by Donald L. Johnson
Materials engineering is a relatively small occupation, with only about 27,000 working in the U.S. workforce in 2016. Materials engineers must have a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering or in a related engineering field. Materials engineers create and study materials at the atomic level, model the characteristics of materials and their components, and can work on problems in several different engineering fields. Materials engineers may also specialize in understanding specific materials and can go by a variety of names such as ceramic engineers, composites engineers, metallurgical engineers, plastics engineers, and semiconductor processing engineers. They may monitor how materials perform and evaluate how they deteriorate, evaluate the impact of materials processing on the environment, and determine the causes of product failure and develop ways of overcoming such failure.
Materials engineering offers an example of a field where employment is projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to grow slower than all occupations in general, but pays relatively well. The BLS projects employment to grow only by 2 percent over the 2016 to 2026 period. This is generally less than other engineering occupations and all occupations in general. Materials engineers are needed to design uses for new materials in both traditional industries and in industries focused on new products. Since most materials engineers work in manufacturing industries, the growth in employment of materials engineers is tied to the performance of these industries, many of which the BLS expects to have declines or little change in employment. However, a significant rebound in U.S. manufacturing could positively influence the prospects for materials engineering employment. Demand for materials engineers is expected to come from growing fields, such as biomedical engineering where materials engineers are crucial in helping biomedical engineers develop new materials for implants and from three-dimensional printing. Research and development firms will increasingly employ materials engineers as they explore new uses for materials technology in consumer products, industrial processes, and medicine. Prospects will be best for those who gained experience by participating in internships or co-op programs while in college. Also, since computer modeling and simulation are increasingly being used to predict performance of new materials, those with a background in computer modeling should have better employment opportunities.
According to the BLS, the annual median wage for materials engineers was $94,610 in May 2017, which is higher than for all engineers, and significantly higher than for all occupations in general of $37,690. Materials engineers are related to several other science and engineering occupations, including materials science which is discussed in a separate article.
Projected Employment Growth, Materials Engineers, 2016-2026
Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2018.
About the author
Donald L. Johnson has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Tennessee and serves as senior researcher and principle investigator for ORISE workforce studies. With more than 20 years of experience in surveying both industry and academia, he has conducted dozens of analyses related to science and engineering labor market trends, and on issues such as workforce skills, adequacy of labor supply, education requirements and employment demand.