If you have always had an interest in figuring out how things work, developing solutions to problems or designing inventions, you might already know that the field of engineering interests you. As you begin looking at colleges, you may come across the similar sounding major of engineering technology. While there are similarities between the fields of engineering and engineering technology, there are important differences between what you will study in each program and what your future career opportunities will be.

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Curriculum and Job Prospects for Engineers

An engineering degree prepares graduates for a future as an engineer, a professional who applies scientific and mathematical principles to solve problems in the real world. Engineering degree programs are specialized, so the core coursework depends on which branch of engineering a student is pursuing. However, aspiring engineers should plan to take plenty of math and science courses, and often computer courses, as well as introductory courses in general engineering theory and concepts. Work experience through internships or cooperative work programs is an important part of training for a future in engineering.

Engineers typically need at least a bachelor’s degree accredited by ABET (the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). College degree programs in engineering are usually four-year programs that culminate in a bachelor’s degree. However, there are also two-year programs that award associate’s degrees offered at community colleges for students who plan to transfer to a four-year college for their junior and sophomore years of study.

As an engineer, you will conceive solutions to problems, flesh out those ideas, test them through computer simulation or creating a prototype and build a finished product, the BLS reported. What kinds of problems you solve and materials you work with depends on your educational background. A civil engineer may develop bridges and roadways, while a chemical engineer might create new chemical compounds, and computer software engineers develop the programs and applications used to perform tasks on computerized devices. The median annual salary for all engineers is $92,220, according to the BLS. The highest-paying engineering disciplines include computer hardware engineering, software development, geological engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering and materials engineering.

Job outlook for engineers varies from one engineering discipline to another. Biomedical, petroleum, civil, environmental, and computer software are among the fastest growing engineering branches.

Curriculum and Opportunities in Engineering Technology

An engineering technology program prepares students for a different future than a traditional engineering program does. Engineering technology degree programs are typically two-year programs offered at community colleges and vocational technical schools. Upon completion, these programs award an associate’s degree or possibly a certificate. Engineering technology programs focus on building a student’s practical technical skills rather than knowledge of engineering theories and concepts. Graduates of engineering technology programs use those skills to work with technology rather than come up with new technologies of their own.

As with engineering degrees, engineering technology degrees are specialized. Core coursework in an engineering technology degree program might include classes in practical engineering and design skills as well as the computer software and technology used in a technician or technologist’s daily work, according to the BLS. An electrical or electronics engineering technology program will typically include classes in circuitry, programming languages and logical processors, while a degree in environmental engineering might require classes such as environmental assessment and hazardous-waste management.

What exactly can you do with a degree in engineering technology? You can begin a career as an engineering technician or technologist. These similar sounding roles have different job duties. Generally, engineering technicians and technologists work with technology that has already been invented. Engineering technicians often work in the service industry performing tasks such as installing and repairing existing technological equipment. Engineering technologists, on the other hand, may work alongside full-fledged engineers and help these professionals bring their innovations to fruition. They help implement the ideas that engineers have conceived and developed.

With fewer educational requirements and high-level job duties, engineering technicians and technologists earn lower wages than engineers. However, earnings with a degree in engineering technology are still well above the median wage for all occupations, and some branches of engineering technology are more lucrative than others. Environmental engineering technicians earn just $50,230 annually, but electrical and electronics engineering technicians earn $63,660 and aerospace engineering technicians make $67,240, the BLS reported.

Graduates of engineering technology programs in in-demand disciplines such as electrical or aerospace engineering can sometimes earn six-figure salaries with the right experience or on-the-job training from high-tech employers, according to U.S. News & World Report.