Are Engineers Underappreciated? 6 Reasons They Are

Are engineers underappreciated? Most are. Engineering as a whole has lost its magic in the eye of the public and employers.

The following reasons for underappreciation ring the loudest, which we’ll discuss in detail:

  1. Influence of 21st century standard of living on engineering salaries
  2. Protection of the engineering profession
  3. Unprotected engineering title
  4. Media’s disinterest in engineering
  5. Poor self marketing by engineers
  6. Engineer’s employment background

To point out, my focus is on U.S. engineers. I say this because some countries treat their elite engineers as rock stars. And deservedly so.

Engineers solve some of the most challenging real-world problems. It has been this way from the dawn of time. The original designers of humanity were a blend of scientist and engineer.

Now, before we dive into our six points, let’s find out if engineers even want greater appreciation.

Do engineers want greater appreciation? 

Most engineers are introverts, and they rarely want external public praise. But, they do look for appreciation inside their company.

Engineers don’t want their managers and other business folks to do the following:

  • Ignore their inputs
  • Rush their projects
  • Make ludicrous demands
  • Offer low salaries and raises
  • Take credit for their work
  • Walk over them
  • Blame them unjustifiably

A lack of appreciation from where you spend most of your waking hours, will make life hard for anyone. Especially, when the work involves complex, challenging, and high risk designs.

Take signing off on a bridge design, which millions of people will drive over. Look no further than the high level of creativity required for the Golden Gate Bridge design.

So the appreciation is well warranted, but why is there disregard from the public and employers?…

#1 Influence of 21st century standard of living on engineering salaries

simple apple iphone design

The standard of living today has radically improved from just a couple of centuries ago. It used to be common to die a painful death in your thirties and forties. Then travel trips, which now take 10 hours, used to take months.

This is why it’s important to understand the history of our modern standard of living. Not only will you better appreciate life, but you can better understand the labor market.

Now, how does this all tie back to the underappreciation of engineers?

Today’s standard of living hinges on the cost of engineering labor. If tomorrow, all engineering salaries doubled, consumer goods would double as well. Think of your favorite tech gadget going from $1,000 to $2,000.

It’s simple economics. Companies need to cover their overhead costs, which a large part is labor. Naturally, the cost would pass down to consumers.

Gatekeeper of the engineering profession

The engineering profession has the NCEES. But they’re not comparable to the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA helps limit the number of graduating medical doctors. In return, the medical doctor supply remains low, and demand increases.

While in engineering, graduating engineers with basic skills endlessly flood the market. This oversupply leads to a decreased demand for engineers.

Of course, exceptions exist in the engineering labor market. Specialized skills, including 10x engineers, are low in supply and high in demand.

Overall though, this excess supply leads to reduced salaries for average engineers. This is why many believe engineers are underpaid.

Here’s the kicker, in the eye of the public, only high six-figure incomes equate to high value. So most engineers don’t receive much appreciation, as their salaries make them invisible.

To further showcase my point, look at software engineers in Silicon Valley. Some of these engineers pull near million-dollar-plus total compensation packages. This in return makes them sexy and cool to the public. Look no further than the ‘Silicon Valley‘ TV series people love to watch.

All in all, this may be why no outside forces control the engineering profession. External institutions who could crank up engineer salaries, would disrupt the consumer market.

#2 Protection of the engineering profession

To properly position this argument, let’s again compare engineering to the medical profession.

To preface, I know, doctors have countless problems of their own in their field of work. But what they’re great at is protecting their profession. Much better than engineers at least.

Again, think of the AMA. They control how many doctors graduate, by limiting the number of medical schools. In return, only the best of the best students become doctors.

In engineering though, it’s an entirely different story. Sure, it’s hard to get accepted into an engineering school. But many below-average students get through the doors. Also, there’s no tight regulation, over the opening of new engineering schools.

Below are school acceptance rates. The chart shows how medical schools accept far fewer students than engineering schools.

School Medical School Acceptance RateEngineering Undergrad Acceptance RateEngineering Graduate Acceptance Rate
Stanford University2.3%5%13%
University of Arizona2.3%83%51%
Virginia Tech2.3%72%22%
UCLA 2.4%12%27%
Brown University2.8%9%28%
University of North Carolina3.6%52%18%
Harvard University4.1%4%9%
John Hopkins University7%12%35%

Because of this acceptance variance, the public views doctors as higher in value. Plus, the public typically equates greater formal education with greater smarts.

To point out though, getting straight A grades doesn’t mean you’re a genius. Similarly, flunking out of school isn’t an indication you’ll do poorly in the working world.

#3 Unprotected engineering title

When someone presses me in what I do, I sometimes blurt out “engineer.” And most often, no one finds the title impressive.

No skin off my back. I don’t even like discussing what I do as I find it pretentious.

But I digress. I believe a lot of underappreciation is because the engineering title isn’t protected.

Many non-engineers use the ‘Engineer’ title. This degrades the professional brand, and causes public confusion. Because Bobby straight out of high school is the ‘Building Engineer’ at a Fortune 500 company. So, becoming an engineer must be easy…

Compare it to the medical profession, where the ‘Doctor’ title is closely protected. You rarely hear someone call themselves a doctor when they’re not. Plus, when you hear ‘doctor,’ you think of people who help treat the sick and ill.

But, when you hear the engineer title, you can’t visualize what an engineer does. Because frankly today, engineers apparently do everything under the kitchen sink. I’ve even come across the title “popcorn engineer” on a business card.

In short, how do you appreciate a profession when you don’t even know who the players are?…

#4 Media’s disinterest in engineering

ignoring elephant in the room

Most engineering work isn’t sexy and exciting to outsiders. All the public knows and cares about, is engineers solve complex problems.

As an example, back in the day we had the ‘Impossible Engineering’ and ‘Megastructures’ TV shows. The production was top notch and I found the content mesmerizing. Yet, the non-technical minded people I knew, had no interest in the shows.

BUT, to point out, controversy and human intrigue does strike interest in the public. Look no further than Elon Musk.

He’s controversial, rich, smart, and a character straight out of an ‘Iron Man’ movie. But, I doubt anyone even thinks of him as an engineer. He’s the fanatical billionaire CEO, even though he’s a technical whiz.

So there you have it. Engineers are a boring bunch to the public. And naturally, you only appreciate things you care for and have an interest in.

The Hollywood portrayal of engineers

In most movies, directors portray engineers as unkempt obedient workers. The engineers work alone tirelessly in small offices with their heads down.

In fact, this is the engineer image I pulled from watching movies as a youngster. It’s no coincidence, this image sits deep in the minds of many people for better or worse. What’s more, this portrayal image has a ring of truth to it in many instances. I even deeply discuss Hollywood’s portrayal of engineers.

So, how can you blame non-engineers for not better appreciating engineers?

In the end, unfortunately, the media has a lot of control over how we perceive professions.

Look at doctor TV shows, which glorify medical doctors to unworldly heights. Without a doubt, these shows have bolstered the image of medical doctors. Engineers though, don’t have similar TV shows.

#5 Poor self marketing by engineers

Engineers aren’t without blame. In fact, they’re a big part of the problem for why they’re underappreciated.

Several things I’ve noticed are dress code, complacency, and poor social skills. We’ll discuss all three.

Dress code

Engineers dress poorly. Most just wear blue jeans and a non-ironed t-shirt. Then throw in poor grooming and you can firsthand see the presentation problem.

Decades ago though, engineers dressed sharp with a tie, going to the office.

Now not surprisingly, humans are visual creatures. We naturally judge books by their cover, as superficial and crass as this sounds.

What’s more, I’m a part of this problem. I wear jeans and a regular t-shirt, as I follow Steve Jobs’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s dress code philosophy.

I have many identical outfits, which I cycle through. Not needing to choose what to wear, greatly reduces mental bandwidth and saves you time.

I do dress up though when I meet clients. But beyond such interactions, I could care less what anyone thinks of me. Still, I’m not oblivious to the ramifications of my dress attire.

The impact of a poor dress code

In many instances, you can’t tell the difference between an engineer and an average Joe.

Psychologically, this doesn’t create a distinction in the eyes of non-engineers. This is why a white lab coat and scrubs catches everyone’s attention when you’re out and about. You quickly put two and two together, and you say, “oh, there’s a doctor!”

To go a step further, look at police officers in uniforms. Their military-style uniforms, help dehumanize them to the public. And this only happens when someone looks different than you. Thus, the public is less hesitant to attack police in protests.

This same philosophy applies in the opposite direction as well. Imagine if top-level engineers walked around in real Iron Man suits like Tony Stark. I bet the respect level for these engineers would top all celebrities and pro athletes.

Complacency in work

Complacency plagues all professions. You find a job, and you plant your roots and you stop learning.

Then others who work with you begin to view you differently. If at one point they were awe-inspired with you, they’ll now think differently. They’ll see you as someone who does the same boring task over and over again.

Many people do outwardly think of engineers as hard workers who constantly look to learn. But I’ve heard folks lose respect for engineers, after they viewed their work habits.

Poor social skills

One reason Obama was so beloved as president, is he speaks amazingly well. People equate great communication skills with intelligence and respect.

Growing up, the people you saw on TV who spoke well, were intelligent and respected. So naturally, you think all smart and highly respected people speak well. It’s a selection bias.

It’s why British accents seem sophisticated and intelligent to people in America. The BBC anchors with British accents all eloquently discussed highly complex topics.

Engineers though, have poor communication skills. They’re shy and awkward around others as well. This is a huge hinderance to their image.

To level up, check out my 11 tips on how engineers can improve their public speaking.

#6 Engineer’s employment background

spacex rocket at cape canaveral air force station
Photo Credit: SpaceX

Let’s now further drill into the individual engineer. I find the value of an engineer greatly hinges on the following questions:

  • Where do you work?
  • Are you self-employed?
  • What type of projects do you work on?

We’ll go over all three.

Where do you work?

There’s a reason why someone would say, “I’m an Apple engineer,” versus “I’m an engineer.”

The Apple title carries a heavy punch. Plus, everyone knows how amazing Apple products are. Then there’s the great lore of the amazing Steve Jobs.

By default, this makes Apple engineers appear highly intelligent to the public eye. Now, compare to someone who is an engineer at ‘Billy’s Engineering.’ No one would bat an eye.

What’s more, there’s a finite number of Apple engineers. This exclusivity raises the engineer’s value in the public eye. Similar to the aura surrounding pro athletes who you rarely see walking around.

Most engineers though, don’t work at recognizable companies.

Are you self-employed?

Being a business owner also carries a heavy punch. The public equates business owners with smarts and wealth.

Most engineers though are risk-averse, and don’t typically start their own companies.

Of course, you need to have a legitimate business too. Because these days, everyone on social media is a CEO entrepreneur.

What type of projects do you work on?

If you tell someone you work on space rockets, you’ll blow their minds. Growing up, almost every person had a personal connection with the space race.

So, if you work on something recognizable, people will greater appreciate you. Because there’s a deep-rooted personal connection. For this reason, some engineers blurt out, “I’m an engineer and I design space rockets.”

The problem is though, most engineers work on mundane projects as viewed by the public. For example, calculating beam loads for small buildings.

“Are engineers underappreciated?” wrap up

Clearly, this isn’t a black and white question. No different than how some doctors today feel they’re underappreciated.

In the end though, you should pursue a career for personal reasons. It should NEVER be for external validation. Your insecurities will remain and the fulfillment pursuit will become a moving target.

But, appreciation from people in your company is a different story. Because through a lack of appreciation, your life can become a nightmare.

Overall though, the engineering profession and engineers, need to better represent themselves.

Are engineers underappreciated to you? If yes, why do you think engineers are underappreciated? 

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