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.

“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.”

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