Agricultural engineers—also known as biological and agricultural engineers—work on a variety of activities. These activities range from aquaculture (raising food, such as fish, that thrive in water) to land farming to forestry; from developing biofuels to improving conservation; from planning animal environments to finding better ways to process food.

Duties

Agricultural engineers typically do the following:

  • Design agricultural machinery components and equipment, using computer-aided design (CAD) technology
  • Test agricultural machinery and equipment to ensure that they perform properly
  • Design food-processing plants and supervise manufacturing operations
  • Plan and direct construction of rural electric-power distribution systems
  • Design structures to store and process crops
  • Design housing and environments to maximize animals’ comfort, health, and productivity
  • Provide advice on water quality and issues related to managing pollution, controlling rivers, and protecting and using other water resources
  • Design and supervise environmental and land reclamation projects in agriculture and related industries
  • Discuss plans with clients, contractors, consultants, and other engineers so that the plans can be evaluated and any necessary changes made

Agricultural engineers apply technological advances to farming. For example, they design farming equipment that uses GPS systems (Global Positioning Systems). They help agricultural and food scientists create biological applications for developing crops with new, sturdier traits. They also help with pollution control at larger farms and with water resource matters. These engineers are also heavily involved in efforts to produce new forms of biomass, including algae, for power generation.

Some engineers specialize in areas such as power systems and machinery design, structural and environmental engineering, and food and bioprocess engineering. Agricultural engineers often work in research and development, production, or sales.

Work Environment

Agricultural engineers held about 2,600 jobs in 2012. 

The industries that employed the most agricultural engineers in 2012 were as follows: 

Architectural, engineering, and related services 17%
Federal government, excluding postal service 16
Food manufacturing 14
Agriculture, construction, and mining machinery manufacturing 13
Educational services; state, local, and private 6

Agricultural engineers spend time at a variety of worksites, both indoors and outdoors, traveling to agricultural settings to see that equipment and machinery are functioning according to both the manufacturers’ instructions and federal and state regulations. They may work onsite when they supervise environmental reclamation or water resource management projects. Other worksites where they are employed include research and development laboratories, classrooms, and offices.

Agricultural engineers work with others in designing solutions to problems or applying technological advances. Thus, they must be able to work with, and accept feedback from, people from a variety of backgrounds such as agronomy, animal sciences, genetics, and horticulture.

Work Schedules

Agricultural engineers typically work full time. They must sometimes work overtime because of the nature of agricultural projects.

In addition, agricultural engineers often must be available to address problems that may come up in manufacturing operations or rural construction projects.

Weather also has a role in their work schedules. Some outdoor projects for environmental reclamation or pollution management need favorable weather; and, therefore, agricultural engineers may work long hours to take advantage of good weather.

Education and Training

Agricultural engineers must have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in agricultural engineering or biological engineering. Employers also value practical experience, so cooperative-education engineering programs at universities are valuable as well.

Education

Students who are interested in studying agricultural engineering will benefit from taking high school courses in mathematics, such as algebra, trigonometry, and calculus; and science, such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

Entry-level jobs in agricultural engineering require a bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s degree programs typically are 4-year programs that include classroom, laboratory, and field studies in areas such as science, mathematics, and engineering principles. Most colleges and universities offer cooperative programs that allow students to gain practical experience while completing their education.

ABET accredits programs in agricultural engineering.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Because agricultural engineers sometimes design systems that are part of a larger agricultural or environmental system, they must be able to propose solutions that interact well with other workers, machinery and equipment, and the environment.

Listening skills. Agricultural engineers must listen to and seek out information from clients, workers, and other professionals working on a project. Furthermore, they must be able to address the concerns of those who will be using the systems and solutions they design.

Math skills. Agricultural engineers use the principals of calculus, trigonometry, and other advanced topics in math for analysis, design, and troubleshooting in their work.

Problem-solving skills. Agricultural engineers work on problems affecting many different aspects of agricultural production, from designing safer equipment for food processing to water erosion. To solve these problems, agricultural engineers must be able to apply general principles of engineering to new circumstances.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Agricultural engineers who offer their services directly to the public must have a license. Licensed engineers are called professional engineers (PEs). Licensure generally requires

  • A degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program
  • A passing score on the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam
  • Relevant work experience, typically at least 4 years
  • A passing score on the Professional Engineering (PE) exam

The initial Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam can be taken after earning a bachelor’s degree. Engineers who pass this exam commonly are called engineers in training (EITs) or engineer interns (EIs). After getting suitable work experience, EITs and EIs can take the second exam, called the Principles and Practice of Engineering.

Several states require continuing education for engineers to keep their license. Most states recognize licensure from other states, as long as the licensing state’s requirements meet or exceed their own licensure requirements.

Advancement

Beginning engineers usually work under the supervision of experienced engineers. As they gain knowledge and experience, beginning engineers move to more difficult projects with greater independence to develop designs, solve problems, and make decisions.

Eventually, agricultural engineers may advance to supervise a team of engineers and technicians. Some advance to become engineering managers. Agricultural engineers who go into sales use their engineering background to discuss a product's technical aspects with potential buyers and help in product planning, installation, and use. For more information, see the profiles on architectural and engineering managers and sales engineers.

Pay

The median annual wage for agricultural engineers was $74,000 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $44,750, and the top 10 percent earned more than $115,680.

In May 2012, median annual wages for agricultural engineers in the top five industries in which these engineers worked were as follows:

Architectural, engineering, and related services $82,090
Federal government, excluding postal service 77,030
Food manufacturing 73,380
Agriculture, construction, and mining
machinery manufacturing
67,690
Educational services; state, local, and private 50,100

Agricultural engineers typically work full time. They must sometimes work overtime because of the nature of agricultural projects.

In addition, agricultural engineers often must be available to address problems that may come up in manufacturing operations or rural construction projects.

Weather also plays a role in their work schedules. Some outdoor projects for environmental reclamation or pollution management need favorable weather; and, as a result, agricultural engineers may work long hours to take advantage of good weather.

Job Outlook

Employment of agricultural engineers is projected to grow 5 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

Agricultural engineers are pursuing new areas related to agriculture, such as high-tech applications to agricultural products, water resource management, and alternative energies. However, activity related to designing new machinery and equipment in agriculture also is expected to continue to create some employment opportunities.

These engineers are also involved with designing and building machinery and equipment needed to implement findings from research on genetically modified plants and seeds. Consequently, demand is also expected to come from U.S. firms that market their farm technology products to farmers internationally.

For More Information

For more information about agricultural engineers, visit

American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers

For information about general engineering education and career resources, visit

American Society for Engineering Education

Technology Student Association

For more information about licensure for agricultural engineers, visit

National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying

National Society of Professional Engineers

For information about accredited engineering programs, visit

ABET

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.