on December 20th, 2015


Dear Colleagues,

“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 are really worth? Essentially your remuneration is based on the contribution you make to the business you work in. Whilst long hours are commendable, you will inevitably find the firm’s salesman lounging down at the beach during working hours drinking copious cappuccinos and earning double what you earn. Despite your engineering qualification, enormous hours and stress that you work to keep the production facility operating.

Not particularly fair, one would say. But things that impact on pay include: education, formal and informal training, technical experience, size of the company, responsibility level and part of the country you work in, and finally simply – supply and demand.

During the dot com era, many thought a university degree was increasingly irrelevant especially in the IT area. However there is no doubt that a good degree from a good college is an essential ingredient. If you gain the ability to think logically and read and write beautifully and be committed to outstanding project management skills you will have a good future in the earnings stakes. However an advanced degree such as a doctorate may be counterproductive in terms of scaring potential employers off. And you have to find a really niche job to fit this requirement. This may be difficult.

Formal and not so formal Training
Most firms appreciate their staff constantly sharpening their skills by attending (relevant and good) courses. And learning from others in the firm in a more informal way. Actively seeking out new know-how from experts and applying this new found knowledge vigorously to new projects is also highly regarded. All of these are you investing in yourself and making yourself more valuable.

Technical experience
This is often the hardest fought skill you have. Sadly,  the technical part of it ages very quickly. Although I would respectfully suggest that the management skills only mature with use and make you even more valuable.  So keep sharpening your skills in this area. This must be one of the most important skills you are measured on when you are being offered a job.

The part of the country you work in
Depending on where you live may impact on your income. Some remote locations such as in the Middle East salaries can be high. But your costs are high and life style can be quite challenging compared to suburbia in a “nice western” country. So weigh this up carefully. It always fascinates me when I see Indian nationals returning to India and leaving secure US jobs behind because they prefer to be with family and the local culture, perhaps.

Business experience
Most technical professionals focus on the issues that are near and dear to them. Engineering projects and detailed technical issues. But if you can understand why and how the project is important to your firm and actively ensure the project is aligned with the business issues, the more valuable you will be.

And finally – supply and demand
New trends sweep the job market and engineers with skills in these areas become very valuable. When PLC’s arrived on the scene in the early seventies, any engineer who could program these beasts and mange 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 engineers with a strong Java and database skills in great demand. So when you have a highly sought after skill you can charge a premium. But watch for more entrants coming into this area and eventually bringing your “value” down.

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 this is the going rate and you had better do something about it if you are earning below this. Many professional magazines publish regular salary surveys and prove interesting reading. The jobs that have large variances are often difficult to interpret but nevertheless worthwhile cogitating on.

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. 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. And watch the state of the market as to what is required. I remember leaving engineering school where there was a massive demand for electronics engineers, then software engineers; and then the internet and so forth. Some jobs seem to truck along well through all sorts of economic storms – such as those engineers working in the (perhaps) less exciting power 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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