If you're looking to get into mechanical engineering, you've made a wise career decision. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a strong job outlook over the next decade, and the median pay was $88,430 annually ($42.51 per hour) in 2019. And with low barriers to entry — typically only a bachelor's degree is required — this is a low-risk, high-reward career.
Unlike many construction-related career fields, mechanical engineers mostly work in offices, only visiting worksites when a piece of equipment needs attention.
But what exactly is involved in mechanical contracting, and how do you even get started in this career field? This guide provides a breakdown of what being a mechanical contractor is all about and what steps you must take to get a job doing this kind of work.
Overview: What is a mechanical contractor?
A mechanical contractor is a worker or team responsible for overseeing projects involving heating and cooling systems, refrigeration, plumbing, and other similar jobs.
The contractor manages mechanical applications and projects. Their duties range from installation and production to maintenance of the systems themselves. They must be cognizant of timelines and budgets, and they may need additional skills with software and IT products.
Common mechanical engineering categories include:
- Plumbing: Contractors in this specialty are responsible for pipes, fittings, tanks, and anything else that controls the water flow throughout a building.
- Electrical: Electrical systems supply electricity throughout a building. Contractors must install electrical lines, erect poles, and install transformers.
- Combustion: This area of mechanical engineering deals with energy generation and waste disposal and may also involve the use of turbines, furnaces, or engines. Generally, this work occurs in industries that produce a lot of emissions.
- Refrigeration: Refrigeration systems keep things cool and are used for things such as food storage or in mortuaries.
- HVAC: Short for "heating, ventilation, and air conditioning," HVAC systems cool or heat areas where people live or work. Contractors have to install these large systems and then maintain them throughout their service lives.
- Manufacturing: Manufacturing companies need large, heavy equipment to produce their products. Mechanical engineers must work with companies to design and build these specialized machines and then maintain them.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a mechanical contractor?
The responsibilities of mechanical subcontractors or contractors will differ depending on the industry, the company, and the job itself, but generally a mechanical contractor has three main roles.
1. Managing project basics
A mechanical contractor is responsible for making sure the job gets done from start to finish, whether that means installing a new refrigeration system or maintaining plumbing for a commercial facility.
The contractor must interact with the client and other contractors, monitor timelines, manage construction workflow, manage the budget, and apply extensive knowledge in their area of expertise. Because they have clients, they need strong people skills, and because they often manage a team of workers, they must possess superior communication skills.
2. Handling mechanical systems
A mechanical engineer in construction must be adept at handling the systems for which they are responsible. They must be able to assemble the systems in advance and then install them on-site. They must oversee virtual teams across multiple locations, keep the project on schedule, and make sure production stays within the budget.
They must be good at problem-solving because inevitably a contractor will run into unforeseen issues on the job site such as a footprint that is not large enough for the refrigeration unit or inadequate safety protocols.
3. Managing on-site jobs
Once workers are on-site, the contractor must be able to manage the job until it is finished. That means overseeing staff, monitoring the usage of resources, and managing construction and maintenance. The contractor must be good at delegating authority to members of the team so they can get the job done. The contractor should also be able to assess risks and likely obstacles to project completion.
How to become a mechanical contractor
The steps to becoming a mechanical construction contractor are straightforward. They require hard work, but if you follow these steps, you’ll be on your way to a promising career.
1. Acquire formal education
The first step to becoming a mechanical contractor is getting the right training and education. While a college degree is not required, a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree can give you an edge on getting the job or help with getting a mechanical contractor license. Look for degrees in mechanical engineering, although education in business management is also a plus.
2. Get an apprenticeship
The next step after formal education is to become a master technician’s apprentice. You can even use an apprenticeship to get your foot in the door without a college education if you want to avoid the financial costs of college. This on-the-job training is invaluable and will be very attractive to contracting companies.
Start with some general apprenticeship positions and then get into more specialized fields depending on what career you want to go into, such as plumbing or HVAC installation. Be willing to keep learning since that process never ends.
3. Learn the latest technology
With each passing year, technology grows more sophisticated in the area of mechanical processes, and you must be familiar with mechanical engineering construction technology for your experience to remain relevant.
Investigate digital technology and demonstrate command of cloud software. Be comfortable with using mobile devices as part of your job. Remain open to new technological advances and show employers you can adapt to any tech thrown your way since one company may have its own technological solutions that differ from another company.
4. Consider a master's degree
A master's degree isn't required for a successful mechanical engineering career, but it may help you more quickly advance and get promoted. It takes about two years to get a master's degree, and you could take classes on evenings and weekends so you can continue working at your profession while advancing your knowledge in the field.
A master's degree will give you expertise on advanced topics like metals and alloys, composite materials, robotics, and more.
5. Get licensing and certifications
As a mechanical engineer, you will likely be required to have the correct licenses in any state in which you work. However, you can get additional licenses and certifications that will help you advance your career.
Join a mechanical contractor association for additional training and certification to put on your resume. Get a professional engineer (PE) licensure, which indicates to potential clients as well as contractors who are hiring that you know what you're doing.
Mechanical contractors need software to be effective
Construction management software helps you get more organized as a contractor, which helps you finish jobs on time and on budget and advances you in your career. While the software tends to be focused more on traditional construction projects, many software options cater to contractors doing specialized work such as mechanical contracting.