You’re a what?
Heather Walk — Erie, Pennsylvania
What do you do?
I use computer-aided design (CAD) software to plan projects. When my company builds or renovates a manufacturing facility, I handle the layout for it.
I review drawings, do some design work, and research to make sure that all of the required building codes and standards for our facilities are up to date. I also do drafting work of all kinds, including electrical, mechanical, and architectural.
Tell me about a project you’ve worked on.
Last year, I designed a 12,000-square-foot lab. I came up with all the layouts; made sure the building was compliant with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and other codes; and laid out all the walls, windows, doors, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning)—everything needed for that facility. I used CAD software to put in all of the major elements where we wanted them.
Once everyone in our company reached consensus on the design, we sent it to an architect.
How did you prepare for this career?
Most CAD designers have a background in drafting. I began taking drafting classes in high school. I fell in love with it. I originally wanted to be an architect, but I went to school for architectural drafting instead.
I got my associate’s degree in specialized technology. Twenty years ago, drafting was more of an art. We primarily used drafting boards. Now most drafting uses CAD, so you have to be computer savvy.
Describe your career path.
I started out just doing redlines: making corrections to designs that had been marked up. As you gain experience as a drafter, you start to put designs into the computer, usually based on what the architect or CAD designer wants done.
In my previous job, I worked for an architectural firm. The principal architect allowed me to do some small design projects, and I worked my way up to CAD designer from there. It’s pretty common for a drafter to move up to become a CAD designer.
What else helped you get started?
Practical experience is helpful. When I went to school, the school helped to arrange jobs that would help us gain some experience. That was very beneficial.
Also, professional certification isn’t required, but it helps to show prospective employers that you know what you’re doing.
What do you like best about the work?
I like watching what’s put on the computer come to fruition. Being able to see it physically and know I was a part of creating it—that, for me, is the best.
Describe some challenges.
Everything is on computers. You always have a timeline, no matter what, and unfortunately you rely on computer programs to work properly. And sometimes computers mess up.
Also, I’m one of few women in my field. It may be difficult, but you have to get over the stigma of being a woman in a male-oriented profession.
What is your best advice for aspiring CAD designers?
Work hard and make sure you pay attention to details. If you miss something, it could cost thousands of dollars for your firm to fix. It’s all about the details.
Don’t do this job if you don’t like working on computers. This is a desk job; you’re not going to be out in the field as much as you might think.
And beginning drafters should realize that you’re going to have to do some grunt work. You might spend days on end making copies of drawings or filing drawings. But you have to do all of this in order to advance.
Elka Torpey, "CAD designer," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2019.