Plant engineers work in manufacturing or power plants and other large facilities. They may participate in the design and construction of the building and its mechanical, electrical and utility systems, or they may oversee the operation and maintenance of those systems.
There is not one specific degree required to work as a plant engineer; though mechanical engineering degree programs prepare students to design and operate the mechanical systems for a plant. Undergraduate programs can be completed in four years and include a combination of classroom and hands-on lab work. Applicants need a high school diploma and background in mathematics. The graduate programs often take two years or less to complete and may require students to complete a thesis or master's project. Distance-learning, coursework-only and thesis options are all available. Applicants to these programs should have a bachelor's degree and a 3.0 GPA.
Engineers wishing to work with the public or use the title Professional Engineer must be licensed. Licensure typically requires completion of an ABET-accredited degree program, having several years of work experience and passing an exam.
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Mechanical engineers implement innovative solutions to complicated problems in all steps of the analysis, design, manufacturing and maintenance of systems on a variety of scales. Plant engineers apply this training at work when overseeing construction, designing improvements and continually assessing the condition of facilities. These programs teach students to keep in mind potential problems like heat transfer and manufacturability, while designing a product and its components.
Mechanical engineering programs provide a variety of courses related to a prospective plant engineer. Students in these programs learn about a variety of topics such as:
- Signal processing
- Material failure
- Engineering materials
- Computer-aided design
Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering
These 18- to 24-month programs prepare students for a variety of fields by teaching them about thermodynamics and numerical modeling, which could be relevant to prospective plant engineers.
Mechanical engineers learn to protect their projects from catastrophe by incorporating safety mechanisms, learning about federal regulations and understanding the factors that led to past disasters. Programs include training in:
- Analysis of structural fatigue
- Impact dynamics
- Electromechanical systems
- Computational modeling
- Composite materials
Popular Career Options
Master's-degree holders are prepared for careers applying advanced engineering principles to a variety of applications. Job applicants with a master's degree are qualified for work as contracted consultants and analysts as well as:
- Product design engineers
- Research and development engineers
- Lead engineers
- Mechanical engineers
- Systems engineers
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
Of the 278,340 mechanical engineers whose employment was reported to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in May 2015, the highest number worked in architectural and engineering services (www.bls.gov). While some students continue on to graduate studies, employment can be found in utility companies, electronics manufacturing, manufacturing plants and the chemical industry as a:
- Mechanical engineer
- Plant engineer
- Production supervisor
- Lab technician
- Nuclear plant engineer
- Project engineer
The BLS also reported that the median salary for mechanical engineers was $83,590 in 2015.
Continuing Education Information
Not every engineer needs a license in order to practice; only engineers offering their expertise directly to the public are required to obtain licensure. The national, comprehensive, licensure exams are administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors. Graduates of 4-year programs that are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology are eligible for this lengthy process. The licensure process for Professional Engineers (PEs) requires a period of supervised work experience book-ended by two examinations.
As of 2011, requirements for continuing education vary by state. In order to maintain professional licensure, engineers must complete sufficient continuing education credits every one to two years. Graduate certificate programs are one way that engineers earn continuing education credits. Colleges offer a variety of courses in sub-disciplines of mechanical engineering.
Students interested in working as plant engineers can earn a bachelor's or master's degree in mechanical engineering to study thermodynamics, computational modeling and more. Graduates will need to obtain licensure to work with the public, and may need to pursue continuing education credits.