The term “contractor” is a very broad one — it covers anyone who does any contracted work for a company. It can be further broken down into more specific categories — general, electrical, finishing, HVAC, mechanical. Today, we’re going to focus on just one of these categories: mechanical contractors. What are mechanical contractors, what do they do and what sort of job opportunities are available for people who are interested in pursuing this career path?
What are mechanical contractors?
As his or her core, a mechanical contractor is an engineer. However, rather than being the person who comes up with a new idea or system, a mechanical contractor takes existing systems and redesigns them so they work better. Even if they didn’t design the system, the contractor has the knowledge and experience to make changes and improvements.
You can find mechanical contractors in nearly every industry, though their job descriptions might change from sector to sector. A degree in mechanical contracting is not unlike a golden ticket, opening up many doors in nearly every industry. Whether you want to work in pharmaceuticals, automotive, food processing, or even for NASA or Space X, there is an opportunity available.
It’s important to note the difference between mechanical contractors and engineers. Contractors design, manufacture and handle the operation of certain components or devices that are generated by mechanical engineers. For example, if a mechanical engineer manufactures a product that develops a problem, a company won’t circle back to the mechanical engineer to fix that problem. A mechanical contractor will step in to identify and fix any system issues.
How to become a mechanical contractor
At the minimum, contractors will need a bachelor’s degree in either mechanical engineering or mechanical engineering technology. Some schools offer five-year programs that enable these individuals to obtain a master’s degree in their chosen field in less time than a traditional master’s program. If you’re lucky, you can find a program that combines classwork with practical lessons and hands-on learning.
Mechanical contractors have to take practical and written exams and get the right license to operate in their country of choice. Some companies offer the job training or apprenticeship necessary to get hands-on experience in addition to a degree. Since contractors frequently manage an entire staff and deal with customers, they need the experience of working on a job site before managing their own crew.
In the U.S., most states require mechanical contractors to obtain a specific license before completing any HVAC/R services. The contractor license also allows someone to hire other licensed technicians, bid on projects and apply for the permits needed to complete the project. Several states require mechanical contractors to get a generic contractor license to do work throughout the state.
Most states issue these licenses to individuals, however, others will give the licenses to business entities. In states that give licenses to individual mechanical contractors, businesses are in charge of making sure the employee gets the right licenses to complete any work in the state.
Oftentimes, if a mechanical contractor doesn’t have the answer to a problem other professionals will give advice. A chemical engineer may help in the case of a chemical reaction and pass along a possible solution to the mechanical contractor. However, it is still the mechanical contractor who will be required to apply the solution at the job site.
What skills are necessary to be a mechanical contractor?
Advanced mathematics and mechanical skills are necessary for success in this field. Mechanical contractors often work with advanced maths like calculus and statistics throughout their job. Problem-solving skills and the ability to make discoveries and turn them into something functional are also required.
On the less tangible side of the coin, a mechanical contractor also needs superior listening and creativity skills. Communication skills are also vital, as many of the duties of a mechanical contractor require collaboration with others. As a contractor, you may need to work with everyone from manual laborers to engineers and designers to get the job done, so the ability to communicate clearly and concisely is an invaluable skill.
Once they’ve completed their schooling, there is still the earlier problem of licensing to consider. The exact licensing requirements will vary from state to state, but in addition to a degree, a contractor will need to pass both the Fundamentals of Engineering and Professional Engineering exams.
Finally, many positions require on-the-job experience, which can be obtained through school contacts or apprenticeships. Other opportunities might not require previous experience, making them valuable for new graduates who need to get a few years on the job under their belts.
Mechanical contractor job opportunities
As we’ve mentioned, you can find mechanical contractors in nearly every industry, but what kind of job opportunities can a newly graduated mechanical contractor expect to see in their field? The possible career paths are as varied as the individuals in the industry.
Someone with a mechanical contracting degree can choose to specialize in aircraft mechanics, sheet metal mechanics or structural mechanics. They can choose to become a field service technician, moving from job site to job site as the need demands, or ply their trade as a general contractor, expanding their horizons considerably.
3D printing is a new technology that is gaining popularity in some industries. Mechanical contractors can decide to specialize 3D printer technology in a variety of fields, getting in on the ground floor of this new specialty before it takes off.
HVAC technicians, those tenacious men, and women who repair your home’s air conditioning and heating systems, are also considered mechanical contractors. HVAC technology is continually changing as energy-efficiency standards become stricter, making it the perfect choice for a mechanical contractor. While you don’t need a degree to become an HVAC technician, it can make it easier to excel in the field.
Primarily, anything with mechanical parts can benefit from having a mechanical contractor on staff. These individuals are involved during every step of the process, from the production of a piece of equipment to its installation and any ongoing maintenance it might need.
In general, an individual with a degree in mechanical contracting will take on a supervisory role, overseeing mechanical workers on their projects to make sure everything runs smoothly. Project supervisors may also choose to bring mechanical contractors on as subcontractors, allowing them to work for themselves while still succeeding in their field.
Mechanical contractors keep the world running smoothly — literally, in some cases. It’s mechanical contractors that build the machines that assemble everything from cellphones to electric cars, and then keeps them running once they’re installed on the factory floor. It’s mechanical contractors who go over each Space X Falcon booster rocket after it returns to Earth to ensure it’s ready for its next flight. They’re the ones who make sure your home or business stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer and the ones who repair anything that breaks.
Engineering students who aren’t sure what specialty they want to choose when they graduate and established contractors who aren’t sure where to turn next might benefit from exploring mechanical contracting as a career path. For a mechanical contractor, the possibilities are endless and the future is bright.
Megan Nichols is a technical writer and blogger. She writes easy to understand science and technology articles on her personal blog, Schooled By Science, to encourage others to learn about STEM fields. Keep up with Megan by subscribing to her blog or following her on Twitter.