Mech/Mfg. Engineer w/o degree. Possible?
February 17, 2008 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Can a person who just can't get through college make it in the (mechanical/manufacturing) engineering world? If not as an engineer, a close second, maybe?

I'm a guy who's pretty smart, likes to figure things out (thrives on it at work, actually), problem-solve, etc. However, I have always been a horrible student (really horrible, srsly). In an educational setting, I have never been able to put forth any sustained effort. After High School (didn't graduate, got the California HS proficiency thing, kinda like a GED), I tried community college, which was a disaster.

I went into the Machining trade (my dad's trade). I did pretty well, learn by doing, work with my hands, visualize. Though I didn't really like the outlook so much. Machinists know their trade (like many other trades) has HUGE ups and downs in hiring and firing, where when it's good, overtime can be almost unlimited, then as soon as manufacturing dies down, Job shops sell off their newly-financed machines and the mass layoffs begin for all but the most experienced, talented, and underpaid machinists.

Well I eventually ended up at a small medical device manufacturing company (less than 10 people) that changed my life, in terms of career outlook. I started out there as a machine operator (they had one CNC lathe) and I became the only machinist there (the owner knew how to machine, but he was busy running the company). Well as time went on, I progressed from setup/operation to programing new parts, to learning AutoCadLT (to draw up new parts), eventually taking on more of an engineering role (solving problems in the manufacturing process, documentation, researching new materials/tools/hardware, having to dabble with basic engineering math to figure out burst strengths of components and stuff like that, designing new parts and assemblies with SolidWorks, etc). They couldn't afford a full-time "real engineer", and I didn't have all the education and experience of one to demand such a salary. It was such a great experience for me, in terms of pointing me in a career direction, one that gave me great joy and satisfaction. It made me feel like I didn't just "have a job" to get a paycheck, I was making a real impact and I'd never felt so "effective" in my life. Even during bad times, it was worth every headache. It also helped that the owner and the general manager were the best people I'd ever worked for, before or since.

Anyhow, after five years I eventually had to leave that company to relocate, and It took me about a year and five job changes to find something where I didn't just want to walk off the job (which I did, 3 times in a row). Now I'm finally at a company that seems to have that "show us what you can do" attitude, and I'm certain that I can stick around for a number of years.

I guess my general question would be, am I a fool to think I'll ever get anywhere without an engineering degree (or a degree of any kind)? I make somewhere in the low 40's as a salary, but I live in the metro Boston area, so i'm not exactly making a great living.

I know that really the best thing for me to do is get that degree, but has anybody else risen through the ranks (to the point of having a decent career in manufacturing) without one? Any input, advice, experiences, stories, reality checks, anything would be appreciated.

And I just have to add, to any engineers who might take this as "i dont think a degree is really worth it or important", please know that I've got nothing but respect for a person who was able to put their head down and barrel through that seemingly endless process of hard class after harder class to get to an engineering degree, with the only light at the end of the tunnel being a friggin' PE exam (which my friend, who got a BSME, studied for like 6 stressful months for). I've just never been able to learn something unless A) I really found it interesting and wanted to learn it. or B) I needed to learn it to solve a problem at my job. In those circumstances it's EASY for me. But just to learn it to get a passing grade on a test, I start stabbing myself in the eye with a #2 pencil in class. Well you get the idea. And yes, I have mental problems that are surely causing me to have this aversion to formal education.
posted by high0nfire to Education (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
First, lots of respect for your hard work.

Have you looked into doing a degree in engineering technology? Their classes are more applied, and might be a better fit if you don't like the theoretical stuff. I'm an EE, but I know a few Eng. Tech. guys at my university and they always seem to be in pretty good demand.
posted by pravit at 10:56 AM on February 17, 2008

Man, I feel for you. I hated college. It just isn't the type of learning atmosphere I do well in. Well, all I know is (and I work for a large engineering firm) is that you cannot get a PE license in any state without a degree, no matter how well you do on the test.
posted by Lockjaw at 10:57 AM on February 17, 2008

Also, I think most people don't actually have to sit the Fundamentals of Engineering exam. If I'm not wrong, you only need the PE certification if you're going to offer your services directly to the public.
posted by pravit at 10:58 AM on February 17, 2008

Best answer: It is true that the piece of paper is often the key that gets you in the door. But I have seen a few exceptions.

In fact, there is an electrical engineer who is considered one of the most intelligent and respected experts in the field and makes a lot of money as a consultant. I'm one of the few in the industry who knows (through a friend of his) that he doesn't have a college degree. I've also worked with an engineer at large company who didn't have a degree.

How do they do it? In my opinion it happens as a result of two things that you will find at a lot of companies:
1. There are almost always a few lazy employees.
2. There are almost always a few problems that need to be worked on and solved by 'engineers' but that no one is working on (because of #1, budget problems, and management oversight or overwork).

This is where you can step in and shine. Identify those types of problems that you know you'd be good at, can enjoy, learn, maybe have one of the lazy engineers mentor you a little, and then go for it. A lot of times employees become considered experts at something not because they were identified and assigned to it, but because someone stepped up and took over.

Management just loves to hear "I hear you are having problems with 'such-and-such'. I want to help out with this problem for you. I might need some help from the engineers to get started."

Once you are considered an expert at a key 'engineering' type task at a company, you are in a position to ask for a change of job title. You don't even have to go for the salary increase at first. Once you are working as an engineer and doing a good job--now it is on your resume. You would be honest in calling yourself an engineer, and when a company checks your references and finds out you did a good job at this engineering position, you're in.

posted by eye of newt at 11:05 AM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: About the Engineering Tech degree, yes I have considered it. There's a state university nearby that offers that, and I've wondered how industry views such a degree.
posted by high0nfire at 11:34 AM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: Wow, great feedback immediately! Thanks so much to EVERYONE, seriously! I'm glad I finally asked this on here!
posted by high0nfire at 11:39 AM on February 17, 2008

re: eye of newt's last paragraph

I'm pretty sure that for many fields you can't legally "call yourself an engineer" unless you've got the certification, even if you've got the skills. So be careful about that.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:18 PM on February 17, 2008

You may be interested in the life of Dean Kamen.
posted by phrontist at 1:00 PM on February 17, 2008

Oh, and I'll add that while working for a small aerospace company there were quite a few college dropouts working as engineers - so it's not an entirely unusual occurrence.
posted by phrontist at 1:01 PM on February 17, 2008

re: qxntpqbbbqxl

I don't think he is asking about "certification", he's just wondering whether he needs a college degree.

The "can't call yourself an engineer" doesn't seem to play in the US in the same way it does, say, in Canada. (there are, of course, exceptions, but they all revolve around not calling yourself a Professional Engineer (PE) unless you are.

As far as to answer your original question-- I think that the college degree does matter-- unless you are really good and you are dealing with people that already know you.

The people who know you professionally could probably care less whether or not you have the degree. The problem comes, IMO, when you are trying to get a job away from the people who know you. There are a number of situations where your resume might not even get through the door without the degree.

I've been working with someone for years and he is one of the most AMAZING engineers that I have ever worked with. Very smart, very clever, fantastic work ethic, personable, etc. The problem is that he does not have the degree to go with his experience and so we have been encouraging him to go back to school, which he is now doing.

The degree won't change what he is doing, but will leave him in a better position when he is dealing with people who don't already know him.

posted by gregvr at 1:05 PM on February 17, 2008

Ah, now that I re-read, yes, he did mention PE, my mistake.
posted by gregvr at 1:40 PM on February 17, 2008

This Wikipedia article confirms that the legal situation about the title Professional Engineer varies from state to state in the US. It sounds as though you may be able to get away with other titles with "engineer" in them, but you really need to check out the situation where you are, or where you may move to. You may even be able to actually qualify fairly easily, if you can stand an exam.

One thing that a formal engineering education gives you is breadth -- with only experience on your resume, you run the risk of your specialism dying out and nobody accepting you can jump to something new. So I suggest you consider evening classes if you live in a city that has them, and investigate whether your experience can be used to count for the first couple of years of a degree. Evening classes are different from the formal education you hated -- adults with jobs have a different attitude, and demand value for their time and money. You can use distance learning too, but I would guess you would find it harder to keep motivated than if you can get together with like-minded people at an evening class.

Being in the middle of a part-time degree might well help your next job search.
posted by Idcoytco at 1:48 PM on February 17, 2008

1) It's probably less about the degree and more about the company and your role in it. My grandfather was an ME, but he spent the majority of his career as a project manager and problem solver. I have friends who are engineers, one is a QC manager for a parts supplier, the other fixes machines on a food production line. You probably did more "engineering" at the medical instruments company then any of them.

2) Are you sure you wouldn't be a good student now?

3) Have you been evaluated for ADHD or some other sort of difference that makes learning harder for you?
posted by gjc at 2:37 PM on February 17, 2008

Outside civil engineering, having (much less using) a PE is the exception, not the rule.
posted by phrontist at 2:40 PM on February 17, 2008

I got my BSME two years ago, and since then worked (until a few months ago) in a design engineer role with manufacturing support being a substantial component of my job. There were a few guys there with Engineer job titles who did not have the degree, but they all had many years of experience. There were also a lot of technicians, who could have done my job but didn't have a degree, or enough experience to get by without it. The company was paying for some of them to go to night classes and get engineering tech certificates. This might be a good way for you to start - from what I heard, their classes were much more practical and immediately useful than some of the things my BSME degree required.

So it is possible (at some companies) to work your way up, but not having the degree will significantly slow you down. I wouldn't give up on schooling yet if I were you. There were plenty of people in my classes who were working their way through school, one or two classes at a time. A lot of night classes in my program only met once a week. Sure, it took a few extra years to get the degree, but so what?

And seriously, don't worry about the PE. In most manufacturing settings a PE is not valuable. It's crucial in civil engineering, as phrontist said, and also in some other areas (some types of consulting) where a PE needs to sign off on things for legal reasons. But in manufacturing there are tons of engineers who have never had any reason to take the fundamentals exam (and would have to study for it now just as much as you would). The light at the end of the tunnel for engineering students is the JOB, not the letters they can put by their name. And when I went looking for engineering jobs, the degree meant very little compared to my experience (or lack of it).

and eye of newt's advice is great.
posted by beandip at 5:42 PM on February 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone again for the feedback, especially the clarification of the PE certification. I was under the foolish impression that a "real" engineer has to obtain it. The feedback has given me a new outlook on what I need to do to get where I want to be. Thank you all so very much!
posted by high0nfire at 6:24 PM on February 17, 2008

With reference to Silicon Valley: a lot of manufacturing engineers are non-degreed; being degreed isn't well correlated with success in manufacturing engineering at specialty equipment manufacturers. Therefore if you were to work at a machine tool manufacturer, a small (perhaps up to 200) specialty equipment company, or a -very large- company where expertise at decision making about machinability was critically needed (for example Westinghouse Marine, Boeing, PACCAR) you would likely be able to find a niche for yourself.

As far as being a mechanical engineer is concerned, the water gets more cloudy. You'd likely have some trouble competing as an R&D ME because - although you have a useful background in machining - not having the breadth of understanding between disciplines limits your effectiveness at understanding the other disciplines' problems and adjusting your work to accommodate them. As a counter-example, Hughes Aircraft in the 1980s made a truly inspired decision. They had had a demand from the Guild (engineers' union, no kidding) that the title "engineer" go only to degreed engineers. Hughes told the Guild to suck it. I thought that was an excellent decision because despite the odds, there are a few R&D MEs who aren't degreed and are good at what they do.

I am, BTW, a degreed ME.
posted by jet_silver at 7:22 PM on February 17, 2008

Regarding the Engineering Technology type of degrees, I worked for a giant engineering company in the aerospace sector, and can confirm that were many people doing engineering type work employed by that company who had such degrees.

That company has positions called stress engineering and manufacturing engineering that were often filled by people with engineering technology degrees. The stress engineering folks basically do (among other things) modeling and finite-element analysis on parts. The manufacturing engineers act more as liaisons between the factory floor and the engineers. They do planning for how the parts will get built, and to some extent, deal with problems encountered during the process.
posted by !Jim at 9:04 PM on February 17, 2008

BSME here

I'd say it's not that much of a hindrance. Many of the people I work with on a day to day basis are not degreed engineers, but people who have shown an aptitude for problem solving and have a good work ethic. All engineering really teaches you is an approach to solving problems. The other additional background is handy in research sitations (or when trying to solve a problem analytically), but for day-in, day-out business, not so much.

I'd also recommend looking into piping design. I know several people who make six figures doing piping design work who are proficient (technically speaking) with nothing more than AutoCAD and a tapemeasure.
posted by conradjones at 9:07 PM on February 17, 2008

Well, all I know is (and I work for a large engineering firm) is that you cannot get a PE license in any state without a degree, no matter how well you do on the test.

Wrong. Some states allow you to get it if you pass the test and have 10 years of experience.

Also, having a PE isn't the end-all be-all of engineering. Not having one doesn't mean you can't work as an engineer, it just means you can't stamp drawings and you don't get paid quite as much. Smart firms look for experience and drive, rather than just a PE.

Btw, I'm a PE, but in Civil, where it's much more necessary.
posted by electroboy at 7:36 AM on February 18, 2008

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