Are Engineers Underpaid? 7 Discussion Points

Are engineers underpaid? No. Engineers work in a free market and their pay depends on their skills. It’s on them to make the big bucks.

Let me tell you, I hear this kind of chatter in just about every profession, even in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Non-superstar NBA players often whine about their so-called low pay. They go on about their short careers and how Uncle Sam grabs half their paycheck. In 2023, the rookie minimum salary was $982,000, but they still weren’t happy.

The thing is, context and perspective matter. To get a grip on engineer pay, we’ll dive into these 7 topics:

  1. Subject matter difficulty doesn’t dictate salary
  2. The range of skillsets and abilities among engineers
  3. The various types of engineering work
  4. Engineering labor market
  5. Artificial control over the engineering labor market
  6. The influence of modern living standards on engineering salaries
  7. Future of the engineering profession

Engineers are underpaid compared to who?

To tackle the question, “are engineers underpaid,” we need to figure out who we’re comparing them to. Doctors, pro athletes, dentists, entertainers…?

For each comparison, we gotta weigh every variable on both sides. For example, let’s stack up the average salaries of senior engineers against medical doctors in San Francisco.

Type of workAverage salary
Mechanical engineer$129,000
Electrical engineer$130,000
Civil engineer$135,000
Software engineer$140,000
Primary care$261,000

Sure, doctors seem to have the upper hand in terms of salary. But this table doesn’t tell the whole story.

Doctors don’t rake in the big bucks until their mid-thirties, and they’re usually drowning in student loan debt.

Engineers, on the other hand, can start pulling in a decent salary at 21. Plus, they can invest their cash for nearly 15 years before a doctor even starts. Compound interest does wonders, and engineers usually have less student loan debt.

Now, I’m not saying engineers will out-earn doctors on average over their lifetimes. But, the comparison is way more complex than it seems.

#1 Subject matter difficulty doesn’t dictate salary

math chalkboard with geometry algebra calculus

No one would argue that engineering isn’t a tough major. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it guarantees a high salary.

In fact, there are plenty of harder jobs that pay less than engineering, like construction work or manual labor in scorching heat.

Since there’s a low barrier to entry for construction work, there are tons of people vying for those jobs. This means employers don’t have to shell out big money to attract workers.

The same goes for engineering. Every year, tens of thousands of engineers with similar skill sets graduate. Engineering isn’t the exclusive club it once was.

I know loads of engineers who’d argue with me, especially after surviving engineering school. They’d say they deserve high-paying jobs after all that hard work. But the market doesn’t give a shit about your feelings or what you think is tough work.

Now, super-skilled engineers like 10x engineers are a whole different ball game. They get the big bucks because their talent is rare. Only the highest bidder can snatch them up.

#2 The range of skillsets and abilities among engineers

In the NBA, every player brings something unique to the table, even the benchwarmers. That’s why NBA players get the pay they do.

But engineering is a different beast. Lots of engineers graduate with underwhelming skills. For starters, real-world engineering experience beats classroom learning any day. Plus, many just don’t have the passion for it.

To top it off, low-level work is being gobbled up by automation and AI, leaving unskilled and unenthused engineers scrambling for crumbs. Just having “engineer” on your diploma won’t cut it.

But then, you’ve got the masterminds who designed the Golden Gate Bridge and the brilliant NASA engineers who sent humans to the moon. These top-tier engineers are a rare breed.

The takeaway here is that engineers differ wildly in skill and motivation. I’ve got friends raking in over $500,000 as employees, all thanks to their grit. After graduation, they honed specialized skills that set them apart from the pack.

#3 The different types of engineering work

first launch of the spacex falcon heavy rocket
The first launch of the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket (Photo Credit: Bill Jelen)

Slap “engineering” on a job title, and it doesn’t guarantee you’ll be flexing those brain muscles. You might end up a glorified paper pusher or a professional bolt-counter.

I know plenty of engineers who never touch technical work. Heck, some of my engineering pals tell me a high schooler could do their job.

So, why would an employer shell out big bucks for this kind of gig? Spoiler alert: they won’t!

As long as engineers apply for these positions, employers will pick them over high school kids. It’s a no-brainer that not all engineering jobs are created equal. Some are insanely cool, while others you’d be too ashamed to mention at the dinner table.

It’s like the NBA, where players often demand trades. A role player on one team might be a leading scorer on another, and the cash follows suit.

#4 Engineering labor market

Engineers live and breathe the free market, and there, you’re paid what you’re worth.

If a job pays $40,000 a year, that’s what you’ll get. The market doesn’t care about your thoughts or feelings. Let me break it down with a burger-flipping example.

Say I offer you a job flipping burgers for $10 an hour, but you want $20. If you turn me down, I’ll find someone just as qualified who’ll take the $10. If I can’t, it means my wage is too low, and people can earn more elsewhere.

So, I up my hourly wage until someone bites. But if I find a line of folks willing to work for $10 an hour, it means you’re overvaluing your skills.

Bottom line, there’s freedom in the marketplace. I’m not forcing anyone to work for me, and job seekers choose whether to accept or not.

However, everyone needs to provide more value than they cost a business, or most jobs wouldn’t exist.

Engineers in the free market

No one’s forcing engineers to chase these so-called “underpaid” gigs. They choose to do so willingly.

Evidently, some folks don’t see these engineering jobs as underpaid, which is why a $40k-per-year position has so much competition.

One could argue this issue exists due to a lack of regulations, allowing companies to exploit the oversupply of engineers.

On the flip side, maybe engineers take these jobs because it’s better than their previous pay or they’re cool with a lower standard of living and roommates.

These people probably don’t see themselves as underpaid.

#5 Artificial control over the engineering labor market

You know how the American Medical Association (AMA) keeps a tight grip on the medical doctor labor market? They limit the number of accredited medical schools and residency spots, which naturally drives up salaries due to low supply and high demand. And hey, I’m all for it, as long as healthcare quality stays top-notch. Nobody wants a rookie doc slicing them open, right?

Now, let’s talk engineering. If a bridge engineer messes up, they can cause way more damage than an incompetent doctor. Yet, there’s no AMA equivalent keeping a close eye on the engineering profession. We’ve got the NCEES, an organization focused on advancing professional licensure for engineers, but they’re nowhere near as powerful as the AMA in controlling the number of engineering grads.

Sure, the NCEES tries to control engineer numbers through licensure, but there are some tricky questions, like whether “engineer” should be a protected title. Long story short, engineering schools are way less picky about who they let in. So, we end up with less-skilled engineers joining the workforce, and their pay takes a hit as a result.

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%

Engineers taking a page from the Docs’ playbook

So, what if engineers tried to mimic the AMA’s tactics and up the education requirements? The NCEES gave it a shot, but their attempt to add a Master’s degree requirement for P.E. licensure didn’t quite pan out. In theory, more education means raising the bar for entry and reducing the number of engineers, thus increasing demand.

But honestly, is that the best move? I don’t think so. Not every engineering field needs super-advanced courses, and the overall quality of work isn’t really suffering. Plus, let’s not forget about the struggles of poor classroom teaching – engineering education needs a serious overhaul.

Unions aren’t the answer, either. Ultimately, engineers should focus on leveling up their skills to become as in-demand as specialized doctors.

#6 The influence of modern living standards on engineering salaries

Here’s the thing: our modern way of life relies on cheap engineering labor. Your favorite gadgets – video games, TVs, kitchen appliances – might seem pricey now, but if engineers suddenly started raking in double the dough, those items would become crazy expensive.

It’s basic economics: a product’s price comes from adding up material, labor, and manufacturing costs, with labor usually taking up a hefty chunk. Maybe that’s why there’s no AMA-like force controlling the engineering world. Instead, it’s up to engineers themselves to boost their value in the job market.

#7 Future of the engineering profession

white cyborg finger about touch human finger

Engineers, listen up: if you don’t want to see your wages deflate, you’ve got to stay on top of the game. Here are four key trends you need to watch out for:

The flood of kids diving into STEM fields

The education system is funneling kids into STEM fields, creating an influx of engineers. With an increase in supply and a drop in demand, it’s no wonder the field is becoming saturated.

But here’s the catch – many of these kids aren’t truly passionate about STEM, so the pool is filling up with lower-skilled workers.

Globalization and H1B visas

Gone are the days when you only had to outshine your next-door neighbor. Now, you’re up against talent from all around the globe, making every engineering gig a dogfight.

And with companies outsourcing to save some bucks and remote work on the rise, it doesn’t matter if you’re in LA or India – the competition is cutthroat.

The surge of automation and AI

As automation and AI progress, basic engineering jobs will bite the dust. The ones that’ll stick around (for now, at least) need creativity, hands-on work, or killer communication skills.

Soon enough, one whiz engineer could replace three. Software is creeping into our workforce, and before you know it, machines will be battling for jobs right beside you.

Democratization of information 

Knowledge isn’t trapped in universities anymore. With an internet connection, you can learn everything I did in school – and maybe even more efficiently.

So, up your game and sharpen your skills, or you’ll be lost in the sea of folks who know just as much as you. You don’t want the underpaid label just because your skills are a dime a dozen.

What to do if you think you’re an underpaid engineer?

It’s not all doom and gloom, as long as you don’t kick back and expect more cash just for being an engineer. The sky’s the limit when it comes to making bank, but you’ve got to level up your skills or launch your own business to make it happen.

Remember, a diploma – a piece of paper – isn’t a golden ticket to a high salary.

How to level up as an engineer

Check out these articles to boost your skills:

With sharper skills, switching jobs becomes a breeze. And job-hopping is the fastest way to bump up your salary. Keep an eye out for more impactful and skill-intensive jobs.

Remember, it’s not about what your current boss pays you. It’s about how much other employers are ready to fork out to have you on their team.

Feeling bold? Crank it up a notch and start your own business. Watch your income soar without the constraints of a salary ceiling.

“Are engineers underpaid?” wrap up

At the end of the day, you’re the captain of your career ship.

You choose if you want to stay put in a low-paying job. You also choose if you want to change your situation.

I’ve noticed many engineers crave job security above all, since they’re risk-averse. So, it’s no surprise that complaining comes easier than finding a better-paying job or starting a business.

So, are engineers underpaid? I don’t think so! If you’re ready to hustle and strategize, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. Top-notch engineers will always be hot commodities!

Do you feel engineers are underpaid? Why do you think doctors rake in more money than engineers? 


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