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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)

  • Please take this in the spirit it is given:

    Engineers should be on Tap but never on Top!
    All management know this: Real engineers want to get their hands dirty not push paper around desks all day. The management feel they are doing you a favour allowing you to pursue your chosen profession.

    After forty plus years in engineering it is the truth.

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  • What does the thread going through these comments tell you?
    In Britain skilled and well educated engineers and allied workers are undervalued and under paid.
    What’s the surprise?
    Have you any idea what the average age of a toolmaker is nowadays? In their fifties it’s the same for many skilled trades. And why are those people still doing those jobs, they can’t afford to leave them because at their age they won’t get another job.
    Who comes up with these figures of pay scales?
    It’s been like that for years stop talking about it do something the clock is ticking and it’s nearer to midnight than you think.

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  • I agree with the major thread that engineers are in general undervalued. This is echoed by the Government who think a Chief Engineer post is not necessary to advise them.

    I too have been told my ideas are worthless only for someone else get the kudos of coming up with them some time (as little as a week is the record!) later.

    Did anyone else hear the comment on The Archers this week when Kirsty was telling Fallon that Alice has (finally) got a job? "It's a Design Engineer in an aerospace firm - she'll be on a huge wage"

    I nearly fell off my stool! Perhaps we should all register on the Archer Blog and put the script writers straight!

    For those who don't listen, Alice did a 3 year Engineering BSc (sic) at Southampton Uni (I checked: SU don't offer one of those) and then wondered why she couldn't get a job. She's done an MSc in Aeronautical at the fictional Felpersham Uni. The interesting thing is to see what those well paid arts graduates think of engineers! And how little research they do into their story lines.

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  • I'm a bit surprised at many of the comments here. It looks like the survey was more-or-less "on the money" (if you'll excuse the pun!) in my case. I got BEng nearly 25 years ago. I'm chartered and work in the automotive industry for just under £50k - not quite the £52k median quoted, but not so very far off it, I guess.

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  • It's all so different in Japan, where engineers, proper ones, are regarded and paid more than other professions.
    I worked in Japan with a large International manufacturing company where almost ALL jobs, even in HR and Finance, were held by University graduates in engineering. It was a pleasure to work in such an environment.
    It is a vastly different World out of the UK.

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  • Engineers in Canada (P.Eng licensed) will make on average £65,000 per year and should expect to be around £100,000 plus for a senior engineer. If one is in engineering management then the expectations is up to £175K plus and in broader executive management the skies the limit - easily £250K plus. The UK has always been a disaster for the engineering profession because it's policies are dictated by politicians who have never delivered productive work and are from Oxbrdge politics philosophy and economics background. They are wrecking the country on all levels.

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  • It's not all doom and gloom out there, quick story: I have arrived to where I am now using another route.

    Small Toolmaking and Aerospace company, UK.
    Full Toolmaking apprentiship, 1981-1985,
    Toolmaker, plastic and rubber injection moulds, 1985-2007.
    Senior programmer, Delcam 2000-2007.
    Senior EDM specialist, 1991-2007.
    Director, 2001-2007.

    Left engineering to run a motorcycle workshop, achieved 35% increase in turnover with little extra cost, just applied what I know from engineering to good effect.

    Recruited back to manufacturing this year as a contractor from a 4 year old CV left on the web, very good renumeration, and also turn down about 2 serious UK offers a week for programming. (Solidworks, Edgecam, Delcam and Autocad.)

    But I live on my wits, knowing if I screw up, I won't be invited back. Keeps you on your toes.

    The work and the money is out there. £40 or even £60 an hour is not unheard of. But you need a business brain and an engineering brain to tap into it.

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  • In resposne to Ray Edwards, what this list of winges tells me is that many Engineers are as bad as the Public Sector in quite undeservedly feeling hard done by.

    As with the public sector shirkers, feel free to go forth and find these vast salaries.

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  • Interesting and surprising comments here, I left university just 3 years ago and it looks like my wage is already higher than a few of the commenters. I am working in an engineering company but not in a engineering role - project management, wonder if that makes a difference?

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  • I am a qualified Mech Engineer and to be honest, I recognised very early in my career that I was never going to get rich from an engineering role. That said, some of the problem is what I would say is down to who can be called an engineer. I worked in various countries over the years and in the USA to be called an Engineer, means you had to be qualified. The same cannot be said in the UK, too many people are called engineers and do not have any qualifications to back the title up. Engineers are held in high regard in the USA, Canada and just about every other Country, so why not the UK. My view is simple, Engineers should be held in high regard and shown respect and not looked down upon, unfortuneatly this is not the case in the UK. Too many people have no qualifications to be called an Engineer and this devalues the title and affects all Engineers. This is a UK problem and the Chartered Institute of Engineers needs to fight their corner. The UK was built on the back of good engineers and sadly not too many youngsters want to get into Engineering and as a result, Engineers are a disappearing breed. If Engineers were held in the same light as an Architect, then maybe the salaries levels would improve to match the skill sets they undoubtedly bring to our Country.

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