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Time a Barrier for Engineers

Jan. 7, 2020
2019 Salary and Career Report shows despite the challenges, it’s a great job.

The only thing you can’t manufacture is the one thing everyone in manufacturing wants in abundance.


Keeping current in an age of acceleration and change is a desirable goal, but the lack of time to pursue that goal is seen is the biggest impediment to its achievement. That perhaps is the most significant conclusion from the annual Machine Design Salary and Career Report. More than half the respondents said time was the biggest barrier to staying current with changes in technology and its impact on design and production.

From webcasts to trade publications to websites, there is no shortage of information available to the design engineer. “There are a lot of sources for engineering information,” one reader wrote on the topic. “Distinguishing the valid ones needs skill and experience.”

Another said, “It´s very fast; every other day there´s something new to learn, and too little time to study.”

Another design engineer noted, “The cost of the seminar is low compared to the costs of my time.”

“Brilliant Ideas”

The average design engineer is a 23-year industry veteran, with 60% having spent more than 20 years in engineering. Not surprisingly, they work hard: 67% spend between 40-60 hours on the job each week. But there are some emerging trends, as 10% spend more half the week working from home, an indication of the increasingly distributive nature of the work. Another 17% spend between 10 and 19 hours working at home.

That work remains fulfilling, as 70% consider engineering a solid career choice. Only 15% of respondents are not satisfied in their current position, and 85% describe themselves as satisfied. Only 32% have ever considered leaving engineering, with an interest in trying something new and stress cited as the two top reasons for such a consideration. And 89% would recommend engineering as a career to a young person.

Why? Those opinions are varied, but they focus on the challenges that can’t be summarized in a survey. “In engineering, one is able to utilize their mechanical aptitude, converse with others both in the field as well as those outside of it, and further understand the previously mystifying tenets of physics,” one reader wrote. “Understanding and communication within the world we live is a gratifying occupation.”

“Engineering is not about making money,” another person contributed. “It's about contributing brilliant ideas for the benefit of mankind. If it’s profitable, then by all means enjoy that benefit too. But if you’re not creative, ambitious, or comfortable with problem solving, then engineering is not for you.”

And one other reader sees engineering as an equally noble profession. “It is an absolutely necessary field, and the work is very rewarding and interesting,” he wrote. “It challenges the mind and you continually grow your toolbox to solve more problems down the line.”

Data Basics

The median salary among respondents to this year’s Salary and Career Report was $95,000, with 45% earning more than $100,000 a year and 15% earn above $150,000 a year. The median bonus compensation is $15,000 a year, but 65% of respondents earn some kind of bonus compensation and 16% receive more than $10,000 in bonuses.

Respondents also see that compensation continuing to grow even as the field itself is expected to expand. Almost 70% of respondents expect salaries to increase in 2020, with 32% expecting an increase of more than 4%. There should be additional expansion in the field, as 43% of respondents said their company plans to increase hiring levels in the next year, and 48% say they plan to maintain current levels.

Experience is one big reason for this compensation: 87% of respondents have at least a Bachelor’s degree, 33% have earned a Master’s degree, and 9% have earned a Doctorate. Of all respondents, 58% say their overall compensation is adequate.

There is some mobility in the field; 12% of respondents are actively looking for new work and 11% changed jobs in the last year, with the primary reasons split between internal promotions and external opportunities. Another 25% say they can’t foresee changing jobs in the future.

The fundamental issue facing design engineering is the same one facing all of engineering. Perhaps the most troubling statistic from this year’s survey is that while 60% of engineers have more than 20 years of experience, just 18% have between 10 and 20 years in the field. There has been an engineering shortage for years, and this year’s respondents see it clearly: two-thirds of respondents agree that not only is there any engineering shortage, but that it’s getting harder to find existing candidates. While much of the focus is on talent at the start of their careers, the lack of mid-range talent to fill many of the leadership role in the near future also is acute.

Working, and Thinking

The design engineer is involved in a vast array of projects—everything from communication systems to control systems and robotics. The survey found 14% of respondents working on projects in aerospace and military applications, while another 10% are working on research and development projects. And with 65% of overall respondents leading the engineering within their organizations, the quality of work is high.

So are the pressures of the job. Asked what keeps them up at night, keeping current with new technologies was cited by one-third of all respondents, and meeting project deadlines came in a close second. Issues of product reliability and quality each were cited by about 25% of readers, and 20% said they were concerned about the health of the economy. There was one sliver of optimism on the horizon: 22% said that nothing was keeping them up at night.

“It’s is an extremely rewarding profession with a potentially unlimited growth potential,” said one reader. “Anybody who likes challenges and solving problems are bound to be extremely satisfied with life as an engineer.”

Data Points

Is there an engineering shortage? 65% say yes.

Is it hard to find qualified candidates? 68% say yes

65% of design respondents are lead engineers within their organizations

The three largest areas of work in what can best be described as a vast array of jobs:

14%—communication systems and projects

12%—Industrial controls and equipment (including robots)


What keeps you up at night?

33%—The challenges of staying current with new technologies

32%—Project deadlines

23%—Product reliability issues

22%—Product quality issues

20%—Concerns about the general health of the economy

22%—Nothing keeps me up at night.

Increasing engineering jobs?

43% of respondents said their company plans to increase

48% say they plan to maintain current levels.

Continuing education:

The five most popular ways for engineers to continue their education:

65%—White papers



60%—Technical publications

57%—Technical publications websites

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