Engineering Design - Career Guidelines

What is engineering all about?

As knowledge workers, engineers are the embodiment of individuals of the 21st century who do not belong to companies as an entry on the expenses side of the budget, but as an investment in human capital on the asset/credit side. They are in fact multipliers.

Engineers are trained to solve problems mostly from a systems or holistic perspective, making detailed work manageable. Add excellent theoretical and working knowledge of information technology to the equation and it is no wonder that one finds engineers holding non-traditional positions at various institutions such as banks, insurance companies and the like.

An engineer is a person who has dedicated long hours to understanding how the physical world really works and how we can model and control it; a person who creates new ideas, products and systems for the benefit of humankind; and above all, a person who has fun doing all of this.

What is engineering design?

Design establishes and defines solutions to and pertinent structures for problems not solved before, or new solutions to problems which have previously been solved in a different way.

Certainly an engineering designer practices design by this definition, but so also can an artist, a sculptor, a composer, a playwright, or many other creative members of our society. Thus, although engineers are not the only people who design things, it is true that the professional practice of engineering is largely concerned with design; it is frequently said that design is the essence of engineering.

The ability to design is both a science and an art. The science can be learned through techniques and procedures taught in engineering courses, but the art can be learned only by doing design.

What are the required attributes/qualifications/ characteristics of a design engineer?

Creativity is a key element. Every design will embody a departure from what has been done before. However, all designs must be produced within the constraints of the reality of the physical properties of materials and economic factors. Therefore, design engineers must be thoroughly knowledgeable in fundamental engineering in a rather wide range of subjects. In addition, they must be familiar with basic principles of economics, both from the standpoint of employing people and using machines. As they progress upward into supervisory and management duties, the application of principles of psychology and economics becomes of even greater importance. For this reason they usually will have more use for management courses than will research or development engineers.

What do design engineers do?

In the process of producing everyday articles, the design engineer enters the scene just before the actual manufacturing process begins. After the development engineer has assembled and tested a device or a process, a design engineer will handle the final details of making it adaptable for production.

In bridging the gap between the laboratory and the production line, the design engineer must be a versatile individual. This requires a mastery of basic engineering principles and mathematics, and an understanding of the capabilities of machines. It is also important to understand the temperament of the people who operate them. The design engineer must also be conscious of the relative costs of producing items, for it will be the design that will determine how long the product will survive in the open market. Not only must the device or process work, it must also be made in a style and at a price that will satisfy (and attract) customers.

The design engineers work may range from mass-produced articles, to working on items such as bridges or buildings in which only one of a kind is to be made. However, in such work they are still fulfilling the design process of adapting basic ideas to provide for making a completed product for the use of others. In this type of design, engineers must be able to make use of their training, in some cases almost intuitively, to arrive at a design solution, which will provide for adequate safety without excessive redundancy. Particularly in the aircraft industry, design engineers have attempted to use structural materials with minimum excess being allowable as a safety factor.

Since design work involves a production phase, the design engineer is always considering costs as a factor in our competitive and global economy. Also, the design engineer soon comes to realise that there is usually more than one acceptable way to solve a design problem. Unlike an arithmetic problem with fixed numbers which give one an answer, real design problems can have many answers and many ways of obtaining a solution, and all may be acceptable. In such a case the engineers decision becomes a matter of experience and judgement.

The engineering profession

The Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) is the professional body for engineers, technologists, certified engineers and technicians. This body was formed by an act of parliament to ensure that persons wishing to become registered, are educated and trained according to widely accepted standards. The reason for this is to protect public safety, health and interests with regard to engineering matters.

Persons with the necessary qualifications can register with the Engineering Council of South Africa in different categories as shown below:

Registration categories and requirements

Registration category
Abbreviation of title
Academic qualification
Minimum experience
Professional Engineer PrEng BSc (Eng) 4 years 3 years
Professional Technologist (Engineering) PrTech (Eng) MDip Tech, 5 years
BTech (Eng), 4 years
3 years
Registered Certified Engineer RegCert Eng Certificate of
3 years
Registered Engineering
RegEngTech NDip, 3 years -
NDip, 4 years

Entrance Requirements and Qualifications

Entrance requirements - Matriculation exemption with C grades on higher grade in Mathematics, Physical Science and English
Qualifications - BSc (Eng) 4years, MSc (Eng), DSc (Eng)

Entrance requirements -
National Diploma: Senior Certificate with E grades on higher grade in Mathematics, Physical Science and English or C grades on standard grade in Mathematics, Physical Science and English.
BTech (Eng): National Diploma
Qualifications - National Diploma (ND), BTech (Eng) 4 years, MTech, DTech

Entrance requirements - Grade 9 or higher
Qualifications - N1-N3 Certificate - National Intermediate Certificate, National Senior Certificate
N4-N6 Certificate - National Diploma

A number of independent institutions offer a variety of engineering courses in classrooms or via distance teaching. Information can be obtained from the
Association of Private Colleges,
Private Bag 34,
Auckland Park, 2006.
Tel (011) 726 5300/5307

What career opportunities are on offer?

The modern-day engineer normally works as part of a technology team comprising skilled and unskilled workers, technicians, technologists and occasionally scientists.


An engineer has a university degree (usually comprising 80% theory and 20% practical work) and concentrates on developing conceptual ideas and specifications with the aid of mathematics and science. After three years of practical experience, an engineer may register with the Engineering Council of South Africa as a professional engineer.


A technologist obtains a degree or diploma (normally comprising 60% theory and 40% practical work) from an university of technology and develops ways to realise the engineers ideas in the fastest and most
cost-effective way.


A technician has a one-, two- or three-year certificate usually obtained from a technical college and, with skilled and unskilled workers, assists in converting the engineering designs into practical solutions.

The skilled worker

A skilled worker can be an artisan or person who has been internally trained or trained at a technical college for a specific task.

Unskilled worker

Unskilled workers are labourers who are employed to do manual labour.

Who will employ me?

There are employment opportunities for both male and female engineers, technologists and technicians in government departments such as Water Affairs and Agriculture, in companies including Eskom, Sasol, Telkom and Transnet, in science councils such as the CSIR, the SABS and the Agricultural Research Council, and in industry and engineering consultancies.

Those with initiative and drive may use their entrepreneurial skills to start their own engineering businesses and factories, designing and manufacturing products or providing engineering services.

Are bursaries available?

Yes, from the government, universities, technikons, industries and organisations. Contact your chosen institution from the list provided for more information.

Some employers provide financial assistance for their employees children for further study. School leavers may also apply for a study loan from a bank or other institution.

What are the types of work that engineers do?

During their studies, engineering students will study courses in many subject areas, including basic sciences, engineering design sciences, mathematics and social sciences. In the study of technical courses the student becomes familiar with a store of factual information that will form the basis for making engineering decisions.

The nature of these courses, in general, will influence the students choice of a major field of interest, such as mechanical, civil or electrical engineering.

Since it is impossible to predict what kind of work a practicing engineer will be doing after graduation, the objective of an engineering education is to provide a broad base of facts and skills upon which the engineer can rely.

It is usually not sufficient to say that an engineer is working as a civil engineer. The work experience may vary over a wide spectrum. As a civil engineer, for example, one may be performing research on materials for surfacing highways, or be employed in government service and be responsible for the budget preparation of a low-cost housing project. In fact, there are many things that a practicing engineer will be called upon to do that are not described by his or her major course of study. The type of work that the engineer may do, as differentiated from a major field of specialisation, can be called "engineering function". Some of these functions are research, development, design, production, construction, operations, sales and management. This website focuses on probably the most critical function, namely that of design.