At an engineering professional society meeting a few years ago an engineer going to speak to high school students about engineering careers lamented that the students focus on how well jobs pay and engineering comes off badly in that area. Setting aside the question of whether high pay is more important than job satisfaction, the claim that engineering has low pay is wrong. Engineering is by far the highest paid profession requiring only a bachelor’s degree. It is true that the average engineering job pays less than the average lawyer or doctor job, but this is a misleading way to characterize the earning potential associated with various disciplines.
Last week a high school student contact me with questions for a career research project. It made me to review the hard financial benefits of engineering that aren’t counted in salary averages.
Engineering education is almost free. At some point in undergraduate school, engineering students can find jobs working at labs or paid internships.
Such jobs are not available to students working on an undergraduate degree preparing them for law school. Legal internships were common until around 50 years ago. Now schools often discourage (and sometimes outright forbid) students from doing any paid work while in law school.
Medical school is similar. After graduating physicians work grueling hours for modest pay during years of residency. Once they finish, their average job pays three times what an average engineering job pays. At this point the doctor could be over 30 years old and $150,000 in debt. The engineer could have started working at 22 years old and have built wealth and earned a master's degree for free over the next ten years.
Most electrical engineers work under the industrial exemption that allows them to work on projects without being licensed. If engineers make a mistake, their reputations are at risk, but they cannot be sued and lose their license.
Doctors and lawyers are personally liable for mistakes, even if they’re operating under an LLC or other corporate entity. They buy liability insurance, which is not accounted for in salary statistics. They must maintain this insurance even after they stop practicing. In the case of attorneys, the law suits could come decades after the attorney drafted the documents.
There is no way to protect against the loss of income associated with losing a professional license.
Partly because engineers don’t spend much time in front of customers, they have much lower costs associated with maintaining the image associated with their profession. Some of this is the legitimate need to look like an attorney in the courtroom and some of it is less rational.
Sources of Income
Comparing average salaries does not take into account other sources of income. It is easier for engineers than other professions to invent a new technology and license it. Engineers’ dispassionate problem solving give us an edge in investing and business. I am told anecdotally that engineers in the 50 year old range typically have higher net worths than all other professions, including prestigious professions like medicine and law.
There is a tendency for 80% of the productivity to come from 20% of the people. It is not a rule, but it’s a trend that crops up often. The vast majority of money in any field is earned by the top producers. This is the biggest reason for ignoring the averages. Even in the field with the lowest average pay, the top producers earn millions of dollars. People choosing a job they love a greater chance of being in that top 20% range than people aiming to be average at something that pays well on average.
A cynic will rightly point out that most people entering a profession like it, think they’re good at it, and hope to be a top performer. This is reasonable, but such people should look at the difference in average pay and weigh that against doing the value of doing a job they enjoy. They should also look into the earnings of the bottom earning quintiles of each profession since even where I’m from in the Upper Midwest, is only seems like all the kids are above average.
How do other practicing engineers advise students about engineering as a career?