Engineering is not one subject or one career opportunity. Professional engineers are vitally important in most areas of employment and economic life, without them society would cease to function.
There is no single way to qualify as an engineer. While all routes into the profession involve a mixture of study and on-the-job training and experience, there are crucial differences between them. But whichever path you choose, you can have a career that offers attractive salaries, good employment prospects, intellectual challenges, travel opportunities and the chance to benefit society. One of the most important functions of the Engineering Council, in its role as the UK regulatory body for the profession, is setting and maintaining standards in the education, training and development of professional engineers. It produces the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence (UK-SPEC), which illustrates the flexibility of routes to attaining professional status, reflecting a progressive registration structure for life-long learning and career development.
Getting professionally qualified
There are two types of graduate engineer:
- Incorporated Engineer (IEng)
- Chartered Engineer (CEng).
Incorporated Engineers tend to maintain and manage applications of today’s technology to achieve maximum efficiency. They need a detailed understanding of their particular field of technology so that they can exercise independent judgement and often work in key management roles in their organisations. Graduates who register as Incorporated Engineers may well move on to Chartered status as their career progresses.
Chartered Engineers tend to deal with the progress of technology through innovation, creativity and change. They develop and apply new technologies, promote advanced designs and design methods, introduce new and more efficient production techniques and construction concepts, and pioneer new engineering services and management methods. They are quite likely to lead projects and to play a significant role in the management of their organisations.
Going on to higher education is not the only way into an engineering career. If you are between 16 and 25 you can do an Advanced Apprenticeship, something that is available in many different engineering-related employment sectors, such as manufacturing, construction, transport and the electricity and gas industries. It provides a mixture of on-the-job training (usually leading to a level three National or Scottish Vocational Qualification) and vocational education (leading to a Technical Certificate such as an Edexcel National Certificate or Diploma).
These qualifications can be the basis for registration with the Engineering Council as an Engineering Technician (EngTech). This shows that you have the knowledge and competence to apply technology and to contribute to the design, development, manufacture, operation and maintenance of products, systems and services. It also demonstrates that you can exercise some technical and management leadership. An Advanced Apprenticeship can be a route into higher education, either onto an honours degree course or one of the newer forms of work-related programme like a foundation degree or Higher Apprenticeship.
What sort of degree?
If you are looking to become an Incorporated or Chartered Engineer, the quickest route is to first obtain a degree that is accredited to Engineering Council standards by one of the professional engineering institutions.
Accredited BEng (Hons) degrees meet the educational requirements for Incorporated Engineer registration. There are also BEng or BSc degrees which emphasise practical applications of technology rather than advanced theoretical analysis. It is possible to go into one of these via a Foundation degree or a Higher National Diploma, often done while working or following an apprenticeship.
The most common starting point to become a Chartered Engineer is also an accredited BEng (Hons) degree. However, you will also need to do further learning to Master’s level, either through an accredited Master’s degree or an employer’s work-based learning scheme. This further learning can be spread out over several years while you are working, rather than studying full-time. A number of universities are also developing work-based Masters degrees using the Engineering Gateways model developed by the Engineering Council. If it is a fast track route to CEng that you’re looking for, this can be provided by taking an accredited MEng degree – a four or five year course which takes you straight to Master’s level.
Sponsorship and sandwich courses
Some employers will sponsor engineering undergraduates. Sponsorship provides not only financial benefits, but also industrial training and experience, as most sponsors expect you to work for them in your summer vacations, during which time you will receive a salary.
Some engineering degrees are offered as sandwich courses, of which there are several different types. The 1:3:1 and 1:4:1 varieties include a year in industry before starting a degree course and another one after completing your academic studies.
So is that it?
Obtaining your degree only gets you part of the way towards becoming a professional engineer. You will also need to undertake a period of initial professional development, during which you will apply your knowledge and understanding of engineering to solving real problems in a working environment and develop the competence and commitment you need to perform the duties of a professional engineer.
In today’s tough job market graduates need to look for ways to stand out from the competition when seeking employment. As well as helping you to build up your CV and initial professional development, internships offer valuable hands-on work experience and can provide that all important foot in the door. They are typically offered for between two to 12 months and also allow you to gain a first insight of a particular sector. Many employers are now realising the benefits of employing interns, which means that these opportunities are becoming more widely available. It is worth noting that there is a code of best practice for internships supported by the Government and the profession, which employers are encouraged to follow. These can be found in the Common best practice code for high-quality internships document at www.bis.gov.uk.
Once you have built up the necessary experience you can apply to a professional engineering institution for a review, where you will have to show that you have indeed got the necessary competence and commitment. If you succeed, you’ll then be able to call yourself an Incorporated or Chartered Engineer. More information about these requirements can be found at the Engineering Council website, www.engc.org.uk where there is a searchable database of accredited courses and a list of professional engineering institutions. Details of work-based Masters degree programmes can be found at: www.engc.org.uk/engineering-gateways