Engineering Salary Survey 2011: Faces of the Engineering Lifecycle

Oct. 11, 2011
This special edition of Electronic Design's annual Salary Survey takes you on a comprehensive tour of the engineering career, from students and new grads looking for or working their first jobs to experienced veterans getting ready to retire.
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We asked, they answered—Students & recent grads, mid-career engineers, and retiring industry veterans sound off on work, life and money.

The Engineering Student
This year, teamed up with the IEEE—the world’s largest professional association for engineers—to survey more than 5,000 undergrads, post-graduate students, and recent grads (see below). Are engineering students learning what’s needed? What Fields are the most popular these days?
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Life of the Recent Grad
As part of our partnership with IEEE, we surveyed thousands of recent Engineering grads about what happened next. Offshoring and a shrinking defense budget has made the job market for new grads more competitive. How did they land their first offer? What are the entry-level salaries, really?

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The Working Engineer
Nearly 8000 members of the engineering community participated in our Survey, making it the most extensive and comprehensive examination of its kind. How are engineers riding out the recession, and how do they feel about the job now?
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Life After Engineering
How are engineers at the culmination of their careers planning for life after engineering, financially and professionally? Learn how veteran engineers are taking control of their futures, designing their retirement—and planning to give back to society.
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Engineering Salary Survey 2011: The Engineering Student

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College has always been a time of anxiety and excitement. But for engineering students, that sense of uncertainty has grown along with the growth of the global economy. It’s not simply a matter of competition with foreign counterparts, although that definitely factors into the equation. The global economy means that more products are coming to market far faster. But that doesn’t merely shrink design cycles. It also means new technologies arise at a far faster clip.

Four years can be an eternity in product development and technological growth, but engineering students are challenged to plan a curriculum without being certain that their areas of specialization will still be in demand when they graduate. It’s hardly likely, but it remains a nagging doubt—is it possible that some part of a hard-won engineering education will be outmoded by the time graduation rolls around?

About 88% of the engineering students we surveyed said they began their college careers as engineering majors, while the rest switched over to engineering after trying something else. Nearly 42% said they made the choice to pursue an education in engineering on their own, while about a third (32%) said a teacher or professor influenced them and 34% said a parent or other family member involved in engineering influenced them. About 21% said a parent not involved in engineering helped them choose their major.

Only 59% of engineering students today believe a career path in engineering and the potential for salary advancement is as promising now as it was when they first started pursuing their engineering education.

“Too many experienced engineers are currently unemployed,” said a postgraduate student attending the University of Colorado in Denver. “There doesn’t seem to be a stable career path. Job security appears to have disappeared.”

One postgraduate student at Virginia Tech complained: “When I entered my studies in medical physics we were told there was a huge demand and that everyone got a job. Now my friends who have graduated spend months searching and end up taking any job they can find, even if it’s not at all what they wanted.”

But most undergrads remain upbeat about the prospects for a good living in engineering. “I still think that engineering graduates have a unique skill set in problem solving and generally getting stuff done that isn’t fostered in graduates from other majors,” said a senior at Rutgers University. “Companies recognize this and generally offer good career paths for graduates with this type of training.”

One confident student at the University of Utah put it another way: “Biotechnology is still a growing industry. Besides, if I can’t find a job, I will make one.”

Despite the difficulties that some see for the engineering job market, an overwhelming 92% of the engineering students we surveyed said they would still recommend engineering as a career path to another young person looking to choose a profession. “I never went into engineering for the salary potential,” said a junior at Notre Dame. “I went into it because it’s something I thought (and was correct in thinking) I’d enjoy.”

More than a third (36%) of the students who responded said they’re involved in corporate-sponsored projects, while 42% work with professors in technology labs on projectsfor commercial applications as part of their curriculum. And 45% said they’ve entered technology/design contests at their school.

On average, students said that about two-thirds of what they learn in school is theoretical engineering (gaining a fundamental understanding of engineering principles) compared to learning how to apply those theoretical principles to real-world problems. But is this really the best approach? Nearly 63% of the students we surveyed believe they would benefit more if colleges put a greater emphasis on teaching practical applications.

“Each engineering course should have labs associated with them so that the students can apply the theoretical understanding of the material into a practical design and observe how devices are actually made,” said a junior at Temple University.

A student at Boise State University put it this way: “Students that don’t already have a firm grasp on what engineering covers don’t really get the most from their classes. For example, when teaching op amps, maybe we should understand why we use them. What do they do for us? What are some practical applications where you would see an example of this circuit?”

Some of the students we spoke to complained about being subjected to outdated textbooks, teaching materials, and techniques, while others complained about the spotty quality of tenured professors, too few labs, and a general lack of funding.

“Tenured professors (of which there are many) are uninterested in teaching,” claimed a student from Syracuse University. “And 80% of the courses taken toward my PhD were a complete waste of my time, skill, and money.”

“One of the major issues at my university is the issue of budget,” said a senior at San Diego State. “Of course, every university across the nation, especially public ones, has had to deal with this problem. However, I feel that budget cuts have directly affected engineering, which is a hands-on practice. One or more labs for classes have been cancelled, giving students less opportunity to try their hand at what I would call real-world engineering.”

About 20% of undergraduate students say they take online courses. Nearly three out of four plan to go on to obtain a postgraduate (master’s or doctorate) degree, while most of the rest haven’t made up their minds yet. Of those who plan to continue their education, the majority (53%) plans to pursue their postgraduate degrees immediately after graduation, while 26% will hold off until they’ve landed their first job.

Undergraduate students keep themselves busy. Nearly half (43%) work part-time or full-time jobs while attending school, while 86% either currently participate in or plan to participate in internships or co-op programs. A slight majority (53%) of those engineering-related field, and on average working students put in about 20 hours a week on the job. Only about one in four (24%) said their employer provides some sort of tuition assistance.

Today’s crop of engineering students is a fairly entrepreneurial bunch. About 20% plan to start their own company within five years of graduating, and another 29% said they probably would strike out on their own at some point in their career.

“My dream is to start up a high-tech company in the telecommunication field,” said a student at Vanderbilt. “As a PhD student at the university, I like working in research positions. And since my area of expertise is wireless communications, I’d like to start something in this field.”

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Not surprisingly, today’s engineering students are decked out with the latest technology. About 90% use mobile devices (the Android platform is the smart phone of choice, used by 24% of those polled), and 45% either plan to get an iPad or already own one.

Nearly four in five engineering students have a Facebook page, and most (52%) also belong to LinkedIn. A third have Twitter accounts, and 87% watch videos on YouTube. Engineering-related videos on YouTube are watched by 60%, and one in five peruses engineering channels on the video site. And nearly a third have posted videos of their own on YouTube.

Most engineering students believe that social networking sites will continue to play a key role in their lives once they’ve graduated from school, with close to two-thirds (62%) saying that social networking sites will be useful tools in their future engineering work.

Engineering Salary Survey 2011: Life of the Recent Grad

Engineering graduates face uncertain times in today’s faltering economy, particularly when job growth in so many sectors is expected to remain flat over the next few years. Also contributing to this climate of uncertainty is offshoring, the increasing reliance on international engineering talent, especially as China and India begin to flex their high-tech muscle. What’s more, the shrinking defense budget being proposed by some in Washington could also drive competition for new jobs.

If there is a hot spot in this rather chill assessment, it’s that high-tech companies must hire new engineering talent if they are to maintain their competitive edge. Shrinking staff through attrition is all too often a shortcut to stagnation.

Is there anything that newly minted graduates can do to sharpen their own competitive edge? Make certain that your skills are as cutting-edge as the companies you hope to find a berth in. Seminars, workshops, and continuing education are excellent ways to preserve or increase your market potential.

Only a slight majority (58%) of the recent graduates we surveyed said they’d landed a job, with the rest either still looking for work or finishing up an internship. Of those who were working, more than half (56%) landed their first job after obtaining their bachelor’s degree, while 33% said they’d waited until they’d achieved their master’s or doctorate before heading off to work.

For those who held off, it might have been worth the wait. Incomes for recent graduates with advanced degrees average nearly $46,800, or about 25% more than the $37,400 starting pay for those with only their bachelor’s degrees.

Nearly 43% of the recently employed grads had a job lined up before they graduated, while another 40% found their first job within six months of leaving school. About one in four (26%) learned about the job from company recruiters on campus, and another 21% found their first job online, either at an Internet job site or company Web site. But it pays to have friends. Nearly 40% learned about their first job by way of a referral from a friend, colleague, or family member.

The good news is that nine out of 10 recent grads who have landed a job were able to find work in an engineering-related field, and 60% felt confident that there was a clear path to growth at the company they’d chosen to start their careers at.

Nearly three out of four of those surveyed said they were generally satisfied with their first job. Also, many saw it as an opportunity to develop new ways of thinking, acquire new skills, learn how to work under pressure, and network with people who could be important to their careers.

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“The tasks were coordinated according to my level of experience, but challenging enough that I was able to learn and grow quickly,” said a recent graduate from Lakehead University in Ontario.

Another recent grad put it this way: “At first I was not satisfied, because I felt what I was doing wasn’t engineering work. I did more actual engineering before I graduated. After about eight months, I had the opportunity to change departments. At that point, I was doing what I felt was more suited to engineering.”

But young engineering professionals are quickly learning that satisfaction with the job doesn’t always extend to satisfaction with the pay. Barely half (56%) of those surveyed felt they were being adequately compensated for the work they were doing. In fact, only about a third said their total pay was on par with what they believed other recent engineering graduates were making, while close to 40% felt their take-home pay was less competitive.

“It’s hard finding a decent engineering job nowadays,” said one recent grad of the University of Texas at Arlington. “I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, but it was my software skills that landed me a job. The EE job market in Jacksonville (where I live) is pretty much dead, really. So even though the salary may not be the best, it’s definitely better than being jobless right out of college. Hopefully I can gather experience and move up the ladder in the near future.”

Some of the recent grads we surveyed were fortunate to land their dream jobs right out of school. “I had wanted to work at NASA since I was a kid,” said a recent engineering graduate from Maryland. “To have the opportunity to work there now is just amazing.”

But even some of those who were fortunate to find work quickly often found themselves in situations that either weren’t rewarding enough or didn’t fit the job description. “My employer was not honest about what my job would be or about the hours required for the job,” declared a recent grad from Oklahoma. “The job itself was something that in my opinion didn’t require a college diploma.”

The majority (52%) of recent grads still seeking to land their first job said they were looking to get into the bigger firms, where they expect the money and career opportunities to be better. And that shouldn’t be so surprising. Among their recently employed peers, 70% at large organizations say they see a clear path to career growth, compared to only 43% who landed their first jobs at smaller companies.

Many still looking to land their first job out of school found themselves frustrated with the current job prospects.

“There just aren’t many opportunities available right now,” complained one recent grad from Hawaii. “Most of the employers that I had a chance to meet with wanted certifications and experience in addition to my BS in engineering. It’s very frustrating since I’m a recent graduate just hoping to gain any kind of work experience.”

“Companies are not willing to train new graduates. They always expect you to have some experience within their field,” another recent graduate complained. “They see the new graduate as an expense more than a potential answer for their needs. Another factor is outsourcing. Many big companies have a freeze on local hiring. They would rather employ and train employees overseas.”

Many recent grads are finding that while their education provided them with a broad set of knowledge, most employers are seeking specialized skills. “That’s a difficult situation new graduates face,” said a recent grad from Maine. “I cannot wait for the ideal job opportunity, so I have to move to other options in my top preference list. But it’s practically impossible to have in-depth knowledge and experience in every area.”

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Some recent grads felt their education left them ill prepared for their first jobs in engineering. “I wish we had done an actual non-trivial chip design with tape-out and lab characterization, rather than talk about the process all the time in school,” one complained.

Another felt unprepared in parts procurement. “In college, you usually learn to use generic parts, but the bits and pieces on how to decide which, out of a thousand, components do the same thing would be a valuable asset.”

One simply put it this way: “I wish we were explicitly taught why things are done the way they are, instead of a lot of focus on how they are done.”

Many students imagine themselves in dream jobs designing state-of-the-art products like renewable energy, biomedical engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, virtual reality, and defense systems and hope to work for leading technology centers like Apple, Google, NASA, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel.

“I want to work for Google, maybe in security or software development,” fancied one sophomore now studying at the University of Minnesota.

“My dream job is to be a deep brain stimulation development engineer,” mused one graduating senior. “I would like to design the circuitry of medical devices.”

“I am torn between the desire to run my own technology company and the desire to be a CTO of an existing technology company,” dreamed one sophomore enrolled at Lehigh University. “I see myself happiest being a liaison between the IT staff and the board of directors. The combination of technological prowess and social skills that such a position requires would be perfect.”

“I want to work in applied robotics and artificial intelligence,” said a senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I’d like to research how the brain works so we can replicate it and help people with things like Alzheimer’s and other types of memory loss.”

“My dream job is one geared towards programming AI modules for either videogames or real-life robots,” said a junior at Notre Dame. “I don’t mind corporate grunt work, but it’s not something I’d see myself doing for the rest of my life.”

“I’m sort of stuck between renewable energy and music technology, the former having more jobs and a higher salary, but the latter being more in line with my hobbies and interests,” said a freshman at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“My dream job is research and development in robotics, most likely my own company, contracting to the military or government,” said a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“The future lies in space travel,” envisioned a junior at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “As a power-engineering student, I see tremendous potential for new energy technologies that can be safe, compact, and economical for future space endeavors. One day, mankind will be mining asteroid belts for ores, traveling across systems at incredible speeds, and harnessing the power of stars for abundant, reliable energy. I hope to explore every stage of these concepts so that one day, this may become a reality.”

Engineering Salary Survey 2011: The Working Engineer

For the second consecutive year, compensation levels stay flat as OEMs continue to ride out the recession

Hunkering down and holding on—in this, engineers are really no different from professionals in other market sectors. With the unemployment rate pegged above 9% for the foreseeable future and not expected to return to a “natural rate” until 2016, engineers will likely have to learn to be happy with the job they have rather than the job they want. Compensation, meanwhile, is expected to remain flat over at least the next few years, which may see some engineers losing financial ground to inflation—an unusual trend in what is typically a well-paid profession.

The continued globalization of engineering will likely dampen domestic employment growth to some degree. There are many well-trained, English-speaking engineers worldwide willing to work at much lower salaries than U.S. engineers.

The rise of the Internet has made it easy for part of an engineering project previously done by engineers in this country to be completed by their counterparts overseas. Still, the reality is there will always be a need for onsite engineers to interact with other employees and clients.

During his speech to a joint session of Congress last month, President Barack Obama specifically cited small businesses as a key to job creation. “Everyone here knows that small businesses are where most new jobs begin,” Obama said. “And you know that while corporate profits have come roaring back, smaller companies haven’t.”

IEEE-USA President Ron Jensen believes that to help encourage job growth in the engineering sector, Congress should reauthorize the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and invest in America’s technology infrastructure.

SBIR is a competitive, federally funded program that helps small companies conduct research into new technology. However, because Congress has failed to pass a long-term SBIR reauthorization, companies cannot be sure of the program’s reliability.

“High-tech entrepreneurs are job creators, and our country should do everything we can to support them,” Jensen said. “Congress’ failure to reauthorize the program for more than a year at a time has created uncertainty among small technology companies, and uncertainty breeds hesitation, which breeds stagnation. Congress could end this uncertainty by passing a long-term reauthorization of the program.”

Obama also highlighted the important role that infrastructure investments play in the economic health of our country. Jensen believes that Congress should recognize that infrastructure in the 21st century must include a robust and intelligent electrical grid.

The recent blackout in parts of Southern California, Arizona, and Mexico demonstrates that our grid needs to be strengthened. Emerging technologies offer innovative ways to increase the reliability and efficiency of the system.

“A reliable, efficient, and affordable electric grid and IT infrastructure can power job growth across our country,” Jensen said. “Investing in our nation’s electrical infrastructure not only creates jobs today but also lays the foundation for a strong economy tomorrow.”

Increases in pay have been tough to come by in recent years for engineers. Last year, raises averaged a paltry 1.2%, and this year’s raises were barely half that amount. Across the country, engineers report an average total compensation of $104,370 in 2011 (in salary and bonuses), compared to $103,680 last year. The situation today seems a lifetime away from 2008, when average engineering incomes hit a peak of $106,271 and pay raises were nearly 4%.

“In today’s environment, salary advancement seems to be nonexistent,” said a project engineer in Ohio. “Any meager increases that might be doled out are quickly consumed by rising employee contributions to benefits.”

Design & development engineers earned average base salaries of $92,484 this year and total compensation of $100,700. Engineering managers saw the biggest boost in their paychecks in 2011, on average earning $119,366 in base salary and $131,556 in total compensation. About half (53%) of the corporate managers we surveyed work in small companies and startups (annual revenues under $5 million), and the ones we spoke to take home an average base salary of $108,078 and total compensation of $120,865.

Engineers are evenly split over whether engineering offers the same opportunity for salary advancement as it did five years ago. “I see reports that new grads are earning average salaries of $50k to $65k, so I think the potential to begin there and advance up the career path is still there,” said a hardware engineer in Michigan.

“There seem to always be jobs in engineering versus other fields and there are not enough engineers graduating each year, so that should push salaries up due to supply/demand,” noted a design engineer from Colorado.

“The industry is changing, but the opportunities are still out there,” said a consumer electronics engineer from Texas. “Engineers must shift their thinking and be prepared to migrate to new opportunities in order to remain successful.”

But some survey respondents were less bullish. “Five to 10 years ago, companies still saw the value in core product experience as something that needed to be retained and passed on,” stated an engineering manager from Connecticut. “With the expanding reliance on sourced labor and little permanent hiring of young engineers, there are few people to carry the knowledge forward. The average age of engineers is climbing and reduced enrollments in engineering majors are creating a perfect storm of the need to turn elsewhere (offshore) to fill those needs.”

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Geographic location plays a big role in income levels, and the Pacific region is still on top with total incomes averaging $117,984, followed by the West South Central region ($116,416). Next up was the New England states ($108,838) and the Mid-Atlantic region ($106,295).

The market segment you work in is another major factor that’s influencing pay. Chip houses led the way in engineering pay again this year, at $141,272, followed by computer OEMs ($119,496), military contractors ($113,313), communications systems ($113,266), and medical electronics firms ($106,969).

But no matter where you work, chances are you’re working harder for the money than ever before. This year, engineers on average claim to be putting in a whopping 65 hours a week on the job, including 41 hours at the office, 11 hours at home, seven hours at other locations, and six hours on call.

“I think companies are expecting more work from fewer individuals,” commented anR&D engineer from Pennsylvania “This was established during the recession, and I don’t see that expectation changing back to where it was previously.”

One department lead engineer in California put it this way: “Corporate America is squeezing the life out of every employee possible. I’ve survived four layoffs and essentially absorbed the workload of six other colleagues. My pay has changed by 3%, up thankfully. The only place growing is upper management and their friends.”

Certain perks made a comeback in 2011. Nearly 57% of survey respondents say they expect to see 401(k) match plans from their companies this year (compared to only 49% last year), and 63% were back to getting company-paid health benefits (compared to 57% in 2010).

There were some glimmers of hope on the employment outlook in this year’s survey, as 33% of survey respondents say their company plans to increase the number of engineering jobs in the coming year, up from 29% a year ago. What’s more, nearly half (48%) say their organization is having difficulty finding qualified candidates for open engineering positions, compared to 42% last year.

“Due to job market growth in the sector, and competitive career recruitment, my company has been forced to step up the game to retain top talent,” offered one development engineer currently with the International Automotive Components Group. “Wage increases and additional benefits have been reinstated this year.”

The toughest positions to fill are in analog design (38%), software (37%), systems engineering (36%), power electronics (29%), and mechanical design (27%).

Despite the tough job market, most engineers remain bullish on the profession. The majority (55%) still find themselves sufficiently challenged intellectually with the projects they work on, while only 10% claim they’re not. Nearly two-thirds (63%) feel adequately compensated for the work they do. And, 86% would recommend engineering as a career path to a young person looking to choose a profession.

“Comparing other career choices with engineering can show how engineering is still a very promising and challenging career today,” said a senior engineer with more than 30 years of experience. “Considering the current economic crisis in the USA and in most other industrialized nations, engineering continues to be a leading technologically oriented career that has more opportunities for employment than other choices. Technology is advancing faster than ever, so engineering is the best career choice to keep up with technology, and keeping up with technology is the best bet for any profession.”

Engineering remains a field that requires constant education to keep up with emerging technologies as well as the latest applications. In fact, staying current with new and emerging technologies is the number one issue causing engineers to lose sleep this year—even more than concerns about the general health of the economy. But 44% of those surveyed feel their company doesn’t do enough to support continuing education among its engineers.

“They don’t offer to pay for seminars or conferences for engineers anymore,” said a senior product development engineer at a military contractor. “To attend a conference, I must use vacation time rather than paid work days. This indicates to me that the company isn’t interested in furthering my knowledge/skill sets, even though it would be a benefit to the company.”

“Tuition reimbursement was reinstated very recently after being suspended for several years,” said an electronics products manager in Detroit. “Travel authorizations for trade shows are almost impossible to get, and there’s no money in the budget to cover tuition charges for online seminars or training classes. In-house course offerings have also been scaled back drastically over the last decade.”

“It isn’t a lack of financial support, so much as a lack of emphasis on staying current and sharing information,” said a senior project engineer in Indiana. “ I think this is common in many companies. Some people will do it on their own, but I think the results are more synergistic when there is a corporate emphasis.”

What’s more, only 47% believe that today’s graduating engineers are as well prepared for the job as they were—and 40% feel they’re less prepared.

“Students coming into the field have far too little hands-on experience with technology,” said a senior project engineer, “although wonderful tools, computers, and the Internet have replaced many of the technical hobbies of previous generations. Since many public high schools cannot afford to maintain industrial arts programs, many students have no idea how anything is actually made.”

“The universities today teach you how to solve problems, but they don’t teach you about leadership, contract negotiations, or the legal hurdles that can affect engineers,” observed an engineer from North Carolina.

“Many of the new hires and interns have the engineering knowledge, but many of them lack basic Unix skills,” quipped a senior MTS from Wisconsin. “They have grown up on Windows PCs and are not prepared for working on real systems. It takes them much longer to become self-sufficient.”

But not everyone sees it this way. “Internships and co-op assignments are more common today, so many new graduates come into the workplace better prepared than I was for the realities of the working world,” said a product manager who responded to our survey.

A senior engineering manager at Rockwell Collins had this to say: “Today’s graduating engineers have a greater opportunity to make an immediate impact to society because of the amount of information available at their fingertips, namely, the Internet.”

We asked survey respondents this year to tell us some of the things they didn’t learn in school that they wish they had. While many got specific about particular technologies like embedded programming, CAD, and analog circuitry, most talked about things outside of engineering like project management, team building, mentoring, time management, interpersonal skills, business law, marketing, regulatory requirements, accounting skills, technical writing—and dealing with corporate politics.

“I could have used a stronger business background,” complained a lead engineer now at Honeywell. “The ability to make a business case for spending money on engineering development is essential to any engineer working in commercial engineering.”

But in reality, there are no shortcuts to on-the-job experience. “I learned in college that there is more to know than you can learn in college,” said one senior engineer. “As one of my professors explained, college gives you the skeleton of knowledge to be an engineer. Experience puts the flesh on the bones.”

And what advice does today’s working engineers have for students getting ready to enter the field? Continue to learn the basics, don’t discount graduate school, do as many internships as possible, don’t expect to get your dream job overnight, bring passion to your first job—and start saving early for retirement.

“Do not stop learning,” advised a principal engineer at Oracle. “Stop and you will fall behind and likely never catch up. Be open to new ideas and creative solutions. Be willing to share new ideas with peers. Working together in a team is the only way projects can move forward with the speed needed to keep up with your competition.”

“Believe in yourself,” suggested one senior electrical engineer. “You are the one who has the tools and ability to solve the difficult problems that the world faces. Find energy alternatives, and develop ways to provide safe water and healthy environments. Politicians and lawyers can’t do these things— but you can.”

“You have the knowledge, but experience takes time,” pointed out a research lab technologist at the University of Toronto. “Make a thousand rules of thumb for yourself to cover every aspect of design, and use them.”

An engineer/developer at Ericsson summed it up this way: “Don’t just rely on your college degree to make you successful. Find something in your field or specialty to become intensely passionate about and focus as much time and energy as you can to becoming an expert in that thing. Then, find another, somewhat related aspect to become an expert in and also become an expert in how this new information ties into the previous information. Continue doing this and never stop. You may not be able to directly apply a lot of the experience and information that you’ve attained, but you’ll have a better understanding of how the world works, and that type of information can be applied everywhere.”

It’s been a bumpy ride for engineers over the past few years, and that’s not likely to smooth out in the near future. Many companies have cut engineering budgets to the bone, and then some. Amenities are almost nonexistent. Money for travel and training are difficult to come by, which has many engineers frustrated and in some instances worried about their futures.

At the same time engineers tend to be very self-reliant. They typically believe that talent and hard work will carry them through, despite what may be temporary tough times. If their outlook can be summed up in one sentence, it might be that people who are good at what they do will continue to advance through good times and bad.

Engineering Salary Survey 2011: The Retiring Engineer

Engineers are taking control of their futures and designing their retirement—and planning to give back to society.

Engineers have never been known for being passive people, and they will be the architects of their retirement. As they approach their golden years, though, these professionals are no different than their neighbors or most other Americans.

They’re worried about how a wildly fluctuating stock market will affect their retirement accounts. They’re concerned about a recession that shows no sign of ending, despite assurances from Washington. And they’re anxious, once again, about conditions overseas—not as a source of competition but as a potential source of economic collapse, particularly among countries among the EU Zone.

What makes this all doubly difficult is that most engineers see themselves as problem solvers. And perhaps for the first time in their careers, they’re confronting problems for which they can’t design an easy solution.

A series of Gallup Polls taken between April-July 2011 paints a bleak picture:

• For the first time this decade, a majority of non-retired Americans (52%) doubt they will have enough money to live comfortably once they retire, up sharply from about a third who felt this way in 2002.

• Non-retired Americans now project that they will retire at age 66, up from age 60 in 1995. And eight in 10 American workers now think they will continue working full or part time after they reach retirement age.

• Six in 10 non-retired Americans believe they will get no Social Security benefits when they retire—more pessimistic than at any time since Gallup began asking this question in 1989. Non-retirees are now projecting Social Security as a major income source in their retirement, paralleling a drop in projected reliance on pensions, 401(k) plans, and other investments. So American workers appear to be in a bind, perceiving an increased need for Social Security while at the same being less sure it will be there when they need it.

Like other Americans, engineers as a group now say that, on average, they plan to retire at age 66. But better than one in four (27%) of those already in their sixties said they won’t be able to retire until they’re 70 or older—with 42% saying this was later than they’d planned. In fact, only 10% of those already nearing retirement age said that there’s no chance they would accept another engineering job following retirement if it were offered to them.

While 18% said the prospect of coming out of retirement would be very unlikely for them, nearly half (42%) of engineers in their sixties said it wouldn’t be out of the question if the right opportunity were to come along. And nearly one in five would definitely take something else rather than retire at this point.

Although engineering continues to be a well-paying profession, engineers surprisingly seem to be flying on their own when it comes to their retirement planning. More than two-thirds (68%) say they don’t have a professional financial advisor helping them plan their retirement.

“I find that depending on myself is the best way,” said one respondent. “I have to try and save as much as I can now to make sure my future is secure. All of the different financial products are nice, but who really can take those kinds of risks?”

In addition to Social Security, the sources of income engineers will depend on most to help fund their retirement include 401(k) plans (66%), their personal savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs (55%), IRAs (47%), stocks, bonds, and mutual funds (41%), and pension plans (39%).

According to our survey, many engineers as they reach the culmination of their careers are more interested in giving back than getting out (see “Maxim Cofounder Takes His Skills And Goodwill To Africa” ). This is not particularly surprising. Engineers tend to be individuals who want to build a better world. There’s no reason to expect that feeling to fade when engineering professionals begin to think seriously about retirement. Indeed, it seems to grow stronger.

One way many engineers express these desires is with an active interest in mentoring. It gives them the double benefit of staying connected to a profession they have deep feelings for—without the stress they’re all too happy to leave behind—while enabling them to help shape the up and coming generation of newly minted engineering graduates.

Many engineers spoke about an interest in teaching engineering-related courses to young students interested in engineering once they retired. “My dream is to work with the local community college to create an alternate energy-related business with high-tech jobs in our city,” said a quality assurance team leader in California.

Download the full survey data in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics.

“Teaching would be great,” said a field applications engineer at Atmel. “I’d love to teach. I just haven’t had the opportunity. As my office is located close to our local university, I have helped several students with engineering projects, and it has been a satisfying experience that I would like to repeat.”

“The most rewarding experience I’ve had is working with middle school students on space related projects,” said an electronic design engineering manager in Connecticut. “Showing how math and science interacts with everything we do is so enlightening to them. That is where the seeds of engineering need to be sown and I’d like to do more of it.”

Many engineers told us they plan to stay connected to the profession by continuing to attend industry seminars and conferences and get more active in local professional groups and associations.

“I plan to continue my work with professional societies,” said one design engineer from Minnesota. “I do want to take a break from engineering for at least one to two years, then see if I want to reconnect more actively with the engineering profession.”

Still others nearing retirement look to continue to find ways to benefit society in non-engineering ways. “My life is becoming less engineering-centric as I get older,” remarked an electrical engineer from North Carolina. “I have plans to continue to be involved in community and philanthropy over time, but in ways that will have nothing to do with engineering.”

Some engineers who have taken a first step toward retiring are finding semiretirement even more rewarding. “I’ve been working part time in engineering for a small firm and am enjoying engineering more now than when I worked for a Fortune 100 firm,” one survey respondent told us. “Now I am involved in all phases of the business.”

Many engineers talked to us about hobbies they planned to continue or get more involved with. “I have more technical hobbies than my wife is comfortable with,” said another engineer. “I’ll always be working on some kind of engineering project, be it RF, electronics, or astronomical.”

But not all engineers are looking to keep a foothold in the profession. One quipped, “Like a good soldier I plan to just fade away,” while another stated, “I couldn’t care less about ‘the profession.’ I’ll just hang out in the shop and invent stuff.” Still another said, “There’s no telling how I will stay connected. Regardless, I am sure I will be tearing things apart and putting them back together until I die.”

Download the full survey data in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and schematics.
About the Author

Jay McSherry

Jay McSherry is president of Butterflies & Castles, Inc., a full-service marketing communications company that provides market research, strategic planning and other marketing-related services to enterprises and publishers. Before forming B&C in 1991, he'd held senior marketing management positions at some of the major B2B publishing houses, including McGraw-Hill, CMP and IDG. Jay holds a BS degree in marketing from Fordham University. He can be reached at (201) 248.5080.

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