Seeing green

Feb. 8, 2001
Our annual salary survey finds engineers' salaries, job security, and satisfaction with work are all up.

Drumroll please. It's time again for the annual MACHINE DESIGN salary survey. Engineers dished the scoop on salary, job security, challenges, and what they think of their bosses and coworkers.

The typical engineer responding to our survey is a 30 to 39-year-old, non-Hispanic Caucasian, male mechanical engineer. If you have an average annual base salary of $62,881, you are exactly average. Some 44% percent of those responding fall in the $40,000 to $59,999 pay range.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to agree it's good to be in engineering these days. Its 2000-2001 Occupational Outlook Handbook says engineering opportunities look good through 2008. Projected growth varies by technical discipline, but overall engineering employment is expected to increase between 10 and 20%, though the number of engineering degrees has remained fairly constant over the past several years.

Half of the engineers we polled have annual incomes 1 to 5% higher than last year, and a more fortunate 22% have incomes 6 to 10% higher. Most received some kind of bonus, overtime, or special incentive compensation, with 47% getting 1 to 5% of their annual base pay. For 41%, the extra bucks are awarded on company financial performance only, and 35% get compensated based on a combination of company and personal performance.

Are engineers working hard for their money? Most respondents work 40 to 49 hr weekly, about the same amount as in last year's survey results. Two percent put their nose to the grindstone for 30 to 39 hr, and another 2% works 60 or more hours.

Satisfaction guaranteed
The Rolling Stones may not be able to get any satisfaction, but 45% of the engineers we asked say they're at least somewhat satisfied with their jobs. Twenty-five percent consider themselves very satisfied.

What makes engineers smile most? No big surprise: Based on our survey, more than half love a challenge. Next comes a good workplace and cooperative colleagues. The ability to work with constantly changing technology also makes engineers happy.

But forget the money and challenging work assignments if they don't come with a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. As in past surveys, one of the biggest beefs is lack of esteem. Engineers also dislike paper pushing, lack of managerial support, and company politics. Eighty-six percent say they would like to have more responsibility. But love it or hate it, they've got the job, and most engineers feel relatively secure they'll be employed tomorrow.

Most respondents say the job has gotten better during their career, and a whopping 84% would recommend engineering as a career choice to his or her children, although 16% would not. Something good must be happening in the world of engineering, because these percentages are practically reversed from last year's survey results.

Again, job security, changing technology, challenges, and income top the reasons why junior should study engineering. For other engineers, the stress and long hours are not worth the lack of thanks or money. They would tell their children to try a field with less headaches and more greenbacks.

Well, they would if they had the time to see their family. Sure, it's exciting to be in a field with everchanging technology, but trying to keep up can be a source of stress.

As engineers struggle to do more in less time, it's not surprising that they name juggling family and work as another stress factor.

He ain't heavy, he's my coworker
It's been said, mainly by high-school football coaches, that teamwork is important. That may be true, but only slightly more than half of the engineers we surveyed work on teams. Despite laments about poor management, engineers have good things to say about their teammates. Sixty-one percent think others in their workforce, including upper and lower management and nonsupervisory employees, are somewhat cooperative. Only 3% feel those with whom they work are very uncooperative. Peers especially are thought of as cooperative, and according to our survey results, as great sources of information, second only to the Internet.

Ah, the power of the Internet. It dominates as the major choice of information, followed by other engineers and technical publications. Despite the lure of the Web, engineers still look to less-virtual guidance such as trade shows, seminars, and training. The biggest percentage of engineers admit to spending 2 to 5 hr weekly surfing the Web, and 27% spend 5 to 10 hr. The top three reasons for going online are to search for suppliers; communicate with clients, customers, and colleagues; and check out news and current trends.

Where have all the engineers gone?

The Immigration and Naturalization Service reports the number of H-1B visas approved for highly skilled foreign workers.

Last October, President Clinton signed a bill to open America's doors to more foreign workers with high-tech skills. The bill raised the cap for skilled-worker H1-B visas to 195,000 for the next three years. The increase delights high-tech companies, but makes organized labor cringe. Although immigration may solve the high-tech skills shortage temporarily, both camps seem to agree long-term plans need to be made.

Paul M. Romer, an economics professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, developed some ideas for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Romer says innovation policy has been ignored in higher education for the last 20 years. He claims large sums of money have been spent on government programs based on economic assumptions, rather than facts.

Government programs aimed at scientific research mainly increase the demand for scientists and engineers and do little to increase the supply. Government allocations also place graduate students in research-assistant positions under established scientists, which in turn steers them toward further involvement in the academic arena rather than toward technical careers in the private sector.

Romer proposes an alternative to encourage innovation and increase the supply of practicing engineers. For undergraduates, he suggests the federal government give universities $10,000 per engineering student as a way of increasing the number of science and engineering degrees. At the graduate level, Romer recommends the government provide three-year fellowships at $20,000 per year to almost 17,000 students who pursue graduate technical degrees. This will unshackle students from research-assistant chains and encourage them to demand graduate programs that train for the high-tech positions needing to be filled. The two programs would cost about $1 billion a year each. A hefty price tag, but proponents say it may be worth the expense to end the annual to-raise-or-not-toraise-the-visa-cap question.

Will the real engineers please stand up?
Here's a breakdown of who answered our survey, which we conducted via e-mail and the Web. Special thanks to all participants who offered their time and information.

Among the pool of participants, the average number of years experience is 13. For 50%, the highest degree earned is a bachelors degree in engineering, 14% have associates degrees, 3% hold masters in business administration, 14% earned masters in engineering, 1% have doctorates in engineering, and the rest received other degrees. Seventy percent are mechanical engineers, 19% are in manufacturing, 5% are electronic, 5% are electrical, and 1% are materials engineers. Employer sizes vary greatly from 29% working at companies with 100 to 499 people to 20% working at companies with over 5,000. Most of the engineers we surveyed are "underlings," and the rest are busy bossing an average of 11 people.

No more teachers' dirty looks

The number of students enrolling in higher-education distance-learning courses is on the rise according to IDC.

As common sense dictates, and our survey confirms, the higher the engineering degree, the fatter the paycheck. But before you quit your job or spend time in night school to get another diploma for your wall, you may want to take a look online. Online advanced degrees in engineering may be the answer.

More and more students are logging on to an e-education. International Data Corp., a research firm in Framingham, Mass., predicts that college students enrolled in distance-learning courses will reach 2.2 million by next year, and the number of distance learners will represent 15% of higher-education students. The Internet is a major factor in this growth, attracting more students and schools to distance learning.

Georgia Tech is one of a growing list of universities providing advanced online engineering courses and degree programs. It offers a completely online M.S. degree in mechanical engineering. George Wright, associate director of the Center for Distance Learning, says the school hopes to add more full programs in the future.

Wright says the Internet offers more immediate and more two-way interaction than the videotape that has traditionally been used in distance learning. Of course, the 24-7 convenience of the Internet is another big plus, letting students head online and fulfill their course requirements when they can. But online course taking isn't easy, and students who want to be successful must be dedicated and focused. From what Wright has seen, good family and employer support help immensely.

And don't worry. Your framed diploma is the same one you would receive if you attended the brick-and-mortar school. According to Wright, students accepted into the online degree program are accepted to Georgia Tech, and on graduation day, their degree is the same one on-site students get.

Ditto for Stanford University, where the advanced online courses in electrical and computer engineering are exactly the same as the ones on campus. The only difference says Carol Ann Moore, manager of Credit Programs at the Stanford Center for Professional Development, is that unlike regular courses, online students get to rewind if they want to hear the class again.

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