I’ve had a long career in engineering that started when I was just 18 years old. Prior to that, I was a high school student who took two mechanical drafting classes each year for four years – the 1970s version of STEM education. I also took wood and metal shop classes where I was able to build the parts from the drawings, although I appreciated the process of getting to manufacturing more than physically building the products. I learned a lot by doing it, but I never liked getting my hands dirty.
You could say I was lucky to find a drafter trainee position right out of high school, and I was. But I also learned some valuable lessons that served as a springboard for the rest of my career. The two years I spent at my first job taught me a lot of things, and I am forever grateful for that first opportunity.
Gain Marketable Skills (and Go to School)
For a lot of reasons, college was never an option for me. But the drafting skills I learned in high school were immediately marketable in the ‘70s and I took full advantage of the opportunity. Now more than 40 years later, I am nearing the end of a very successful career. But I’m not an engineer.
The quickest path to becoming a mechanical engineer is going to college. Most STEM students in middle and high school are working toward that goal. But if college isn’t an option, there are still paths to a successful career in the engineering field.
Volunteer for Everything
When my first company decided to bring PCB design in-house, I was the first volunteer to learn the skill. In the early ‘80s, a contract opportunity required CAD software that we had never used. I volunteered to learn it and create the bid documents necessary to procure the work.
Then in the late ‘90s, someone suggested that I start a local CAD user group chapter*, and I jumped at the chance. In the early ‘00s, I was asked to abandon my career as a mechanical designer for a position as a CAD community organizer. It worked out well for me.
I’m not saying that you should always accept additional work or new opportunities outside of your expertise but think long and hard before you say no. You might be missing a great opportunity.
I Was Called a Drafter, Detailer, or Designer
I was given a lot of titles in my early career, but most of them meant the same thing. I was there to support the engineers, and the manufacturing and purchasing departments. The “DDD” as we’ll call it had lots of responsibilities that were critical at keeping engineers doing engineering, manufacturing building machines, and purchasing buying things.
Things like mechanical drawings, document control and PDM, MRP item masters, engineering BOMs vs. manufacturing BOMs, and deriving appropriate assemblies and subassemblies from engineers’ CAD layouts were all part of being a DDD.
All these things can be learned on the job provided you have some background to get you in the door – skills you were able to learn in high school or in a CAD class at a local community college. It might take longer, and you will have to start at the bottom, but with a lot of work and the right mentors, it could be your path to a successful career.
Start in Manufacturing
Did you know that there are close to 400,000 openings for CNC machinists in the U.S. alone?
Now you can’t just start out as a machinist, it takes 4-5 years of training. But it's very common to get that training on the job. There are also trade schools and community colleges that offer the kind of training needed to get a foot in the door, and often you can find internships that will eventually lead to something permanent. A big advantage to starting in manufacturing is learning firsthand how things are built and put together. Down the road, if you decide to pursue that engineering career, you’ll have a good head start.
Do it Your Way
I wouldn’t recommend to an aspiring engineer anything other than earning that four-year degree, but neither would I dissuade anyone from doing it the way I did – learn an applicable skill in high school or trade school, find a place to start at the bottom, volunteer for everything, and learn as much as you can on the job.
I Did it My Way
Looking back, I think it was okay that I couldn’t go to college. I’ll never be a mechanical engineer, but I did get to work with some fascinating technologies, I’ve worked with an amazing set of mentors throughout my career, and I did my best to learn as many different things as I could to get me to the next level of roles and responsibility (and salary). And best of all, I mostly avoided getting my hands dirty.
*Getting involved with local user groups has been a huge asset throughout my career. I heartily suggest you research groups that you can join, forums that you can peruse, and live events you can attend.