Do Good, Be in Demand as an Engineer

Courtney Rubin

When the U.S. military wants help reducing its energy consumption at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, William T. Hagen, 26, is one of the people summoned.

A mechanical engineer for AMEL Technologies, a consulting firm in Honolulu, he searches for pipes lacking insulation and leaks in the air conditioning system, then quantifies the wasted energy and suggests ways to reduce the bills and carbon footprint. Often, he says, "It's the boring-sounding things that can have the biggest impact."

Hagen got his start in the field when, as a competitive swimmer at his Chicago high school, he became intrigued by the science and economics of heating the pool. The quest to install a solar thermal system turned into a lengthy study for him and some 40 fellow students -- and others after he'd graduated. The system was installed in 2010.

With energy exploration, production and conservation among the country's most urgent agenda items, along with coping with climate change, Hagen opted to follow up his undergrad degree in mechanical engineering and physics from the University of Miami with a master's in mechanical engineering at the University of California--Berkeley and a concentration in advanced energy technologies.

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Besides enhancing his job prospects, he says, "I wanted to do something that would improve society." During his studies and after graduating in 2012, he worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on a smart-grid implementation process that would price energy so it's cheaper to use off-peak. Then he spotted a LinkedIn posting about the AMEL job in Hawaii.

With the global population and developing-world economies surging, there's "huge demand for people who know how to generate, store and convert energy," says Gary May, dean of Georgia Tech's College of Engineering.

The Army, for example, has implemented a "Net Zero Energy" initiative designed to combine conservation and renewable sources so installations use only what they produce over a year. Expertise in renewable energy is particularly hot, as is petroleum engineering, as companies race to exploit U.S. resources.

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All told, the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median pay for mechanical engineers at $80,580. But pay in the energy realm tends to be among the highest. At the University of Texas--Austin, for example, students who earned doctorates in petroleum engineering last year received starting salaries averaging $118,800. The next closest: aerospace engineering, at $101,250.

Other engineering specialties also offer great job prospects. Demand for three types of engineers is on the rise.

Biomedical engineer: The BLS estimates that the ranks of biomedical engineers -- people in bioinformatics who collect and analyze genetic and molecular data, those in predictive health who determine susceptibility to disease, and those who create artificial organs and implantable devices -- will grow 27 percent in the decade ending 2022 as the population ages. Median pay: $86,960. The job search engine notes that a grad degree can bump earnings by 48 percent.

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Civil engineer: Civil engineering, which encompasses everything from keeping the water running to keeping buildings up, is expected to grow 20 percent by 2022; median pay runs $79,340. Much of the country's infrastructure needs replacing or retrofitting, and these folks also help manage the aftermath of -- and prevention planning before -- disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Last fall, President Barack Obama highlighted the need for states and communities to prepare for the effects of global warming.

Environmental engineer: Concern for the health of the planet has helped spur demand for the environmental engineers who help assess and safeguard it, working on projects ranging from waste water management and recycling to radiation protection and the study of how proposed construction projects might impact the environment. The Department of Labor predicts this field will grow 15 percent by 2022 and estimates median pay to be $80,890.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Graduate Schools 2015" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.