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How much is an engineer worth?

As always happens when yet another report emerges warning of a UK engineering skills shortage, the initial response from vocal readers of The Engineer has been to decry the level of pay that engineers receive in this country.

As one reader pointed out, the 15 per cent wage premium mentioned in the report for those who’ve studied for years to gain an engineering qualification doesn’t seem a lot. However, it’s not the whole picture, so I thought I’d draw out some extra points from the Royal Academy of Engineering-commisioned study.

According to the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey of 163,218 people aged 16–64 in England & Wales between 2004 and 2010, looking at those who had STEM qualifications and those who worked in SET jobs, there was:

  • a 19% wage premium for STEM overall;
  • a 10% premium for science occupations;
  • a 33% premium for technology occupations;
  • a 15% premium for engineering occupations;
  • but hybrid science/engineering occupations do not attract a premium.

This implies that if you work in an engineering job you are likely to earn an average of 15 per cent more than the average person in the UK (but not 15 per cent more than minimum wage, as one reader suggested).

The Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of 2011 found median wage for engineering professionals to be £29,700. The ONS median full time salary in the UK in 2011 was £26,244 – which makes that 15 per cent figure look about right.

These engineering jobs will include technicians and medium-skilled workers. However, if we look at engineering graduate salaries and compare them to those of people with only two A Levels, we see a bigger premium.

Data from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) showed that an engineering graduate in 2009 was likely to earn 32 per cent more than someone with two A Levels. This was also higher than the average graduate premium, which was only 27 per cent above the salary of A Level holders.

The Academy’s report also found that engineers’ salaries rose sharply as they got older, suggesting employers put an even bigger premium on experience than they do on qualifications.

This can also be seen in a June 2010 survey by ERS of registered engineers and technicians, which found the median wage of incorporated engineers was £41,345, and the median wage of chartered engineers to be £52,609.

The other point to remember how are perceptions of typical earnings in the UK are skewed by the vast amounts earned by some company directors and those in banking – a sector often accused of draining talent from the engineering graduate pool by offering salaries that manufacturing firms just can’t compete with.

Some politicians, newspaper journalists and professionals would consider £50,000, £60,000 or even £100,000 to be a middle class salary. And that’s certainly a lot less than the million-pound bonuses available in the City. But if the median salary is £26,000, then there are an awful lot of people out there for whom £50,000 would be a modest fortune.

Engineers who work hard by studying for years, gain desirable and useful skills, and help change the world for the better deserve a substantial reward. Unfortunately, engineering doesn’t always produce the kind of short-term profits that facilitate the bonuses and commissions seen in financial services.

Research and development, product design and building manufacturing facilities require substantial investment and long-term strategy, whereas moving imaginary pots of money around on a computer – while often socially useless or even damaging – can create money almost from thin air.

That’s not to say there isn’t a problem with engineering salaries, or that it wouldn’t be worth engineering firms looking again at their own payrolls if they want to encourage more young people into the sector. But engineers’ earnings are always going to be limited to some degree by the money available.

Readers' comments (74)

  • I also disagree with the findings on salary, I've worked in the railway for over 20 years, I've seen graduates come in into finance etc and regular pull in over £40K whilst us mere mortals of degree qualified engineers are lucky to recieve £29K and are treated with contempt by managers

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  • Seems we're still suffering from the "man in oily overalls" syndrome.

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  • I got out oof the UK Engineering sector 20 years ago having got fed up of the lack of job status and poor remuneration. Reading this article and the comments above I see it was and is still the correct decision. British engineers are respected the world over - except in the UK. I wish all those firmly rooted in the UK the best of luck

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  • I studied Electrical/Avionic engineering & left the industry as the wages were pathetic.

    In the UK engineers garner no support or recognition from successive governments.

    I now work in software engineering with a better benefits package with less stress.

    I have also left the IET as I felt that membership offered absolutely no benefits.

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  • Have had an Engineering Degree for 20 years! We are the pople who drive companies, just most of us dont capitalise on it! Push for more money. I have several Engineers working for me and pay them accordingly! I have been all over the world and would never say dont go, however the grass is not greener. In the US you could get x 2 pay, however will be a slave to the company 14 days holiday per year and expected to be on call 24hrs p/day, and will burn out by 35. Keep your skills updated (eg CAD) get yourself into the centre of 'any' business, you will be running it in 5 years time, learning Sales and Business is easy if you can work out Stress equations!

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  • I have been in Engineering for over 30 years, in varying degrees of management. I have found the further away you tread from 'Engineering' but staying in the sector the more you can earn - nonsense and short sighted. The abroad thing makes sense. My son 12 months ago graduated with a masters geotechnical Engineering went to Oz and earns twice my salary (£100K at 23!!) again short sighted of this country.

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  • It would be interesting to hear people's experience of whether engineering jobs in other countries are better paid across the board or only in specific sectors such as oil and gas or mineral mining, where you'd expect resource-rich countries like Australia and Canada to offer more.

  • With over 45 years of various engineering post its true to say in GB engineering has been run down drastically, unqualified Sales reps are more likely to obtain higher Salerys. In Europe however Skilled engineers are paid more than managers in the same companys.

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  • Are there any more british engineers out there working in Aus, US or Canada who can share their experiences on whether it was the right choice?

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  • I have a 2:1 in Integrated Engineering, I got his as a mature student, qualifying in my early 30s. Before getting the degrees I'd had 11 jobs in 10 years, since getting the degree (17 years ago now) I've had three jobs, leaving them all for better opportunities at a time of my choosing.

    I earn mid 30s per year, including my bonus, so I'm not 'wealthy' but I do have a comfortable lifestyle thanks. I also get to go to sleep at night knowing I'm doing something to improve the environment and keep manufacturing jobs in the UK.

    I've recently changed focus from Process Improvement to Environmental Management and H&S, my engineering skill set is most useful and will help me to gat chartered status with the relevant bodies.

    I suppose I might have been lucky but I know a few folk from my Uni days, not engineering students, who earn less than I do and have not had the employment security I have enjoyed.

    Yes, I would recommend engineering as a career, even if only because it does give the option to go abroad and seize well paid opportunities.

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  • It is said that an engineer is someone who can build something for $1 that any fool can build for $2. That is the worth.

    I'm outside the UK(Texas, USA) at a petrochem facility for the past 20+ years. We've heard and had the same "shortage" thing told to us, sometimes true and sometimes just to increase the number of "visting, lower-paid foreign engineers(H1B). In the end, if you don't ENJOY engineering, you're in the wrong field.

    PS: Oliver Heaviside is one of my heroes.

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