Engineering technicians use the principles and theories of science, engineering, and mathematics to solve technical problems in research and development, manufacturing, sales, construction, inspection, and maintenance. Their work is more narrowly focused and application-oriented than that of scientists and engineers. Many engineering technicians assist engineers and scientists, especially in research and development. Others work in quality control, inspecting products and processes, conducting tests, or collecting data. In manufacturing, they may assist in product design, development, or production.
Engineering technicians who work in research and development build or set up equipment, prepare and conduct experiments, collect data, calculate or record results, and help engineers or scientists in other ways, such as making prototype versions of newly designed equipment. They also assist in design work, often using computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) equipment.
Most engineering technicians specialize, learning skills and working in the same disciplines as engineers. Occupational titles, therefore, tend to reflect this similarity
Aerospace engineering and operations technicians operate and maintain equipment used to test aircraft and spacecraft. New aircraft designs are subjected to years of testing before they are put into service, since failure of key components during flight can be fatal. Technicians may calibrate test equipment, such as wind tunnels, and determine causes of equipment malfunctions. They may also program and run computer simulations that test new designs virtually. Using computer and communications systems, aerospace engineering and operations technicians often record and interpret test data.
Civil engineering technicians help civil engineers plan and oversee the construction of highways, buildings, bridges, dams, wastewater treatment systems, and other structures. Some estimate construction costs and specify materials to be used, and some may even prepare drawings or perform land-surveying duties. Others may set up and monitor instruments used to study traffic conditions.
Electrical and electronic engineering technicians help design, develop, test, and manufacture electrical and electronic equipment such as communication equipment, medical monitoring devices, navigational equipment, and computers. They may work in product evaluation and testing, using measuring and diagnostic devices to adjust, test, and repair equipment.
Electro-mechanical engineering technicians combine knowledge of mechanical engineering technology with knowledge of electrical and electronic circuits to design, develop, test, and manufacture electronic and computer-controlled mechanical systems, such as robotic assembly machines. They also operate these machines in factories and other worksites. Their work often overlaps that of both electrical and electronic engineering technicians and mechanical engineering technicians.
Environmental engineering technicians work closely with environmental engineers and scientists in developing methods and devices used in the prevention, control, or remediation of environmental hazards. They inspect and maintain equipment related to air pollution and recycling. Some inspect water and wastewater treatment systems to ensure that pollution control requirements are met.
Industrial engineering technicians study the efficient use of personnel, materials, and machines in factories, stores, repair shops, and offices. Working under the direction of industrial engineers, they prepare layouts of machinery and equipment, plan the flow of work, conduct statistical studies of production time or quality, and analyze production costs.
Mechanical engineering technicians help engineers design, develop, test, and manufacture industrial machinery, consumer products, and other equipment. They may assist in product tests by, for example, setting up instrumentation for auto crash tests. They may make sketches and rough layouts, record and analyze data, make calculations and estimates, and report on their findings. When planning production, mechanical engineering technicians prepare layouts and drawings of the assembly process and of parts to be manufactured. They estimate labor costs, equipment life, and plant space. Some test and inspect machines and equipment or work with engineers to eliminate production problems.
Most engineering technicians work 40 hours a week in laboratories, in offices, in manufacturing or industrial plants, or on construction sites. Some may be exposed to hazards from equipment, chemicals, or toxic materials, but incidents are rare as long as proper procedures are followed.
Education & Training Required
Although it may be possible to qualify for certain engineering technician jobs without formal training, most employers prefer to hire someone with a 2-year associate degree or other postsecondary training in engineering technology. Workers with less formal engineering technology training need more time to learn skills while on the job. Prospective engineering technicians should take as many high school science and math courses as possible to prepare for programs in engineering technology after high school.
Most 2-year associate degree programs accredited by the Technology Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) include at least college algebra and trigonometry and one or two basic science courses. Depending on the specialty, more math or science may be required. About 700 ABET-accredited programs are offered in engineering technology specialties.
The type of technical courses required depends on the specialty. For example, prospective mechanical engineering technicians may take courses in fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and mechanical design; prospective electrical engineering technicians may need classes in electrical circuits, microprocessors, and digital electronics; and those preparing to work in environmental engineering technology need courses in environmental regulations and safe handling of hazardous materials.
Technical institutes offer intensive technical training through application and practice, but they provide less theory and general education than do community colleges. Many technical institutes offer 2-year associate degree programs and are similar to or part of a community college or State university system. Other technical institutes are run by private organizations, with programs that vary considerably in length and types of courses offered.
Community colleges offer curriculums that are similar to those in technical institutes but include more theory and liberal arts. There may be little or no difference between programs at technical institutes and community colleges, as both offer associate degrees. After completing the 2-year program, some graduates get jobs as engineering technicians, whereas others continue their education at 4-year colleges. However, an associate degree in pre-engineering is different from one in engineering technology. Students who enroll in a 2-year pre-engineering program may find it difficult to find work as an engineering technician if they decide not to enter a 4-year engineering program because pre-engineering programs usually focus less on hands-on applications and more on academic preparatory work. Conversely, graduates of 2-year engineering technology programs may not receive credit for some of the courses they have taken if they choose to transfer to a 4-year engineering program. Colleges having 4-year programs usually do not offer engineering technician training, but college courses in science, engineering, and mathematics are useful for obtaining a job as an engineering technician. Many 4-year colleges offer bachelor's degrees in engineering technology, but graduates of these programs often are hired to work as technologists or applied engineers, not technicians.
Vocational-technical schools, another source of technical training, include postsecondary public institutions that serve local students and emphasize training needed by local employers. Most schools that offer training to become an engineering technician require a high school diploma or its equivalent for admission.
Other training in technical areas may be obtained in the Armed Forces. Many military technical training programs are highly regarded by employers. However, skills acquired in military programs are often narrowly focused and may be less applicable in civilian industry, which often requires broader training. Therefore, some additional training may be needed, depending on the acquired skills and the kind of job.
Other Skills Required
Because many engineering technicians assist in design work, creativity is desirable. Good communication skills and the ability to work well with others also are important because engineering technicians are typically part of a team of engineers and other technicians.
How to Advance
Engineering technicians usually begin by performing routine duties under the close supervision of an experienced technician, technologist, engineer, or scientist. As they gain experience, they are given more difficult assignments with only general supervision. Some engineering technicians eventually become supervisors.
Overall employment of engineering technicians is expected to grow slower than the average for all occupations, but projected growth and job prospects vary by specialty. Opportunities will be best for individuals with an associate degree or other postsecondary training in engineering technology.
Median annual wages of engineering technicians by specialty are shown in the following tabulation:
- Aerospace engineering and operations technicians - $95,040
- Electrical and electronic engineering technicians - $93,240
- Mechanical engineering technicians - $88,130
- Industrial engineering technicians - $87,180
- Electro-mechanical technicians - $86,310
- Civil engineering technicians - $84,290
- Environmental engineering technicians - $81,100