Why Engineers Earn More

Year after year, engineers are ranked among the highest-paid professionals in the U.S., both in terms of starting salary and mid-career income. In honor of National Engineers Week (Feb. 17-23), we look at the reasons why engineers command top-tier compensation, and what recent graduates, as well as experienced engineers, can expect to earn.


Good news for those about to graduate with engineering degrees: Your education is going to pay off more than most other majors, despite the fact that the cost of college tuition continues to rise faster than many families can keep up with. Multiple sources report that careers in engineering pay well above the national average, and become increasingly lucrative as experience builds over time.

The median yearly pay for recent college graduates with full-time jobs was $53,976 in 2010, according to Fortune. While this is 20 percent higher than the national average of $45,230, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many of these young men and women are coming out of school with six-figure debts hanging over them.

But those in engineering roles can expect to have an average salary of $77,120, more than 71 percent higher than the national average. Of the 15 majors that command the highest compensation for recent grads, 10 are engineering degrees, including mechanical engineering technology ($63,000) and electrical and electronics engineering technology ($65,000).

Why do engineers earn more than most other professions? The answer is that they’re in extremely high demand. Although national unemployment is close to 8 percent, many employers are reporting that they can’t hire engineers fast enough to fill open positions.

A ManpowerGroup study revealed that engineer is the second-most difficult position to fill nationwide. An estimated 49 percent of U.S. engineering firms struggle to find applicants for the available jobs. The reason, according to 36 percent of respondents, is a shortage of qualified applicants in the geographic region.

Even when hiring was at its worst in 2009, engineering occupations fared better than most. U.S. News and World Report found that unemployment among engineers peaked at 6.4 percent in 2009, and dropped to around 2 percent in mid-2011. For some engineering professions, prospects are even brighter. The Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) calculated the unemployment rate for aerospace engineers was 1 percent in the third quarter of 2012. For petroleum engineers during the same period, the jobless rate was 0.4 percent.

The hiring push is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, further driving up engineering salaries. Electronic Design’s Engineering Salary Survey 2012 found that 30 percent of engineering companies are planning to increase their payrolls.

The long-term earning potential for engineers is among the strongest in the U.S. job market, with engineering roles filling 12 of the top 20 highest-earning slots in the 2013 PayScale Salary Survey. Topping the list was petroleum engineering, which had a mid-career salary potential of $163,000. A petroleum engineering degree also commands the highest entry-level salary at $98,000.

Ranked by starting salary, the top-paying engineering fields are:

  • Petroleum Engineering – $98,000
  • Chemical Engineering – $67,500
  • Nuclear Engineering – $66,800
  • Electrical Engineering – $63,400
  • Computer Engineering – $62,700
  • Aerospace Engineering – $62,500
  • Materials Sciences & Engineering – $60,100
  • Mechanical Engineering – $60,100
  • Industrial Engineering – $59,900
  • Software Engineering – $59,100
  • Electrical Engineering Technology – $58,400
  • Computer Science – $58,400
  • Biomedical Engineering – $54,900
  • Civil Engineering – $53,800
  • Mechanical Engineering Technology  – $52,900
  • Civil Engineering Technology – $49,500
  • Environmental Engineering – $47,900

According to a joint survey from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), in 2010 the average annual engineering income was $100,603. By 2012, that figure had risen to $108,558, a 7.9 percent increase over two years.

Not only is an engineering degree a worthwhile investment, but individuals with higher degrees carry greater earning power. For example, Manpower notes that the median salary for bachelor’s degree-holders is $85,900, with a range of $55,000 to $148,000. Those with a master’s degree have a median salary of $95,575 with a range of $60,500 to $161,000. Combining an MBA with a master’s lifts the median salary to $125,000.

Unfortunately, there’s also a troubling gender divide in the profession. Female engineers’ salaries average $17,000 less than men in the same roles, according to Electronic Design. Not only that, but women are very much a minority among engineers. A report by UBM Electronics states that only 8 percent of engineers are women.

Once they’re out of school and working, one of the biggest challenges engineers face is keeping up with current technology. Yet there has been a sharp decrease over the years in company compensation for continuing education, including college courses, seminars, and conferences.

UBM finds that 88 percent of engineers feel they are personally responsible for updating their knowledge and skills. As a result, many are turning to free resources, such as white papers, webinars, online magazines, and blogs, to enhance their knowledge base. Among experienced engineers, 83 percent rely on vendors for technical assistance and new technology information. Other top resources include industry e-newsletters, online tutorials, and internet communities and forums.

 

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Comments:
  • Cliff Chandler
    February 19, 2013

    I think the majority of engineers are overpaid especially for their lack of intelligence. The only ones that might have a clue are petroleum engineers and that is probably why they do get paid the best.

    It has been my experience when dealing with engineers when it comes to sustainable practices they lack education and intelligence. Try to explain to them why metal needs cathodic protection when it is in contact or buried in soil. Let alone testing their knowledge of how it works or to design a system. Most pipeline corrosion systems are designed and maintained by employees without an engineering degree and often times when you do involve an engineer they will screw it up only to have a field experienced employee straighten them out.


    • Hans
      February 19, 2013

      I am not a civil engineer. And as an Electronics Engineer, I am only occasionally involved in corrosion issues, mainly of a bi-metallic nature. But such issues appears to me, to be one of education, rather than intelligence. When a person has not been required to take a course in Properties of Materials or similar, does not mean such a person is lacking in intelligence.


    • Alberto
      February 19, 2013

      Ignorance will kill you.


    • Brian R.
      February 20, 2013

      Interesting that you use a single example to condemn all engineers based off of one example. Do you know how to design a gas turbine, or an electrical circuit, or a bridge?

      That’s why engineering careers are differentiated by SPECIALTY. Go figure.

      And just for the record, I know exactly what a sacrificial anode is, and why they’re important in a weathered or corrosive environment ;)


    • Dan
      February 20, 2013

      This attitude is suprisingly common. Most often it comes from someone who is working on something that was likely designed and developed by an engineer, or in this case by someone who is designing pipeline corrosion systems based on principles that were likely developed by an engineer. Certainly not all engineers are stars, but if one considers engineering\’s contribution to everything we use every day, perhaps there would be a little more respect. By the way, I am not an engineer.


    • Geroge B
      February 22, 2013

      Cliff,

      I would like you to consider for a moment mathematics as a language. This language is used to explain the world around us. Engineers go to school to learn this language and then apply it in real world scenarios. It is very possible that an engineer won’t, off the bat, understand something technical, but it will take as little as few minutes/hours to learn something that normally would take an untrained person weeks. Our value is in our ability to learn, understand and provide a solution, fast. Specializations allow us to provide greater in depth solutions.

      In addition perception is a common metric that demonstrates intelligence. The fact that you haven’t been able to perceive this commonly know fact about engineers might be be showing a little bit too much of yourself that you did not intend.


    • Hipolito Velez, Jr.
      February 26, 2013

      Cliff,

      I think your comments about engineers, in general, seems rather vengeful or loaded. How can you paint the majority of all engineers as lacking intelligence or being overpaid when it\’s dougtful you\’ve met the majority of them to come to that simplistic conclusion? I suspect, like one of the previous responder alluded to, that there\’s more to your comments than you let on. Some reasons come to mind: you\’re not as well paid as they are; jealosy of their standing and attention perhaps; sour experience with a few engineers, etc. Certainly, if you brought up the subject of cathodic protection (which is to make the target metal or pipe while submerged/burried in the soil to act like a cathode connected to another metal that would act as a sacrificial metal by allowing it to act as an anode) to a chemist, mechanical or civil engineer, these no doubt would\’ve understood the subject matter enough to converse with you intelligently or honestly explain his/her lack of full knowlege on the subject. However, if the converswation were brought up to an electronics or aeronautical or similar field engineer, their lack of this type of knowlege is understandable but you might be surprised at their response. To take my analogy a step further, take the medical field for instance. There are doctors of all types of disciplines: neorusurgeons, immune sytems specialist, heart specialist, kidney specialist, eye doctors and the list goes on. I think we can agree that these disciplines require that they all go to medical school to become doctors. It\’s also safe to say that they are, indeed, all doctors. If then, I were to broach the subject of say, brain surgery to a heart surgeon and found that he was not too conversant on subject, does that mean he\’s overpaid or not too inelligent? He is, afterall, a doctor?

      Your comments about the majority of all engineers lacking intelligence or being overpaid sounds like sour grapes to me. I\’m curious: are you an engineer? I\’m not.


    • Ed
      April 24, 2013

      Cliff, sounds like some sour grapes. Could it be? The courses are not easy and many never graduate because it can be intense. I am an engineer for over 40 years and most engineers I deal with are quite intelligent and properly paid. I’m worth my 6 figure salary.


  • S. Rody
    February 19, 2013

    I think this article is a bit misleading. Salary potential is also strongly related to the geographical location where and type of business in which one chooses to work. Your starting salaries are closer to being realistic for the average engineer employed in the Midwest. Additional education and experience will raise that figure somewhat, but $100,000 plus does not seem realistic for a salaried exempt, engineer (non-manager) working in manufacturing. Check your local state unemployment offices for local salary information.

    In addition, I have little doubt employers could easily find and retain the talents of capable engineers if they were not seeking “unicorns”, actually offered training, promoted stability, and presented superior pay and benefit packages. However, it is easier to feed the media stories about a shortage of engineers and technical people. Who benefits the most by this arrangement?


    • February 20, 2013

      S. Rody – Thanks for the feedback. I’m sorry you felt this was misleading. When we talk about salary averages, it is generally understood that there will be a high and low range based on geographic region. Many of the studies cited in this story factor that into their equation. Clearly you understood that intrinsically and I think other readers will discern that as well.

      The key focus here is to draw a comparison against the national average, which is the average of all individuals across all sectors in all regions of the U.S.

      As for education levels, those are factored into the equation and referenced in this story. But again, you have to understand that not all degrees, schools, or geographic regions are the same. That’s why the reports cited list a range.


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