The different pathways into engineering are various – and each pathway is a valuable learning experience in its own way.
Whether it’s the more theoretical approach of an academic qualification or the promise of learning an engineering trade from within a professional organisation, there are different routes to suit the skills and interests of different people.
But we know that the journey through secondary school and university can be a period of massive change for many young people, as well as being a time when they are expected to make a lot of important decisions. It can be especially hard to make objective decisions, especially when you don’t always have full awareness of your future career ambitions.
This is compounded by the fact that engineering is, in many ways, still quite a specialist field. How can you know that it’s definitely the career for you, and if you’re taking the right route?
In this article, we’re going to look at the various decision points that you’ll probably face along the way, and look at the routes open to you as you move through some of the major milestones – whether it’s finishing secondary school, sixth form college, or choosing a higher education qualification.
At each milestone, we’ll look at the different options open to you, and offer some tips to help you find the right path for you.
Post-16: choosing your further education options
Coming to the end of secondary school is probably the first major milestones you’ll face. At this point, you may be coming to the end of your GCSEs, and thinking about whether you want to continue with academic study, or whether you’re ready to move into something more vocational or work-based.
Let’s look at some of the options in more detail.
Taking A-levels might be the right bet for you if you’ve really enjoyed studying maths or your science based subjects at school and/or have high grades in your GCSE exams. But ultimately, the question of whether you continue on to A-level study will depend on whether you’re happy to keep learning a classroom environment.
If you’re thinking of studying at your school’s Sixth Form, or a sixth form college, then attend an open evening/open day and find out what science or maths A-levels you will be taught. Do the courses/modules look interesting?
What academic qualifications do I need to become an engineer?
It will depend on what area of engineering you’re thinking of going into. If you’re still unsure, then most engineering routes will need a good academic qualification in physics, chemistry or maths. So whether you’re taking A-levels, the International Baccalaureate or Scottish Highers, then think about whether these are subjects that suit your interests.
You may decide that you’d like to do more vocational qualifications, and choose a route that encompasses classroom learning with some practical work experience. These vocational qualifications offer a good mix of applied and theoretical learning.
What’s more, it’s possible to combine some of these vocational qualifications with some of the academic qualifications we covered in the previous section. So it’s important to remember that, if you go down one route, there are still options to move between the academic and the vocational!
It’s worth taking a quick look at each of the UK vocational qualifications, and the different choices they offer.
These are competency based qualifications that you can only take if you’re employed. NVQs (or SVQs if you’re in Scotland) are competency based qualifications, meaning that you must demonstrate core skills and proficiencies to gain the grades you need.
NVQs are similar to apprenticeships in some ways – indeed some apprenticeships will allow you to gain an NVQ/SVQ qualification. There are a multitude of NVQ/SVQ engineering qualifications, all offering you the chance to specialise in different fields.
BTECs combine written assessments with a series of practical assignments. BTEC students must take a number of core modules, along with a number of optional modules. Most BTECs can be taken through your local sixth form or further education college.
At post-16 level, most students can expect to take Level 3 BTECs, which are equivalent qualifications to A-levels/Scottish Highers/the IB.
TechBac (City & Guilds)
The TechBac is a post-16 vocational qualification offered by City and Guilds and is available in some colleges around the UK. Again, it combines classroom learning with some practical work experience.
The TechBac includes a work-based technical qualification designed in collaboration with employers, a project qualification that demonstrates your independent study skills, a work experience placement, and various online tools and resources, such as an online CV where you can earn badges to further showcase your learning and development.
What vocational qualifications do I need to become an engineer?
You can probably guess the answer to this question – it will depend on what type of engineering you are interested in. We’ve put together a helpful list of some of the most relevant vocational engineering qualifications in our article here.
But suffice to say, there are a number of specialist engineering qualifications if you’re interested in taking the vocational route post-16. These can equip you to either take more advanced vocational qualifications as you progress, or, in some cases, allow you to make the switch to a more academically focussed degree; for example, an increasing number of universities are now accepting BTECs alongside A-levels as part of their entry requirements.
If you decide you want to leave school at 16 and want to move straight into working full time, then an apprenticeship is probably the right move. At the age of 16, if you have five GCSE qualification (with grades A* to C) then you will be eligible to apply for an Advanced Apprenticeship, which is equivalent to studying for your A-levels.
Applying for an apprenticeship is a lot like applying for a job, and you will need to think carefully about what kind of apprenticeship is best for you. Do you want to work for a large organisation or a small one? What kind of career prospects do you hope to gain from your apprenticeship?
We’ve published a handy guide with some resources to help you find the right engineering apprenticeship here
Apprenticeships are similar to the vocational route insofar as you will be working towards similar vocational qualifications, but it’s a much more direct route into paid work as an engineer.
Post-18: choosing your higher education options
The age of 18 is arguably the next big decision making milestone for most students. With sixth form college, or even your first apprenticeship coming to an end, this is often another age of transition for many.
The options for an aspiring engineer at this point are, once again, numerous. And whether it’s an academic route, further vocational qualifications or a more advanced apprenticeship, each pathway offers its own unique benefits. Let’s look at your post-18 options in a bit more detail.
Studying towards an academic degree
There are a whole host of engineering degrees out there, with universities all over the country offering a range of specialisms. To research the range of engineering degrees out there, it’s best to head over to the UCAS website and take a look at the engineering courses that fit your particular preferences.
If you’ve been studying towards your A-Levels, IB Diploma or Scottish Highers, then an engineering degree is often the most natural progression. These academic qualifications will often help to prepare students for the more theoretical nature of most UK engineering degrees; hence why a lot of universities ask students to have top grades in theoretical science subjects such as Physics or Chemistry, as well as Maths. The most heavily subscribed engineering courses in the UK will often ask students to have.
But you don’t need to have purely academic qualifications to meet the entry requirements for a UK academic degree. Many engineering degrees in the UK will also accept BTECs. Why? Because the portfolio based nature of BTECs mean that students are able to showcase the necessary skills and competencies to impress engineering admissions tutors.
In short, if you decided to opt for vocational qualifications at sixth form/college level, there’s nothing stopping you from applying for a more academic degree later on.
Explore our guide to the top Mechanical Engineering Degrees in the UK
What engineering paths can I take with a degree?
There are a rich variety of engineering specialisations open to you if you choose to study towards an academic degree. The range of UK university degrees on offer means that some engineering degrees are more generalist, while others might allow you to specialise very quickly. Some examples of engineering specialisations at degree level include:
- Civil engineering
- Chemical engineering
- Electronic/electrical engineering.
- Mechanical engineering.
- Biomedical engineering (an example of a more specialised path)
What engineering degree qualifications can I gain?
Should you decide to work towards an academic qualification, you’ll have a range of options open to you. You can most likely expect to graduate from university with a Bachelor of Science (BSc), a Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) or a Masters of Engineering (MEng). While most Bachelor degrees are three years, an MEng requires four years of study. A lot of universities offer integrated masters degrees, meaning that you can study for four years as an undergraduate and earn a masters qualification as a matter of course.
It’s also worth noting that your also have a range of study options with an academic degree – including full time, part time, as well as courses with a placement (otherwise known as sandwich courses).
Further vocational options and degree courses
Universities don’t just offer academic degrees. Many also offer more vocational degree courses that often form the natural progression from earlier qualifications such as NVQs or BTEC Nationals. We’ll explore some of these in the next section.
Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas
If you hold A-levels or BTEC Level 3 qualifications, and you decide you want to pursue further vocational qualifications, then a Higher National Certificate (HNC) or Higher National Diploma (HND) might be a route worth consideration.
Whilst these aren’t strictly equivalent to a UK university degree, they do give students the opportunity to top up to a degree should they so wish. Like the earlier qualifications we discussed, HNCs and HND are essentially ‘learning by doing’ qualifications, meaning that you will get valuable practical engineering experience.
The HNC qualification takes a year to complete full time, while an HND takes two years full time (note that a HNC qualification is one level lower than the HND).
The qualifications provider Pearsons offer a range of engineering qualifications, including:
- Aeronautical engineering
- Automotive engineering
- Electrical engineering
- Rail engineering
- General engineering.
Both the HNC and HND enable you to ‘top up’ your existing qualification to a full degree. For example, if you gain a Merit grade in your HND, you can enter a Bachelors degree in the third year (as long as the degree is sufficiently related to your HND qualification).
Again, the HNC/HND is evidence of how easy it is to switch routes during the course of your engineering career path. If you decide on a vocational route earlier on, qualifications like the HNC/HND are designed to allow you to move into a more academic path should you so wish.
Higher & degree level apprenticeships
These more advanced ‘earn as you learn’ qualifications are designed to help students who want to gain higher qualifications whilst in paid employment. Higher and degree level apprenticeships do require students to already hold an advanced apprenticeship or at least two A-levels.
Higher and degree level apprenticeships are a good option if you reach 18/19 and want to build on your existing apprenticeship experience/gain a further qualification.
Likewise, if you’ve been studying at sixth form college and you’ve decided that a full-fledged academic degree isn’t for you, then why not look into a higher/degree level apprenticeship instead?
Degree level apprenticeships are an especially worthwhile route for students who may want to work towards an engineering degree but don’t want to spend money on increasingly high tuition fees (understandably so!).
The best part? Degree level apprenticeships offer you plenty of flexibility to study around your employer’s needs.
It’s possible to do degree level apprenticeships in a number of engineering specialisations, including aerospace engineering, automotive engineering, civil engineering and electronic systems engineering.
Career options: topping up your engineering qualifications
By the time you reach the early years of a prospective engineering career, you will hopefully have a wealth of great academic, vocational or technical qualifications under your belt.
Whether it’s an academic degree or an apprenticeship, all the major pathways into engineering can help set you on a rich and rewarding career path!
But as you kick-start your engineering career, there are additional options to help you acquire other specialisations, or top up your existing qualifications.
Below are just a few notable examples.
Becoming a chartered/incorporated engineer or an engineering technician
This a common means by which early career engineer or graduate engineers top up their existing qualifications and/or increase their earning potential.
In the UK, the Engineering Council sets the UK Standard for Professional Engineering Competence. The Engineering Council defines incorporated and chartered status as follows:
- Engineering technicians – “are concerned with applying proven techniques and procedures to the solution of practical engineering problems. They carry supervisory or technical responsibility, and are competent to exercise creative aptitudes and skills within defined fields of technology.”
- Incorporated engineers – “maintain and manage applications of current and developing technology, and may undertake engineering design, development, manufacture, construction and operation.”
- Chartered engineers – (CEng) ‘develop solutions to engineering problems using new or existing technologies through innovation, creation and change and they may have technical accountability for complex systems with significant levels of risk.’
Chartered engineer is the highest of these accreditations and is more closely associated with management and leadership experience. Chartered engineer status also commands a higher salary (especially as you climb up the pay scale later in your career).
To become an incorporated engineer, you’ll need an accredited Bachelors degree, but it’s also possible to gain incorporated engineer status through a studying a HND or foundation degree.
To become a chartered engineer, the fastest route is to work towards an MEng degree. If you graduate with a BEng degree, you can take an accredited MSc before starting work, or take the Engineering Council’s MSc in professional engineering, which is a qualification that is designed to be studied for when you’re already working.
If you’ve been working towards an engineering apprenticeship, then becoming an engineering technician is a worthwhile accreditation to improve your career prospects.
Whether you decide to work towards a postgraduate qualification will depend on the type of undergraduate degree you have.
But some fields of engineering, such as nuclear engineering, biomedical engineering and marine engineering, may require a postgraduate qualification if you really hope to enhance your career prospects down the road.
Finding the right engineering pathway can seem daunting, especially if you’re only just beginning to consider your career options. The good news is that there are multiple routes into the profession.
What’s more, these routes are flexible. Taking a vocational course doesn’t mean that you can’t switch to something more academic later down the line, and vice versa. Rather than worrying about the right type of qualification, it’s perhaps more helpful to look at what engineering field interests you, and what kind of career path you want to carve out for yourself.