Best Careers 2009: Engineer

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Every industry is starving for innovation and new ideas -- be a game-changer

Overview. How would you like to design the next-generation iPhone? A more energy-efficient air conditioner? Or software that would more quickly decode a person's genome? If you're an inveterate tinkerer, with enough math and science ability to survive a five-to-six-year engineering or computer science bachelor's degree, engineering could be your calling. Turnover is very low, although twice as many women as men leave the profession. And there's strong demand for engineers, who are among the highest-paid bachelor's-level professionals.

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One trend to keep an eye on: Employers are offshoring ever more lower-skill engineering work to low-cost countries like India and China, where thousands of bright engineers are willing to work for a fraction of the going rate in the United States. While the job market for many engineering specialties will be strong in the private sector, as in many fields, the most secure jobs will be in the government.

A Day in the Life. On your computer, you draft a design for a valve for an improved artificial heart, running simulations of how well different materials would work. You then work with a model maker at your medical device company, who will create a prototype of your design. Meanwhile, a fellow engineer is devising a machine to test your prototype. Once the prototype has been tested, you'll meet with your boss and three other engineers -- each of whom developed a different prototype valve. You'll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each, so you can settle on one that incorporates the best features of all three.

Salary Data

Median (with eight years in the field): $80,300

25th to 75th percentile (with eight or more years of experience): $73,100-$110,000

Note: Including cash but not equity bonuses and profit sharing.

(Data provided by PayScale.com)

Smart Specialty

Mechanical engineers that focus on energy efficiency. Among the least painful ways to go green is to use more energy-efficient versions of the products we already use. That helps explain the strong job market for mechanical engineers who will focus on making products more energy efficient; for example, building materials, heating and cooling machines, manufacturing equipment, and, of course, vehicle engines. The Department of Energy predicts the United States could generate 675,000 new jobs over the next 25 years by commercializing fuel cells and shifting from gasoline to hydrogen. Asia appears to be ahead of us here: Hyundai has announced it will introduce a hydrogen-powered car in 2012.

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Biomedical Engineer. You might design a brain-implantable device to alleviate depression, the next-generation medical imaging machine, or a nanosize machine that will cure disease at the molecular level.

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Nuclear Engineer. The quest for energy independence from foreign nations, concerns about climate change, and frustration with the low power output of other alternative energy sources is leading to a new generation of nuclear power plants (The United States already has more than 30 new ones in the planning stages, in addition to the 104 already in operation) -- and strong demand for the engineers who will design them.

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Computer engineering. Being called "engineering" is confusing because most practitioners have a computer science rather than an engineering degree. Additionally confusing, "computer engineering" is a catchall term that subsumes many careers. However, it's unambiguous that the U.S. job market for computer engineers is strong and growing, even in the current economic decline. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts it to be among the fastest growing careers through 2016. That prediction is corroborated by a recent survey by Robert Half technology. Worried about offshoring? The risk is lower in jobs requiring a significant management component -- for example, software development manager for an onsite component, network administrator, or systems analyst.

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