Are Engineers Underappreciated? 6 Reasons They Are

Are engineers underappreciated? Most are. But it heavily depends on various factors that hinge on the profession and the engineer.

As a whole, in the past few decades, engineering has lost its magic in the eye of the public. I would go as far as to say professions that require years of studying have lost their luster.

When it comes to engineering though, several reasons for underappreciation ring the loudest. These are the six following reasons:

  • 21st century standard of living influences engineering salaries
  • The engineering profession poorly sells itself
  • The engineering title isn’t protected
  • Media’s lack of interest in engineering
  • Engineers poorly market themselves
  • Employment background of an engineer

To point out, my focus is on U.S. engineers. I say this because some countries treat their engineers like rockstars. I’m stretching the truth a bit, but you catch my drift.

That said, it’s strange how little recognition engineers get. Especially given how engineers solve some of the most challenging real-world problems. These solutions have made all of our lives beyond amazing!

With the help of scientists, engineers have moved us from caves and into today’s modern world.

I discuss the major overlaps between engineers and scientists too. This further highlights the deep scope of engineering work.

Now, before we dive headfirst into our six points, let’s answer a supporting question first. This will help set up later discussion items.

Why do engineers want greater appreciation? 

Some engineers want respect for the work they do, as it’s no walk in the park.

For example, many engineers hold a huge amount of liability for the designs they stamp off on.

Putting your name on a bridge design that tens of thousands of people drive over isn’t a joke.

Look no further than the great level of creativity required for the Golden Gate Bridge design.

Also, not to forget the challenging problems engineers constantly need to solve. Plus the accompanying bullshit you need to put up with, in the problem-solving process.

What’s more, throw in the fact engineering has become a commodity in many areas of work. Lower level engineers are easily replaceable today like an old printer you want to chuck.

This rubs many engineers the wrong way, understandably so. You have virtually very little job security.

What type of respect do engineers even want?

I find most engineers only want appreciation from others in their company. For example, they don’t want managers to treat them like shit. I’m talking about a manager doing the following to an engineer:

  • Ignoring their inputs
  • Rushing their projects
  • Making ludicrous demands
  • Offering low salaries and raises
  • Taking credit for their work
  • Unwarranted blaming for problems

A lack of appreciation in the place you spend most of your waking day will make life hard for anyone. You’ll become miserable. Who wants that? Not me!

Beyond that, I doubt many engineers care for much of any outside praise. Heck, most engineers are introverts and would rather stay away from the public.

In fact, many engineers I know could do without any public contact whatsoever. They’d be fine living in an isolated town of 500 people working away on their gadgets.

With that out of the way, let’s now discuss each of the six points. This will paint a better picture of where the underappreciation comes from. Both from the public and other professionals.

#1 21st century standard of living influences engineering salaries

simple apple iphone design

Our standard of living today has radically improved in the past couple of centuries. If you take a peek in history, you’ll see not so long ago how harsh life was.

I’m talking about it was common to die a painful death in your thirties and forties. Then travel trips that take 10 hours today, took months back then.

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

Enough rambling. 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.

All the awesome electronics we all love would double in price. It’s simple economics. Companies need to cover their overhead costs in some way.

So, the iPhone that costs you $1,000 today, would cost $2,000 tomorrow. I doubt insane lines would form anymore at Apple stores for iPhone launches.

This may be the reason why no outside forces control the engineering profession. I’m talking about outside forces who focus on ratcheting up salaries across the board.

Gatekeeper of the engineering profession

The engineering profession has the NCEES, but they’re not too powerful.

Rather, think of organizations like the AMA. The AMA for example helps “limit” the number of graduating medical doctors. In return, the medical doctor supply remains low, and demand shoots up.

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

Of course, exceptions exist in the engineering labor market. Highly specialized skills are low in supply and high in demand.

Overall, this excess supply leads to reduced salaries for the lower level engineers. This is where the idea comes from that engineers are underpaid.

As a result, the salaries for engineers aren’t great in the eyes of the public. In society today, a lot of the time we only equate near million-dollar incomes with high value. So most engineers don’t receive any recognition and praise for the work they do. Their salaries make them invisible to the masses.

I find this view to be complete bullshit, but that’s an entirely different story.

To further showcase my point, look at Silicon Valley. Many software engineers are pulling in million-dollar-plus compensation packages there.

These engineers are now viewed as sexy and cool. Look no further than the ‘Silicon Valley‘ TV series people love to watch.

#2 The engineering profession poorly sells itself

To properly position this subject, let’s review the profession of medical doctors.

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 American Medical Association (AMA). They control the number of seats for medical doctors. They do this by “limiting” the number of accredited medical schools that can open.

Thus, they can maintain limited admissions to only get the best of the best students. Also, low performing students can’t easily weasel their way into medical school.

In engineering though, it’s an entirely different story. Sure, it’s hard to get accepted into engineering. But many more below-average students will get through the doors.

I’ve created a comparison table below of acceptance rates. You can see how medical school accepts far fewer students than engineering schools. I used data from various calendar years. Overall though, the numbers are very consistent year after year.

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%

Clearly, the filter set in place for medical school is much more restrictive. Whereas with engineering, a larger variance of students gets accepted.

Because of this acceptance difficulty, the public may view doctors as higher in value. Also in the eyes of the public, a lot of the time, more education equates to greater smarts.

By default, logic aside, this may mean higher intellect.

I want to point out though, getting straight A grades doesn’t mean you’re a genius. And flunking out of school isn’t an indication you’ll do poorly in the working world. But on average, grade data gives you a firm grasp of the quality of accepted students.

#3 The engineering title isn’t protected

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

I’m totally cool with that. Frankly, I don’t like discussing what I do much, outside of the engineering community. I find it to be pretentious.

Returning to the topic at hand. I believe a lot of underappreciation comes from a lack of title protection. The engineering title isn’t protected in the U.S.

This is why should “engineer” be a protected title is such a hot topic.

In short, so many non-engineers use the ‘Engineer’ title. This saturates the professional brand and the title loses its weight.

The public then understandably becomes confused. Because little Bobby straight out of high school is the ‘Building Engineer’ at a Fortune 500 company.

Compare it to the medical profession, where the ‘Doctor’ title is closely protected. You rarely hear the doctor title used by someone who isn’t a real doctor. 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. There are even popcorn engineers.

This confusion creates underappreciation from non-engineers. Because frankly, how do you appreciate a profession when you don’t even know who the players are?

#4 Media’s lack of interest in engineering

ignoring elephant in the room

Most engineering work isn’t too sexy. Plus, outside of solving complex problems, people don’t really understand the work.

Engineering isn’t a loud and exciting profession. For this reason to most people, it may come across as boring.

As an example, there were several amazing engineering shows on TV back in the day. ‘Impossible Engineering’ and ‘Megastructures.’

The production was top notch and the content was mesmerizing to me. Yet, the non-technical minded people I knew could care less about the show.

And this was the best of the best engineering content at the time. Before Youtube hit it big.

BUT, I will point out, controversy and human intrigue do strike the public interest. Look no further than Elon Musk.

He’s controversial, rich, smart, and he’s like a character straight out of an ‘Iron Man’ movie. The fascination with him follows the reality TV phenomenon I believe.

Funny thing is, I doubt anyone even thinks of him as an engineer. He’s the fanatical billionaire CEO, even though he’s really a genius-level engineer.

So there you have it. Engineers are boring to the public.

As a result, the public knows little about engineering work. Outside of the perceived fact, they work in small offices solving challenging problems.

In short, you only appreciate something you care for and have an interest in.

The Hollywood portrayal of engineers

In most movies, directors portray engineers as unkempt people. Also, they work alone tirelessly in small offices with their heads down. All without providing much of any input in any meaningful decision-making.

This is the engineer image I pulled from watching movies as a kid. It’s not a coincidence this image sits 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 can’t deny it.

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

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

Maybe if there were more engineering-centric TV shows it’d help matters. No different than the countless doctor shows on TV. These shows glorify the rosiness of medical doctors to unworldly heights. Without a doubt, these shows have bolstered the image of medical doctors to the public.

But at the same time, engineers don’t help themselves, with the image they portray.

#5 Engineers poorly market themselves

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

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

Dress code

Dress codes in engineering can be very poor. Most just wear blue jeans and a non-ironed t-shirt.

Then throw in poor grooming and you can see the presentation problem.

Decades ago, engineers would dress sharp in a tie when they walked into the office.

I know this sounds highly superficial. But humans are visual creatures, and we do innately judge books by their cover to some degree. No matter how much we may try to deny it.

What’s more, I’m a part of this “problem” myself too. I wear jeans and a regular t-shirt a lot.

I follow Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg’s dress code philosophy. You have multiple same outfits, and you cycle them throughout your week.

Not having to choose what to wear reduces your mental bandwidth in the mornings. It saves you A LOT of time. That said, I do dress up when I meet a client or outside party.

Frankly, outside of public meetings, I could care less what anyone thinks of me. Plus, it’s not like my dress code translates to more money or better engineering designs.

BUT anyone who denies the ramifications of poor dress attire is fooling themselves.

The impact of a poor dress code

In the end, what’s the result of a poor dress attire? In many instances, you can’t tell the difference between an engineer and an average Joe. An engineer looks just like another person who is going grocery shopping on a relaxed day.

Psychologically, this doesn’t create any distinction in the eyes of non-engineers. That’s 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 or nurse!”

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

This same philosophy applies in the opposite direction as well. Imagine if top-level engineers walked around in 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 thing over and over again. You only work on the same boring projects day after day.

Any mystique you had over yourself as an engineer would over time evaporate. Because many people do think of engineers as hard workers who constantly look to learn.

I’ve heard this firsthand from many non-engineers too. This realization was a reality check for them. Without a doubt, they lost some respect for the engineering profession as a whole.

Poor social skills

One reason Obama was so beloved by so many people was that he spoke amazingly well. People equate great communication skills with intelligence and respect.

Because growing up, the people you saw on TV who spoke amazingly well were intelligent. Also, they were highly respected. Thus, you think all smart and highly respected people speak well.

It’s a selection bias. It’s why British accents seem intelligent to us people in America. Growing up watching BBC, the anchors were very sophisticated and intelligent sounding. All the while, they had British accents.

Many engineers have poor communication skills though. Plus, they’re shy and can be awkward around others.

As a result, engineers get a bad rap.

I find public speaking to be very important. I’ve even written 11 tips on how engineers can improve their public speaking.

#6 Employment background of an engineer

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 too:

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

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. And frankly, just awesome, in the public eye.

Compare that to if you’re an engineer at ‘Billy’s Engineering.’ No one would bat an eye.

What’s more, there’s a finite count of Apple engineers. You don’t see them walking around everywhere.

This exclusivity raises the engineer’s value in the public eye. Kind of like the aura surrounding pro athletes who you rarely see walking around.

That said, most engineers don’t work at recognizable companies.

Are you self-employed?

Being a business owner also carries a heavy punch. People equate business owners with smarts and wealth.

So naturally, people will look at you with greater praise if you run your own business.

Of course, you need to have an actual released product or service. Because these days, everyone on social media is a CEO entrepreneur.

I find most engineers are risk-averse though and don’t start their own companies.

What type of projects do you work on?

If you just tell someone I work on space rockets, that’s just so cool. Everyone knows about space rockets.

Growing up, almost every person had a personal connection with them because of the space race.

So, if you work on something that’s recognizable, people will appreciate you more. Because there’s a deep-rooted personal connection.

For this reason, some engineers blurt out, “I’m an engineer and I design space rockets.” This will definitely get people’s attention.

The problem is, most engineers work on very boring 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 many doctors today feel they’re underappreciated.

In the end, you pursue a career for various reasons. One reason is a deep passion for the work.

It should NEVER be a search for appreciation from the public. Looking for validation through any external source will always lead to pain. Plus, it’ll always remain a moving target.

Sure it’s nice to be greater appreciated, but you can’t always have the best of both worlds.

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

The great thing about engineers is though, most don’t pound the ground in search of public praise. This is especially the case as engineers move up in age.

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

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