by Bob Felton
Good salaries await new graduates in spite of weak economy.
Engineering, Herbert Hoover once said, is a great profession-and this year's graduates have no reason to disagree. The average starting salary of engineers with baccalaureate degrees ranges from a low of $40,377 for civil engineers, up almost 7.5% since 2000, to $53,818 for computer engineers, an increase of 8.7% in the past year.
The average household income in the U.S. in mid-2000 was $54,842, so engineers whose experience consists principally of taking exams are off to a pretty good start. The news is even better for engineers who have been around for a while. The median salary for all engineers with a baccalaureate degree and five to nine years of experience is $54,149, $65,000 for engineers with 10 to 14 years of experience, $75,766 for engineers with 15 to 19 years of experience, and in the low $90s for engineers with more than 30 years of experience.
Engineers who stayed in school for a few extra years and earned an M.S. or Ph.D. got their money's worth. Currently, the median starting salary of a Ph.D. in engineering is about $60,000, and those with 30 or more years of experience are earning a median income of about $110,000. Engineers with master's degrees typically earn about $3,500 more than engineers with baccalaureate degrees.
That's the big picture. The view changes a lot when you zoom in for a closer look.
Same old supply and demand
Median engineering salaries vary by almost $30,000 per year, according to discipline. At the low end are environmental engineers, pulling in about $71,000 a year. Recalling that the '90s were supposed to be the "Decade of the Environment" and that environmental engineering is an immensely popular field of study, that shouldn't be a surprise. Nor, for that matter, should anyone be surprised to learn who's at the top of the heap: petroleum engineers, taking home about $100,000 a year. Similarly, nuclear and mining engineers are doing well, taking home $98,000 and $98,471 respectively. Contrarianism may or may not work on Wall Street, but it can be a definite plus in the job market.
For all engineers, the big gains begin coming in year five-after you pass the P.E. exam. After that, your degree of managerial responsibility heavily influences your paycheck. The more supervision you need, the less money you should expect; the more supervising you do, the greater your paycheck. A senior chemical engineer, for example, supervising other engineers and responsible for signing and sealing plans, setting budgets, and perhaps marketing, earns about $72,000. A project engineer earns about $60,500 and a staff engineer a little less than $53,000.
Where an engineer finds himself in the economy makes a difference, too. Though complaints of poor salaries in the public sector are a staple of the annual budget-time debate, Uncle Sam treats his engineers pretty good. Federal engineers with a baccalaureate degree report a mean salary of $5,400 a month (1997), and engineers in education are living on about $4,315 a month. The same levels hold at the master's and Ph.D. levels.
It also matters where you live. The highest median income is among engineers in the Northeast: $82,500, an increase of $9,500 since 1998. Median income drops to $69,900 in the Great Plains states, with the Southern states logging in at $74,000, the Great Lakes reporting $73,500, the Southwestern states anteing up $77,445, and the Pacific and Western states offering $69,500. All regions showed gains on the order of 10% since 1998.
Gender bias gone?
The salaries of male and female engineers of comparable experience levels are practically identical, according to a study recently released by the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF researchers concluded, "The study showed that the salary gap is primarily explained by the fact that female engineers, on average, have fewer years of experience since their first baccalaureate degree than males; salaries of female and male engineers with similar years of experience are virtually the same."
Relying on data gathered in a 1995 survey, the researchers found that "when controlling for years of experience in the regression, the estimated difference in salaries between men and women fell from 13% to 3%, bringing women's median earnings to 97 cents to the men's dollar. When other variables . . . are added to the regression, the estimated difference is lowered only another one percentage point." Looking at years of experience, the researchers concluded, "On average, women in engineering occupations had five fewer years' experience than men." Additionally, "As expected, salary levels increase with years of experience. Further, the rate at which salary increases with experience is the same for men and women."
The significance of race, ethnicity, and disability is more difficult to determine. Study data recently released by the NSF suggests that those factors may affect salary. Statisticians haven't analyzed the data yet for variables such as experience level, degree of responsibility, geographic location, and economic sector, though, so it's probably too soon to draw any conclusions.
Finding the job you want is one thing; keeping it in uncertain times is another. Bill Radin, a Cincinnati-based executive search consultant specializing in the sensors and instrumentation industry, offered some advice for good times and bad. These days, he said, corporate recruiters are "looking for people with broader background, more versatility, more value added."
A wide range of skills, familiarity with a lot of technologies, and the ability to see relationships between the task at hand and emerging technologies can only grow more important as the manufacturing sector gets tighter and perhaps shrinks as reliance on automation grows. The same thinking applies to keeping the job you have. "Having a unique skill set or depth of skills, or an expertise nobody else has, is good," Radin said. In other words, you don't stand out if there's no difference between you and any of the guys in the next dozen cubicles.
Radin offered some specific tips (www.radinassociates.com) for enhancing your value to ol' Widgets International. "To round out your resume, look for areas of weakness, and try to develop them into strengths."
He suggested, for example, that design engineers study customer profiles to understand what customers need in order to succeed, study the supply chain to figure out where a product fits into the overall market, and search for ways to design so products can be used with complementary products. "By gaining knowledge in areas that were formerly considered the domain of 'somebody else,' you'll increase your overall market value. The more you can offer a multiple spectrum of knowledge rather than a single color of skill, the less likely you'll be to paint yourself into a corner. As the new economy has forced a leaner, more accountable business model, take the time to invest in your career like you would a mutual fund. Over the long haul, you'll be happy with the dividends a balanced portfolio pays." IT
Figures and Graphics
- Degree awards according to gender, 1966 vs. 1998
- Degree awards by major field of study
- Mean salary and responsibility level, 1999
- Median income, 2000
- Monthly mean salary by educational level, 1997
- Off to a fast start (pdf version)
- The median salary for all engineers with a baccalaureate degree