whether it is setting up and calibrating equipment, making calculations, or using their math and science skills to assist engineers, engineering technicians are an important part of engineering.
What is an Engineering Technician?
Engineering technicians are trained engineering professionals who work with engineers and help them with many of their duties. While engineers use their math and science knowledge to solve problems and design products, engineering technicians assist the engineers in collecting data, designing and performing tests, assembling equipment, and recording test data. As they gain experience and knowledge, they take on more engineering duties.
Their duties may include adjusting test equipment, installing simple equipment, drawing graphs and curves, performing computations, and doing simple drafting. Their duties vary by the industry in which they work. An automotive engineering technician may diagnose and fix a car problem, while an electronics and electrical engineering technician will put together electrical systems. The duties of an engineering technician will also vary by their place of employment.
A slightly different view of engineering technicians comes from the website Network Depot. A technician, the website asserts, is an “employee assigned to a task, and will do that task to the best of their ability. They are committed to solving the problem in front of them, and making sure it is fixed to the satisfaction of the customer.” The engineering technician being discussed is an IT tech, but the concept is the same for most engineering technician jobs; technicians are trained to solve problems. They are pragmatic, and may work independently to some extent, but they generally work under the supervision of an engineer. In contrast, the company’s engineers are expected to take a wider view than the present problem to look at improving systems and procedures. The definition still comes back to the fact that technicians are the “doers.”
What Does an Engineering Technician Do?
Mechanical Engineering Tech
Mechanical engineering technicians can be found at work in a wide variety of settings and industries. These workers specialize in building and maintaining entire systems of mechanical elements. Manufacturing plants, laboratories, and even military operations of many kinds rely on mechanical engineering technicians on a daily basis. Chemical feed pumps, elevator systems, communications systems, pneumatic systems, and advanced robotics systems are just a handful of the specific elements this professional may work with.
Civil Engineering Tech
Civil engineering technicians work for both the government and private entities to design the many structural components found throughout society that are owned by government authorities. Examples of the types of structures these engineering technicians work with regularly include bridges, roads, dams, electrical grid systems, irrigation and water systems, and many more. This role often takes the worker back and forth between the field and the office.
CAD operators are essentially artists and designers who use CAD (computer-aided drafting) programs in order to fulfill their work tasks. CAD operators work in many venues, including architect firms, millwright firms, construction companies, manufacturing companies, and many others across the professional spectrum today. While it is true that many CAD operators specifically went to school for CAD knowledge, on the other hand, many others came to greatness in this field strictly through an engineering background.
Industrial Mechanical Engineer
Today’s industrial mechanical engineer acts in many of the same capacities as does the above-mentioned mechanical engineer, but with a slight variation in focus. In this particular role, the engineer is much more keenly focused on work in the industrial sector. This makes for a more select area of venues in which the engineer might be found – mostly in the manufacturing sector. The management of instrumentation designs, electro-mechanical systems, industrial plumbing and HVAC systems, waste management systems, and the like all fall under the responsibility umbrella of this worker.
Engineering consultants represent yet another important role that is found in the work scope of today’s engineering technician. In this role, the technician gets to apply their knowledge by providing expert advise to various client companies and individuals in need of the expertise they can provide. Those working in this role can be found working for larger, consultation-providing organizations or, often just as successfully, working on their own. Additionally, this type of worker can often have a greater personal choice in the exact type of engineering work and clientele they would prefer to work with regularly.
How to Become an Engineering Technician
To become an engineering technician, an individual must complete a two-year associate degree program in engineering technology. Potential engineering technicians should complete as many science and math courses in high school as possible. Engineering technician programs should be accredited by the Technology Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). There are currently about 700 ABET-accredited engineering technology programs in the United States.
Engineering technology programs are usually found at community colleges or technical schools. They include various science and math courses as well as courses in thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, mechanical design, digital electronics, and environmental regulations. Students enrolled in an engineering technology degree program can choose to specialize in a specific area of engineering technology, such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, or industrial engineering, to name just a few.
In addition to earning a degree, engineering technicians often obtain certification as a way to enhance employment options and demonstrate their knowledge. The American Society of Certified Engineering Technicians is one organization that offers certification exams.
The “gold standard” for an engineering technician is the associate’s, or even bachelor’s, degree. Another way, however, to become an engineering technician is through a program at a trade school. Programs for HVAC engineering technicians, for instance, can last for 10 months, but they may take up to two years. The longer programs are the equivalent of an associate degree, but the 10-month program will usually award a certificate. HVAC engineering technicians may also have to complete additional training in an area of expertise.
Employers also sometimes hire applicants as engineering technicians who have no certificate or degree, but who have served an apprenticeship. These apprenticeships may last for five years or more. While they are becoming more rare, according to the website tallo.com, these opportunities allow people to become engineering technicians (and even open doors to engineering degrees) while earning a regular paycheck and getting a “free” education.
What Does an Associate Degree in Engineering Look Like?
Associate degree programs will normally include courses in communications, math, and other basic education, as well as the fundamentals for engineering. Engineering courses may include introduction to engineering classes, engineering design, creative thinking and problem-solving, collaboration, and rudimentary drafting classes.
Students will also have the opportunity to tailor their degrees with courses in their areas of interest, such as expressing ideas through drafting, sketching and drawing, understanding and using graphs and tables, dynamic forces, electrical systems, and others.
Students in a science associate degree in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), for instance, will be able to specialize in heating systems, refrigeration, heat/load calculations, and other courses. The goal is to equip the student for passing the licensing or certification exam. Of course, many classes will be hands-on.
Mechanical engineering students may take courses in engineering mechanics, drafting, mechanical design, and other subjects. Similarly, those wanting to be engineering technicians in electrical engineering may take specialized courses in electronics fundamentals, electric motors, electric equipment, and mechanical systems.
The emphasis, in all of these programs, is on giving the students the skills and knowledge they need to become trained professionals. Engineers take the same courses, but with more intensity.
While trade schools may offer two-year certification programs that approximate an associate degree and lead to employment as an engineering technician, they usually will not give students quite the breadth of education that a regular Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degree offers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that engineering technicians earned annual wages ranging from $35,030 to $97,270, with the average annual wage at $64,550, as of May 2017. Several factors can affect wage potential, including experience, training, certifications, employer, and location. The industry in which engineering technicians work can also affect their wages.
For instance, electrical and electronics engineering technicians earned about $63,660 in 2017, mechanical engineering technicians earned $55,360, and industrial engineering technicians earned $57,810. The expected job growth for engineering technicians also depends on the industry. The BLS predicts a job growth of nine percent for civil engineering technicians, one percent for industrial engineering technicians, two percent for electrical and electronics engineering technicians, and five percent for mechanical engineering technicians.
The five industries that employ the most engineering technicians are the federal government; engineering services; science and research development; employment services; and manufacturers of measuring, navigation, electromedical, and control instruments. While it is interesting to read about the many types of engineering technician jobs and about the high wages offered, it is tantalizing to see actual job openings. The website Indeed.com lists these offerings among many others:
- The Department of Defense has openings for engineering technicians who are entry-level workers or novices and who want to work in nuclear engineering, electrical and mechanical engineering, welding, aviation mechanics, and other specialties. The salary is $40K to $120K.
- Interroll Engineering West Inc. has an opening for an Engineering Technician I who can read and create design drawings. The salary begins at $55K.
- The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs an engineering technician in electronics who can help maintain, troubleshoot, and calibrate complex weather and communications equipment. The job pays about $65K to $84K a year plus benefits.
While there are several levels of engineering technicians listed (referring to experience) these jobs offer excellent salaries and benefits. Some are located in exciting places, and some can be performed remotely. The wide variation in salaries has to do with experience in a specific field, such as nuclear reactors. So, while employers may require only an associate degree, they also may specify several years of employment in an area like nuclear medicine, scientific methodology, or another field. That fact is not a deterrent, but an incentive. Engineering technicians may take an entry-level job, but eventually build an impressive resume that qualifies them for high salaries, respect, and exciting locations and assignments.
We began talking about Guenter Wendt. Wendt was respected by astronauts and government officials for his skills and his knowledge. Yes, he was an engineer and not an engineering technician, but he was a “background” person who probably did many of the tasks assigned to engineering technicians today. Many of the accomplishments of engineers rely on those “background” tasks. The opportunities are many and so are the rewards.
Engineering technology is a field that, while it may not be showing huge job growth, will always need qualified workers to assist engineers as technology continues to grow and new products are developed. Becoming an engineering technician not only offers good wages and challenging work, but it can also work as a foundation for an engineering degree. This would be a great way to gain experience in the field and build your resume for future employment.