Advice on CAD drafting as a career?

I’m seeking to earn a certificate for CAD/CAE design and want to know if this would be a good career track for me.

– What kinds of jobs are there?
– How easy would it be to land a CAD job?
– What would the requirements be for an entry-level position?
– Can you use a CAD certificate (1 yr duration) for an entry level job?
– What is the pay like?
– What does the work setting look like?
– Would an industrial design degree apply to CAD/CAE jobs?

I have used a variety of mechanical/architectural CAD packages over the years (AutoCAD, IDEAS, Pro/ENGINEER, Unigraphics/NX, SolidWorks, IronCAD, various layout tools and analysis pre-processing tools) as part of being a design engineer and structural analyst. I’ve been to a number of training classes but I don’t know what a “certificate for CAD/CAE design” is. If it isn’t at least a 2 year associates degree then it is essentially worthless as a credential in my experience.

I don’t have specific answers to any of your questions except to note that while there are certainly jobs out their for people skilled at doing CAD design work there are fewer of them as manufacturing continues to be largely offshored. There are individual fab shops that are always desperate for someone who can do mechanical design work or things like cable routing and harness design, piping, et cetera, but realize that to do this kind of work you need to know more than just the CAD tool; you need to both know something about the details of doing design work in that particular area (in cabling, for instance, you need to know harness standards, bend radii minimums, et cetera; for mechanical design you need to know something about design of weldments and machining operations; et cetera) as well as how to make drawings per ANSI/ASME/IEEE standards pertinent to your field. I can take a person with basic computer literacy and good visualization skills and teach them the fundamentals of parametric solid modeling in a couple of weeks sufficient that they can make complex shapes, but learning to make things that are actually manufacturable and to produce drawings that can actually be used by a fab shop or a harness maker requires two or three years of direct experience.

As for industrial design, I’ve worked with a few industrial designers and quite frankly they knew little about CAD and cared even less about the details of manufacturing. The “design” they did was in the visual styling of products which, while certainly a valuable contribution, was often at cross purposes with functionality and manufacturability to an often frustrating degree. This was a couple of decades ago and I’m sure that industrial designers now use more computer tools but they are more artists’ tools like Rhino3D rather than SolidWorks or another CAD/CAE/CAM tool.

I would recommend pursuing at least an associates degree at some accredited school (affordable community college, not a for-profit ‘trade’ school that will saddle you with enormous student debt) and seek internship/co-op opportunities to build a resume and get some practical experience. I’ve worked with a number of talented mechanical and electrical ‘designers’ who lacked a four year engineering degree but nonetheless built strong reputations as capable of doing solid practical work and even a good grasp in specific areas of engineering theory, but be aware that the minimum in many companies is now a bachelor’s degree to even just do basic mechanical or electrical design.

I hope that helps. Good luck to you.


Man, that’s a tough one. I worked for ~10 years in a small design shop that did a lot of protoyping. Used a lot of AutoCAD, however, we wouldn’t have had much use for someone just as a draftsman. Generally the engineer would make drawings and on occasion a machinist would make alterations. I think the only time we used a pure modeler was subcontracting some work. Basically sent out a point cloud from a lidar scanner and had a company turn it into a CAD model that could be modified for our uses. It was in the defense industry so that work wasn’t offshored.

Have you browsed draftsman job postings? Additional skills like machining or laser scanning might be useful to stand out.

It’s one skill. You will need to develop more, and some more industry specific knowledge and experience. That usually comes from your first job which you may be choosing simply because it was offered. But that is just the beginning of your journey, you will have a lot to learn about the products you are drawing, you’ll be learning different versions of CAD/CAE software that will evolve over time, and applying them in different way. You’ll be gaining engineering knowledge, developing skills in technical communication, learn to work as a member of team on (hopefully) carefully delimited projects.

It is certainly the start to a potential quality career. Would you be willing to share your age and general location? With a little more information about your education and experience there should be people here who can offer useful advice as previous posts have done.

This is a salient point as well. Over the 25+ years of my professional career, the ‘trends’ and technology in CAD/CAE software have swung radically, from 2D line drawings to 3D primitives to really expensive parametric 3D packages (Pro/E, UG/NX) to less expensive parametric 3D packages (SolidWorks, IronCAD). My informed opinion is that if you have a good mechanical sense and an interest ‘doing’ CAD you can learn any knew package and CAD method that you set your mind to, and you need to do that because whatever is currently the in-demand package will likely change. Back when I started doing machine design in the construction industry Pro/E was the training to have because it was what Case and John Deere used, and having that training plus a couple of years of experience made me very much in demand. These days relatively few shops use Pro/E anymore unless it is a legacy system and you need to be able to show that you can use NX or SolidWorks; fortunately, they’re all roughly the same in use (Pro/E and UG/NX actually started aping the GUI of SolidWorks when they started eating the lunch of the more expensive players) but there are finicky details where each package has strengths and weaknesses. But you shouldn’t hinge your career on just knowing any particular package, or even just being good with CAD; you have to actually be able to model things that work and can be manufactured in the real world, and there are a lot of people to suck badly at that.

There are, of course, a lot of changes in fundamental technologies, too, and that vary between industries. When I was doing machine design everything was weldments from plate and structural sections, press-brake formed parts, and some minimum of machining. When I moved into housings it became formed sheet metal, castings, and die-formed plastic parts. In aerospace there are a lot of forgings, intricately machined parts, and composite layups and winds. As a result, I can claim some measure of knowledge about nearly any manufacturing process from a design standpoint although I’m kind of a master of none. You hear a lot about additive manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing) which is great for certain types of components but not really suited to high volumes and optimal tensile strength; nobody is ever going to make threaded fasteners using a 3D printer. Similarly in electronics being able to lay out wiring harnesses used to be key in any industry that uses complex electromechanical systems (automotive, aerospace, construction, pretty much any commercial appliance) but these days anything that is new design and high volume will likely use machine-made flat ribbon cable assemblies instead of traditional handmade wire harnesses. (This has actually been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine because unbeknownst to many including myself, Ukraine is a major producer of wire harnesses; however, this has been a long time coming because traditional wire harnesses are heavy, often use a lot of excess material, and are frequently the cause of defects and difficult-to-diagnose failures. Several automakers moving to electric vehicles are using purpose-design flat ribbon cable assemblies to save on both cost and reduce defects although, curiously, not Tesla that I was shocked to find has a truly massive amount of wiring harnesses that are all hand-built.)

So don’t rely on knowing one packing or being able to use it in one particular way; you want to establish enough of a base in different applications that you can sit down at a workstation and with a little familiarization at least be able to produce models and drawings for a product as directed, and learn on the fly the particulars of that industry. Also—and I cannot emphasize this enough—learn how to make manufacturing/production/layout drawings. I’ve been hearing since the start of my career how CAD/CAE is going to allow us to get rid of drawings and somehow just work from the computer model, almost invariably by people who cannot figure out which way the mouse is supposed to be oriented. Even if you can build a part without a drawing, it is needed for inspection and verification, and if someone shipped me a product with no drawing to identify critical dimensions, surface finish and processing, and notes, I’d send it back automatically as terminally defective. Making drawings is hard work and it sucks because you always make errors the first time around but outside of an Iron Man film we do not have any way to manufacture complicated products from conceptual CAD models and imagination so learning to read, produce, and check drawings is a fungible skill that you can carry throughout your career.


They’ve been talking about improving this for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet. I suspect they are shooting for a bigger step change. Rigid harnesses, systems with just power and a data bus, even wireless systems. But there’s a chicken and egg problem where the necessary components just aren’t available. Same deal with 48 volt architectures–nice idea, but tough to get everyone onboard at once. They might have more success with an intermediate approach like ribbon cabling.

As for the OP, though I have no contact with the hiring policies of CAD houses or anything like that, I will point out that free CAD software is more available than ever, and if you’re at all interested in the industry, you’d be well-served in trying it out.

Fusion 360 is a favorite of mine and available to hobbyists for free. You wouldn’t design a jumbo jet with it, but it is close to on par with SolidWorks in that it is a fully parametric modeling system (I used to use SolidWorks, but lost access). You could build up a very decent portfolio just by modeling in Fusion 360. With a 3D printer, you can also gain experience in designing things that print well. Fusion 360 supports CAM as well, so if you have access to a CNC machine (say, through a makerspace), you can gain experience with that end of things as well.

Although the software packages do vary, the basic lessons are the same. Parametric modeling specifically made a profound change in how I thought about modeling and design. It makes the process much more like programming, which I was already familiar with.

You would think a company that is designing and building a new vehicle from the ground up would have a lot of freedom to implement new technologies but that just doesn’t seem to be the case with any of the Tesla production vehicles; aside from the battery pack and the user interface, they are extremely conventional and in some ways even regressive designs from a mechanical and electrical standpoint. I could see a company like Ford or Volkswagon refusing to implement a new type of technology because their engineering staff and manufacturing facilities are entrenched in the status quo but in fact these companies are leading the fray in at least experimenting with newer technologies and manufacturing methods.

Pretty much all of the freeware CAD that I’ve seen is either marginally usable crap or is suitable for hobbyists but not capable of doing production-grade work. And I’ve tried them all because I would like to have an option that isn’t bound up to a particular license. Fusion 360 is okay for causal use but so hobbled that it isn’t really useful even for learning CAD at a professional level. I had some early hopes for Sketch-Up even though it clearly was never intended as a mechanical design package but gave up on it several years ago. I’ve used FreeDAD pretty extensively for some private projects but it has a steep learning curve and often fails in unexpected ways that are really frustrating.

Basically, if you want to learn production CAD, figure out some way to get access to an academic license for SolidWorks. Or buy IronCAD which is cheap and incredibly capable but will actually spoil you when it comes to using other parametric CAD systems that won’t let you get away with the kind of flexible feature editing that it allows.


Their “megacastings” are by no means conventional. They are right now the only manufacturer doing die castings at that scale, and have pretty much bought out the supply of machines for the near future.

Still, you’re right–much of what they’re doing is quite conventional.

You may want to give it another shot if it’s been a few years since you tried it. In fact I’m not aware of any limits with the free version for CAD. I’m not going to say I’m an expert with it or SolidWorks, but with the latest versions I don’t see any glaring weaknesses compared to SW as of several years ago (maybe SW has improved a lot since then; I dunno).

The CAM side is definitely more hobbled with the free version. No 4th axis, no automatic tool changes, etc. They limit the commercial utility, but that doesn’t affect the design side. And there are workarounds for some of the CAM limits.

Oh, and they do limit some of the simulation and generative design features. Those are cool and all, but also not that relevant for something just trying to learn the tool itself, as opposed to actually producing a commercially viable product. Someone just trying to build up a portfolio probably doesn’t need those things.

Regardless, I think the OP would be well-served to pick a program they have access to and try some things. They might find they hate CAD. Or they may find it so interesting that they quickly pick up all of the basic concepts. It’s worth a try at any rate.

“Freeware”, per se, maybe. But a lot of the big names have free educational licenses, with all of the same capabilities as the professional versions, and which are very easy to qualify for (you may not even need to be affiliated with a school). The only limitation is that if you try to use the educational license for anything you’re making money on, you’ll get in a lot of trouble.

In the architecture field, draftsperson isn’t really a thing anymore as far as I can see. While your college interns or fresh graduates are basically just CAD monkeys, they’re still on track to becoming “real” architects, licensed or otherwise. Even at large companies where you can have such specializations as “the specs guy” or “the standards guy” or “the door jamb details guy” they still tend to only hire someone who’s gone through architecture or interior design school. The perception, true or not, is that a draftsperson isn’t flexible or well-rounded enough. Drafting/drawing is part of the design and problem-solving process, so it’s not that easy to just hand over to someone who can’t work it through.

It has enormous applications in map-making, highway design, and in translating Aerial Photography into those things.

Government jobs in those fields are readily available.
But don’t apply in Tennessee. Trust me on that.

Welcome to the Straight Dope message board. I hope you find good advice and camaraderie here.

I’ve moved your post from FQ to IMHO, as it seems more like a question of opinion than fact, and you may get more (and more on-point) answers here.

When I retired from my engineering career, I took a series of temp gigs as a CAD drafter. Depending on the employer, I had to learn/relearn AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and CREO. But the software was the easy part. Each employer had their own idea of how things should be drafted, occasionally at odds with standards, because “that’s how we do it here.” So that was the worst part for me - figuring out what they wanted. I expect if I hadn’t worked for 4 different companies, that wouldn’t have been an issue.

In my area, where the drafters pretty much work for contractors supporting the Navy, a Level III drafter is paid around $25/hr. I couldn’t find a current listing for a Level I, but I’d estimate pay would start around $30K/year.

That is cartrography. There are specific packages used for general cartography as well as some of really specialized packages for tasks like geological and hydrological mapping but you wouldn’t use a general purpose CAD/CAE package like AutoCAD or SolidWorks for that.


Former 3D CAD gun for hire checking in. I worked for numerous engineering contract firms from the 80’s up until the early 2000’s. I have a BSME and worked with numerous R&D departments that needed someone who could do 3D CAD design so my experience is different from what you are asking. I made killer money thanks to overtime pay on hot projects.

I have worked with many people that had no education at all except knowing how to turn on the computer and log into the CAD system and get to a drawing. There is plenty of low end CAD work that can be done by people with little or no experience, just show up and be willing to learn gets a lot of people by. Some people take to it like a video game, learning tricks and techniques from people around them.

Trouble is, without an education you would not be hired directly by a firm to do the same type of work, ever. But all is not lost, I’ve known people who have worked for design houses for over 20 years and built themselves up a good reputation in the industry they are in.

I have a friend right now who has no degree and is working downstairs from me in the industrial design department of a major auto manufacturer doing 3D rendering of future vehicle in AutoDesk Maya. He works for a contract house and makes maybe $75K/year plus gets decent insurance and vacation. He loves his job but knows he isn’t advancing any further, which is OK by him.

I say go for it.

To expand on this, in just about all technology fields you will be learning new technology throughout your career to have any opportunity for advancement. For some people this becomes a treadmill where you run as fast as you can in order to stay in one place, and that’s just to keep your job. I don’t want to make it sound that bad, but if you aren’t the type to want to stay on top of the developments in your field, and I’d say in some bizarre* sense to actually enjoy doing that, then technology is not the world for you.

*bizarre to normal people. if you don’t find that bizarre then technology is definitely your thing.

You can look at civil service jobs. I’m retired from the State of Confusion, I mean, State of California, Department of Transportation. I started out in the covered wagon days as a Junior Engineering Technician and learned pen-and-ink drafting on the job. As computers moved into the workplace, we got training at work from the software companies, but the true proficiency came from USING the software daily.

I always said the best way to learn is to totally screw something up. While you are removing the “bad stuff” you become intimately acquainted with what NOT to do. Then fixing everything burns the right way into your brain.

Go to your State unemployment website, and do a search for entry level jobs in engineering. Look at what the required education/experience is for each position. And send in an application in for every job you qualify for. The job interviews are excellent experience, whether you take that particular job or not.

Do the search in County and City governments as well.

Many people look down on civil service. Others see it as a stepping stone to private engineering work. Experience sweetens education, and makes you much more employable.

Good luck!


I started with pen and ink as well. But it was mapping. Which became GIS. Lot’s of database analysis and maintenance for me now a days. There are different directions to follow with any drafting/CAD/GIS career.


Oh, I was mapping! I can Leroy blindfolded, and I have a carosel of Rapidograph pens! I retired after twenty years with the State of California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) at the end of 2005.


I’m 24 and currently living in Ohio. I graduated with an industrial design degree. It’s difficult to get into industrial design so now I’ve been trying other options like CAD.