on March 7th, 2012

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’ can really gnaw at you. How can you make sure that you’re being paid what you’re really worth? Theoretically, your remuneration is based on the contribution you make to the business you work in. Other factors that impact on pay include: education, formal and informal training, type of engineering, technical experience, size of the company, responsibility level and the part of the country or world that you work in, and finally simply – supply and demand.

A few years ago – especially during the dot com era, many thought a qualification (either diploma or university degree) was increasingly irrelevant -especially in the IT area. There is no doubt, however, that a good qualification from a good college can be helpful. If you gain the ability to think logically, read and write competently and are able to commit to outstanding project management skills you will have a good future in the earnings stakes.

Interestingly, though, an advanced degree, such as a doctorate, may be counterproductive and scare potential employers off. A niche job often has to be found to fit this level of education and this may be difficult. Some engineering graduates may sneer at an engineering diploma – but this coupled with excellent experience and being in the right industry can signal enormous career success. I know of many diploma graduates who have done exceptionally well and lead teams of professional engineers (some with PhDs).

Formal and not so formal Training
Most firms appreciate their staff constantly sharpening their skills by attending (relevant and good) courses – formal training. On a more informal basis, however, learning from others in the firm is extremely beneficial and can result in some profound learning (esp. from the highly experienced specialists). Actively seeking out new know-how from experts and applying this new found knowledge vigorously to new projects is highly regarded. All of these represent you investing in yourself and making yourself more valuable.

This is often the hardest to attain, but generally the most valuable. Sadly, the technical part of experience ages very quickly. The trick is to avoid technical drudgery where you gain minimal new experience but are doing the same thing again and again. I would respectfully suggest, however, that the experience you acquire in management will only mature with use and make you even more valuable. Gaining experience overall is essential for job growth. Down the track this is often the one area that will make you stand out when being offered a job.

The part of the country/world that you work in
In Australia’s booming resource sector and on some of the Middle East oil and gas locations, the salaries are astronomical. This is true, but in these environments your costs are higher and your life style can be quite challenging – certainly compared with suburbia in a ‘nice western’ country. I know of operators working in ‘prison-like’ conditions being paid an absolute fortune – but I am not convinced this is sustainable. So weigh this up carefully. It always fascinates me when I see Indian nationals returning to India and leaving secure US jobs behind for the call of family and perhaps culture.

Business focus
Most technical professionals focus on the issues that are near and dear to them which include engineering projects and detailed technical issues. When assessing projects for your firm, however, it is important to actively ensure that it is aligned with the business in which you are involved. This is a skill which will again enhance your ‘value’ in your company.

And finally – supply and demand
New trends sweep the job market and engineers with skills in these areas become very valuable. When PLCs arrived on the scene in the early seventies, any engineer who could program these beasts and manage an entire engineering project was highly sought after. Now electricians can do a lot of this basic programming. During the dot com boom naturally it was the engineers with a strong Java and database skills who were in great demand. So when you have a highly sought after skill you can charge a premium. But be careful - others are quick to jump onto the band wagon and this can eventually reduce your ‘value’.

How do you gauge your worth?
The inevitable source of information on this are the job boards on the internet sites or employment columns. However user groups – of which there are a burgeoning number -on the internet, can be a great source of information. If all your engineering peers are on $150 per hour; you can bet your bottom dollar (so to speak) that this is the going rate and you had better do something about it if you aren’t earning this. 

Furthermore, many professional magazines publish regular salary surveys and prove interesting reading. The jobs that have large variances in salary are often difficult to interpret, but are nevertheless worth some thought.

To sum up
Overall, I believe having a job is akin to surfing. You can ride a really good wave for a while, but eventually when you hit the shore you have to paddle back and look for the new wave – a wave with different characteristics and twists and turns. So keep your skills broad and deep enough to ride out the changes in the technology that will undoubtedly sweep through your firm. Furthermore watch the state of the market to ensure you understand what is required.

I remember when I left engineering school there was a massive demand for electronics engineers, but then suddenly it was software engineers; and then for those working on  the internet and so forth. Some engineering jobs do, however, seem to truck along well through all sorts of economic storms – such as those engineers working in the (perhaps) less exciting electrical power and mechanical engineering area.

The advice from the US president Theodore Roosevelt on jobs is certainly an interesting one (a reflection of the Yankee ‘can-do’ philosophy perhaps?):

Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell 'em, 'Certainly I can!' Then get busy and find out how to do it.

Thanks and acknowledgements to Patrick von Schlag for his input here.

Yours in engineering learning


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