Many teens exiting high school or “undeclared” college freshman are at an uncertain time in their lives: They may have interests and subjects they enjoy, but simply don’t know what they want to pursue for work after graduation.
However, many may not even be aware of a major that could lead to an interesting and prosperous career: industrial engineering. While industrial engineering is not the most well-known engineering discipline, it is the most diverse amongst the many professional engineering fields of study.
What Is Industrial Engineering?
What makes industrial engineering such a broad field is that its goal is to optimize processes and systems by finding ways to save time, money, energy, and materials across a range of industries. This is done by leading the implementation of business strategies, such as 5S, Lean, Supply Chain Management, and Six Sigma.
It is often said that the goal of industrial engineering is to take what other engineers have done and make it better. Industrial engineers can be found in almost every industry: manufacturing, logistics, entertainment, hospitality, service, healthcare, energy, and aerospace, to name a few. Within each of these industries, industrial engineers may find themselves working on a variety of projects, such as:
- Making wait times shorter for rides at Walt Disney World to increase guest satisfaction
- Optimizing the nursing staff levels at a hospital to improve patient care
- Streamlining the manufacturing processes of automobiles at Ford to make cars more affordable
- Simplifying a supply chain for UPS so deliveries can be made more expediently
- Leading a team of engineers to design new equipment for NASA
- Improving the quality of your favorite candy bar at Hershey to increase customer satisfaction
- Performing energy audits to enable more companies to go green to save money – and our planet
- Consulting and training people to use the latest technology to improve operations
- Designing safer and more ergonomic ways to work on the factory floor at a manufacturing plant
Industrial Engineering Jobs
Industrial engineering can entail a wide variety of things, so it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what to expect on the job or even what is fair compensation. Here are some job profiles that will give you an idea of how varied this profession can be:
Healthcare Management Engineer
The healthcare industry is a very interesting and exciting area where industrial engineers play an integral role. Often called “management engineers” as opposed to industrial engineers, these professionals act as internal or external consultants to hospitals and other healthcare systems. Their main role is to be problem solvers who have a well-established understanding of the industry.
Projects can include everything from determining staffing levels to implementing new technology to streamlining office processes. While pay is competitive with other industries, expect a lower-than-average salary if you are working for a nonprofit.
“Lean” is a popular business practice of reducing waste so that what you are left with are only value-adding processes and activities. Lean coordinators are found in all types of industries, but most commonly in manufacturing.
Duties include lean training and various lean implementation tasks related to process improvement, cost reduction, and workplace organization. A lean coordinator identifies areas for improvement, and then leads a team in making improvements. For example, a lean coordinator may notice a bottleneck in part of the production line due to a cluttered environment; the lean coordinator would then plan a more effective layout and implement the idea.
Theme Park Industrial Engineer
Industrial engineers generally work in theme parks as internal consultants. Much like other industrial engineers, these engineers are asked to assist in solving issues and streamlining processes.
One aspect of industrial engineering in a theme park is being part of the development of a new product or attraction. For those types of projects, industrial engineers are consulted to determine the best process for launching the product or the best way to take a guest through the attraction.
Another important aspect of industrial engineering is understanding and analyzing guest flow to better balance the guest population throughout the park.
Supply Chain Solutions Engineer
These industrial engineers are quickly growing in numbers, as companies understand how valuable they are to save money. Their focus is to determine the best way to arrange people, organizations, information, technology, and activities to move a product or service from the supplier to the customer. To do this, supply chain solution engineers must analyze costs, processes, materials, and technology to determine the logistics to maximize profits and customer satisfaction. For industrial engineers just getting started in their careers, this is an ideal area because it is growing and in high demand.
Quality Assurance Engineer
Quality assurance engineers are found in almost every manufacturing industry, and their main task is to ensure that products are consistently high quality. Quality engineers’ objectives are to determine the level of quality, what areas of a process are disrupting quality, and how to resolve those quality issues. An engineer must do all these things through audits to make sure the process is standardized and low-cost. Some quality issues that these engineers concern themselves with include strength of a product and product lifecycle.
Many industrial engineers of all types eventually find themselves in the position of project manager. As project managers, industrial engineers are in charge of coordinating a team to accomplish a set of objectives.
The project manager will assign responsibilities to team members and monitor the project’s progress. It is also the project manager’s responsibility to act as a problem solver. Industrial engineers make excellent project managers since they possess an understanding of many different engineering disciplines, and tend to have good leadership and people skills.
How to Become an Industrial Engineer
To attain one of the jobs discussed above, you must first have a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. It is not necessary to get a master’s degree, as it is not required for most entry-level positions. Plus, many industrial engineers pursue an MBA degree as opposed to a master’s degree once they are in the work force.
Undergraduate coursework includes:
- Differential equations
- Computer science
- Engineering design
- Engineering mechanics
- Operations research
- Supply chain management/logistics
- Quality control
- Facilities design
- Basic business courses
Depending on where you go to school, the learning emphasis may be on different aspects of the field, but the general education should be the same. For example, many Midwest schools place more focus on manufacturing than Southern schools, as many Midwest industrial engineering jobs are in the manufacturing industry.
My husband and I both have industrial engineering degrees: My husband received a very theoretical education at Georgia Institute of Technology, while my education at the University of Florida focused more on practical application, even though we took the same courses with the same exact textbooks.
Not only will you want to keep in mind what aspects of industrial engineering a university program will emphasize, but you may also want to consider the national ranking of a school when choosing your college. According to US News, these schools offer the top industrial engineering programs in the United States for 2012:
- Georgia Institute of Technology
- University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
- University of California, Berkeley
- Pennsylvania State University, University Park
- Purdue University, West Lafayette
- Stanford University
- Northwestern University
- Texas A&M University, College Station
- Virginia Tech
- North Carolina State University, Raleigh
How can a student prepare to attend one of these prestigious schools to get a degree in industrial engineering? The best course of action is to take as many math and science classes as possible, particularly those at a college level.
Additionally, high school students can further prepare by taking an introductory course to computer programming. It’s also a good idea for a high school student to shadow a few industrial engineers in various industries to get a better idea of what the career is like on a day-to-day basis.
Reasons to Consider Majoring in Industrial Engineering
Besides playing an important role in giving companies a competitive edge, industrial engineering can be exciting and rewarding.
1. The Field Is Broad
Industrial engineering is an exceptionally broad field, which means you will not be stuck doing the same thing day-in and day-out for the next 30 to 40 years. Besides being able to switch roles within an industry, you can try out a different industry if you desire a change.
For instance, if you start your career in manufacturing but decide later that your real passion is healthcare, there is certainly a place for you in the healthcare industry. If you are working on streamlining processes, but find your real talent lies in working with people, you’ll fit right into a position within project management.
2. Pay Is Exceptional
Currently, the average starting salary of an entry-level industrial engineer is between $55,000 and $65,000. Furthermore, your salary will continue to rise throughout your years of employment. The average salary of industrial engineers as of May 2010 was $78,450, with the top 10% earning more than $112,000 a year. Even the lowest 10% earn close to $50,000, which is above the $44,410 average salary of all occupations.
3. Career Offers Movement
Once an industrial engineer gets some experience, it is not uncommon to be promoted to a managerial position. In fact, for someone whose ultimate goal is to get into management, industrial engineering offers a quick and easy pathway.
While industrial engineers receive similar business training as business students, they have a leg up due to their additional math, science, and technology training. Furthermore, industrial engineers often complete summer internships, which also make them more marketable and desirable to employers, and they also frequently minor in business administration or sales to complement their major. Many industrial engineers round out their education by earning an MBA, either directly after their bachelor’s degree or after a few years of experience.
4. Demand Is High
Due to the wide range of services that industrial engineers provide, it only makes sense that the number of available jobs would continue to grow. With so many businesses looking to cut costs, the hiring of an industrial engineer pays for itself, thus making it a great career field for the future.
With nearly 203,000 employed in this field mid-2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects this number to continue to grow at a rate of 14% over the next decade – faster than the average of all other occupations. Regardless of the overall state of the economy, companies will always have a need for industrial engineers to continually help reduce costs and improve processes.
5. Degrees Are Available
While not every college offers a degree in industrial engineering, they are becoming more prolific. Accredited degree programs are now available at more than 70 schools nationwide, with Georgia Institute of Technology ranked at the top of the pack.
When choosing a college to attend, there is a good chance that you’ll consider one with an industrial engineering program. Furthermore, some specialized schools, such as the Milwaukee School of Engineering, do offer industrial engineering programs, so it is not necessary to attend a traditional university to get an accredited industrial engineering education.
6. Scholarships Are Available
College scholarships are available for industrial engineering students through various organizations, the most notable being the Institute for Industrial Engineers, which offers several scholarships each year. Other organizations offering scholarships to industrial engineering students include the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Association of Iron and Steel Technology Foundation.
Is Industrial Engineering Right for You?
Industrial engineering is a suitable career for anyone who enjoys problem solving and finding not just any solution, but the best one. Math, science, statistics, and programming skills are heavily emphasized, so it is important to excel in these areas. Industrial engineering also suits those who like to think outside of the box and use their creativity. Initiative, leadership skills, discipline, diligence, and people skills all make an industrial engineer successful.
On the other hand, if your math and science abilities are lacking or you are uninterested in those subjects, industrial engineering is probably not for you. If you lack attention to detail, you may also find this career to be out of your comfort zone. Furthermore, if you do not desire to hold a leadership or management role, you may fail to grow in your career, as many industrial engineers eventually get promoted to such positions.
To major in industrial engineering is to get an education that you will likely not regret. Not only will you receive a well-rounded foundation in math, science, business, and technology, you’ll be entering a career field that is ever-changing and never boring. You’ll solve puzzles to save your company money while improving efficiency, productivity, and quality.
Have you had any experience in industrial engineering? What other industrial engineering careers are out there?