Born in 1912 in Beaver, Pennsylvania, Michael Baker was one of 12 children in his family. He did odd jobs after school to earn spending money. Following in his father's footsteps, he became an engineer.
After his freshman year at Pennsylvania State University, Baker's family ran short of funds when his father's business failed during the Great Depression, so Baker spent a year traveling across the United States, looking for work so that he could finance his own education. He eventually graduated from Penn State in 1936 at the head of his class.
After working at various engineering jobs, Baker started his own engineering firm, accepting a $25 lot survey as his first job. In 1940, he founded Michael Baker Jr. consulting firm in Rochester, Pennsylvania. The company evolved into Michael Baker International and became one of the world's largest consulting engineering and energy management organizations.