In a time of turmoil, change and uncertainty, design engineers remain confident in the profession they’ve chosen, optimistic about their personal and financial growth and proud of the value they bring to their craft and to the world.
The 2023 Machine Design Salary & Career Survey polled industry leaders from across the country to gauge their insights into compensation, technology adoption and the challenges they face in an evolving and data-driven age. This survey’s data supports the idea that engineers are satisfied with their work and expect their compensation next year will match their skills in a very tight labor market. But it is their enthusiasm for their craft that provides the most telling clue about the future of engineering.
“The economy goes up and down, even major companies go up and down, but there are so many places where engineers are needed,” wrote one survey respondent. Another wrote, “Overall, engineering has been a fulfilling career as I can see the real-life impact that I and my fellow engineers have had on society. It makes a difference.”
The Machine Design survey was conducted in conjunction with other titles within Endeavor Business Media’s Design & Engineering group. There are common themes across all of these engineering and manufacturing disciplines. When it comes to job satisfaction, for example, 43% of Machine Design respondents described themselves as very satisfied with their job, and another 41% said they were satisfied. That compares with 83% of Design & Engineering respondents who expressed their satisfaction with their job.
There is an equal struggle to fill engineering and manufacturing positions. Two-thirds of Machine Design respondents expressed there are challenges in filling engineering jobs, compared with 69.3% in the larger group. But respondents also said overwhelmingly that engineering was a career worth pursuing, with 70.3% stating that engineering was a good career path and 91.2% saying they would recommend engineering as a career.
“We as engineers keep all the industries running and need to develop more innovation,” one respondent wrote. Another said, “It requires a lot of sacrifice and dedication, but the results end up being worth the effort.”
One other reader wrote, “Much of it depends on the individual. If you have a genuine interest in technology (and) how things work (and) solving problems, it will be rewarding. But engineering is hard. If you are looking for just a way to make a good salary, you will likely not like it.”
While there are some encouraging signs that the long-discussed engineering shortage is easing, there remains a large gap between young and veteran engineers. The 2023 Salary & Career Survey found that 29% of engineers who responded have fewer than 10 years of experience, while 46% have more than 25 years of experience. With that older group of workers eying retirement at some point in the near future, the experience pipeline that will follow this group them dries up quickly. It will take a combination of more engineers at the front end of the profession and the rapid maturing of the younger engineers to overcome this age gap.
In an industry that has long prized stability in employment, there also appears to be more mobility in engineering right now. Just 12% of engineers say they’ve been with their current employer for more than 25 years, while 56% have been at their current company for less than 10 years, and 16% have been there for less than five years.
One area helping bridge the employment gap is technology; another is compensation. In this latter area, engineers who responded to this year’s survey are bullish about their prospects for increased pay in 2024. More than half of respondents received pay increases in 2023, and the expectations for 2024 are very high. More than 40% of respondents said their company plans to add engineers next year, and 63% believe there is an engineering shortage. As a result, 67% say their company is having difficulty finding new engineers, with more than half asking for three years of experience or less in their new hires.
When it comes to direct compensation, 66% of engineers who responded said their current salary is $100,000 or more, with 53% making between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. In terms of other compensation, 72% of engineers earn some kind of bonus, with bonus programs about equally divided between personal performance and organizational performance. For some smaller manufacturers, profit sharing is another avenue of compensation, with 18.3% citing that as part of their pay package.
The combination of engineer shortages and planned expansions for next year make the design engineer a valuable part of the manufacturing team, and the engineers in the survey see that value being rewarded in 2024.
Only 26% of respondents expect their salary to remain the same or decrease next year, with 21% predicting a pay increase of more than 6% and 24.3% seeing an increase of between 4% and 6%. Even so, there is an almost even split among respondents about the competitiveness of their salaries, with 51.5% stating their salary was less competitive than their peers, and 48.5% saying their compensation was equal to or better than their fellow engineers.
One reader summed up the prevailing view by stating, “More and more people are retiring or changing companies. This opens opportunities within the current company. Also, companies are in need of good help more than ever, so more is being paid/incentives given to attract and retain the best.”
The Technology Factor
The advancement of manufacturing technology—robotics, sensors, data management, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and even full enterprise production management systems—have been seen as one way to fill employment gaps and improve operational safety and efficiency. At the same time, engineers need more training and a better understanding of how to use these technology tools to not just design better systems, but to connect that design to the larger operation at the outset.
The post-pandemic era has seen a return to trade shows, with 44.5% of engineers receiving reimbursement for conference attendance. More than one-third of employers also provide compensation for attending seminars (38.5%), college tuition (38.2%), online training (37.4%) and certifications (34.2%). Only 20.6% of respondents said their company does not reimburse for any outside training costs.
Among other channels, the use of engineering videos as a source of information continues to grow, with 61.3% saying they use videos to further their engineering education. Trade publications such as Machine Design are next on the trusted resource list, with 54.3% using the publications and 48.3% utilizing the publication website. Seminars, engineering white papers and webinars and engineering textbooks also were cited by more than 40% of respondents as continuing education tools.
While robotics and sensors have become mainstream solutions, especially during the pandemic, the emergence of AI in the past three years has created fascinating possibilities and a discussion on how—or whether—to apply it to manufacturing issues.
There is a sharp division among survey respondents on AI, with 40.1% stating the industry isn’t ready for AI and machine learning and 35.4% suggesting the use of AI needs regulation. On the other hand, 33% see AI and machine learning as a competitive advantage, 26.9% state it has a positive impact on tools and processes and 17% say it has an impact on products.
All of this led some of our survey respondents to tout the value of basic engineering—and the innate human intelligence it requires. “Engineering is more necessary with the continuing changes in technology and advancement of electronics,” one respondent wrote. Another suggested, “Engineering is the backbone of all technological advancement. All disciplines revolve on engineering fields.”
Other survey respondents were even more enthusiastic. “It's an amazing world to live in!” one wrote. “The scale of the awesomeness increases…when you get-in-there and apply your curiosity! Go learn about stuff and do amazing things!”
And another challenged the next generation of engineers: “Trained engineers are in high demand. Kids in college, stop playing and pay attention.”