Materials engineers manipulate the atomic and molecular structure of substances to create products such as computer chips and television screens to golf clubs and snow skis. They work with metals, ceramics, plastics, semiconductors, and combinations of materials called composites to create new materials that meet certain mechanical, electrical, and chemical requirements. They also test and evaluate existing materials for new applications. Materials engineers specializing in metals can be considered metallurgical engineers, while those specializing in ceramics can be considered ceramic engineers.
Most metallurgical engineers work in one of the three main branches of metallurgyextractive or chemical, physical, and mechanical or process. Extractive metallurgists are concerned with removing metals from ores and refining and alloying them to obtain useful metal. Physical metallurgists study the nature, structure, and physical properties of metals and their alloys, and methods of processing them into final products. Mechanical metallurgists develop and improve metalworking processes such as casting, forging, rolling, and drawing.
Ceramic engineers develop new ceramic materials and methods for making ceramic materials into useful products. Ceramics include all nonmetallic, inorganic materials that generally require high temperatures in their processing. Ceramic engineers work on products as diverse as glassware, automobile and aircraft engine components, fiber-optic communication lines, tile, and electric insulators.
Materials engineers held about 20,000 jobs in 1998. Because materials are building blocks for other goods, materials engineers are widely distributed among manufacturing industries. In fact, over half of materials engineers worked in metal-producing and processing; electronic and other electrical equipment; transportation equipment; industrial machinery and equipment; and stone, clay, and glass products manufacturing. They also worked in services industries such as engineering and management, business, and health services. Most remaining materials engineers worked for Federal and State governments.
Employment of materials engineers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2008. Many of the manufacturing industries in which materials engineers are concentratedsuch as primary metals; industrial machinery and equipment; and stone, clay, and glass productsare expected to experience declines in employment. As firms outsource their materials engineering needs, however, employment growth is expected in many services industries including research and testing, personnel supply, health, and engineering and architectural services. In addition to growth, job openings will result from the need to replace materials engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
Median annual earnings of materials engineers were $57,970 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $43,890 and $77,730. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $34,890 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $89,600. In the Federal Government, materials engineers in supervisory, nonsupervisory, and management positions averaged $68,000 a year in early 1999.
According to a 1999 salary survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, bachelors degree candidates in materials engineering received starting offers averaging about $43,400 a year.
(See introduction to the section on engineers for information on working conditions, training requirements, and sources of additional information.)