What is a design engineer? Responsibilities, salary, and future prospects

What is a design engineer? Responsibilities, salary, and future prospects

Design engineers play an essential role in construction, quite literally shaping the look and function of structures. Keep reading to learn about what design engineers do in the  modern construction industry along with how the role is expected to change in the coming years.

What is a design engineer?

Design engineers develop functional designs that professionals further down a given project’s pipeline will utilize to build the finished product. While this article will focus on design engineers in construction, these professionals work in a variety of sectors, including:

  • chemical processing
  • nuclear management
  • manufacturing
  • aerospace

Although certain aspects of a design engineer’s job will differ depending on their sector, many objectives hold true across the board. We’ll take a closer look at them next.

What do design engineers do?

Design engineers use a variety of tools – including computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE) software – to develop designs for everything from buildings to aircraft. This work involves researching, testing, and developing new methods to ensure the finished product fulfills its intended purpose.

On any given day, a construction design engineer’s activities might include:

  • consulting with clients, other stakeholders, and documentation to determine exactly what the finished structure needs to do and look like
  • turning the client’s concepts into actual designs that can be developed
  • testing those designs to ensure they meet the client’s requirements along with any relevant structural quality and safety standards
  • adjusting prior designs to keep up with a project’s shifting needs

As you can see, a design engineer’s job description involves many disciplines and modes of thinking. It should come as no surprise, then, that adept professionals are paid quite well for this work.

Design engineer career salary and demand projections

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has data on several professions that arguably fall under the purview of design engineering. Here they are along with the associated median pay:

Let’s now look at the growth projections and educational requirements for each industry (again, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Mechanical engineers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects mechanical engineers will see employment growth at 4% from 2019 to 2029. This is on par with the national average of 4% for all occupations.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mechanical engineers typically need a bachelor’s degree. Some roles may also require a master’s degree. Both educational certifications can be obtained in five-year programs at some schools.

Note: Mechanical engineers differ from mechanical contractors, who are the professionals that implement an engineer’s designs.

Industrial designers

Industrial designers are projected to see a 4% decline in employment opportunities from 2019 to 2029. This is because it’s becoming increasingly rare for products to be manufactured in the United States. As manufacturing moves overseas, so do associated design engineering jobs.

To become an industrial designer in the United States, you’ll typically need a bachelor’s degree. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also stresses the importance of having a portfolio.

Civil engineers

Civil engineers are expected to see employment opportunities grow by 2% from 2019 to 2029. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering or civil engineering technology to qualify for entry-level positions in this field. You may also need local licensing if your services will be used by members of the public.

Aerospace engineers

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects aerospace engineers will see employment opportunities grow by 3% from 2019 to 2029. Applicants for aerospace engineering positions need a bachelor’s degree in aerospace or a closely related field of engineering.

Essential design engineer skills

Now that you know what a design engineer is, let’s discuss the skills professionals need to thrive in this field. As mentioned earlier, we’ll focus primarily on skills needed by design engineers in construction but many of these traits are important across the industry.

Mathematics

Design engineering (as with most types of engineering) requires a solid understanding of mathematics. This is especially true of design engineers in construction, who must take a variety of factors (including physics) into consideration when developing structural plans.

Problem solving

Virtually every aspect of design engineering involves problem solving. Design engineers must overcome numerous technical (and other) hurdles to deliver a design that meets the outlined specifications.

Often, this means conducting extensive research and testing to find the ideal solution that delivers exactly what the client requested. If research and testing prove the need to modify the client’s original specifications, that’s a problem to be solved as well!

Communication

While design engineers practice much of their craft using software, they still ultimately need to communicate with other humans. This is especially true in construction, where design engineers often need to consult with dozens of other professionals who specialize in various aspects of designing and building structures. The ability to communicate ideas effectively and ask the right questions is a tremendous asset.

Information technology

A design engineer’s job description typically includes extensive use of computer-aided design and engineering software. Consequently, as with any computer intensive profession, design engineers need to be confident with technology.

This goes beyond merely using computer-aided design and engineering programs, too. At the management level, design engineers need to be confident with resource management programs for scheduling tasks, to give just one example. As such, true information technology proficiency (as opposed to just expertise with a single application) is an asset.

Attention to detail

Design engineers are often responsible for creating schematics and designs that incorporate hundreds (if not thousands) of considerations and data points. Consequently, good design engineers have an eye for fine details.

Teamwork

Rarely is a single design engineer responsible for coming up with an entire design by themselves. Rather, they work with a variety of other professionals (including not just design engineers but also financial analysts and others who bring specialized expertise to the project) to get the job done. The ability to cooperate and work well in a team is therefore very valuable for design engineers.

Modular thinking

Design engineering is typically an iterative process. It’s important that professionals be able to think modularly, which means understanding how individual design components fit into the broader picture and how they might be repurposed in future iterations.

Without the ability to think modularly, design engineers might find themselves repeatedly building designs from the ground up every time a change is made, which wastes time and other resources.

A willingness to iterate

Related to that last point, design engineers must be willing to revise and iterate upon their previous work. No matter how skilled a design engineer is, their work will inevitably involve testing and building on past achievements. This requires humility and an inquisitive mind.

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We hope this article has helped you understand what a design engineer is along with how the role is expected to grow and which traits are essential to have. To read more about various aspects of construction and contractor management, visit our blog here.


Brandon-Richard Austin

Brandon-Richard Austin is a writer and content strategist focused on the construction sector. He’s passionate about educating readers on construction management techniques and best practices.

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