Engineering salaries are on the rise, despite a cloudy economy.

Kathleen Franzinger
Assistant Editor

Accounting scandals, massive layoffs, and dwindling stock prices rocked corporate America in 2002. To say it wasn't a good year is an understatement. But the Machine Design salary survey found at least one thing to cheer about: The average base salary for engineers increased $1,800 to $65,400. The reported median salary is $62,000, $1,000 more than last year's survey results.

Though their wallets are fatter, engineers aren't immune to the effects of a down economy. While 78% of survey participants say they're working the same amount of hours per week as in 2001, about 40 to 49, they're under pressure to do more in that time. In the past, engineers cited challenging work as one of the biggest job perks, but the extra-heavy workload of late is a challenge most engineers don't like. Seventy-nine percent of participants say, if given the choice, they'd want less responsibility in their job, a major flip-flop from last year's survey results, which showed 86% wanted more responsibility.

Most engineers say they're somewhat satisfied with their job, but signs of strain are showing. Last year, 65% of engineers said their work environment and colleagues were the number one reason for job satisfaction. This time, 57% of engineers pick challenging work assignments as providing the most satisfaction, and coworkers and workplace receive only 16% of the votes.

A majority of engineers feel their job is somewhat secure, but layoffs worry most respondents. Company downsizing topped the list of career trends or challenges of most concern, followed by the stress of having to do more work in less time. Layoffs in 2002 cause some engineers to speculate they're next on the chopping block, but it gives other engineers hope. "I survived a major downsizing. It can only go up from here," says one reader. "I've survived five rounds of layoffs. Things should be stable from here on out," says another.

Many engineers feel confident their skills and know-how will pull them through these hard times. "I'm very secure because I'm the only one at my company with a history of our product line, and I have the most product knowledge." But, no matter what your skills, as another reader puts it, "We are all vulnerable to the larger economy."

China versus U.S.: Crunching the numbers

The U.S. may be first in the global technology race right now, but other countries, such as China, are quickly catching up. China places IT high on the list of national priorities, and Chinese universities are cranking out graduates, especially in science and engineering fields. And the work is cheap: Chinese engineers are paid considerably less than American engineers. Could these numbers add up to the U.S. falling behind in technology?

Engineering bachelors degrees earned in the U.S. in 1985:     77,572
Engineering bachelors degrees earned in the U.S. in 2000:     59,536
Engineering bachelors degrees earned in China in 1999:     195,354
Doctoral degrees earned in engineering in the U.S. in 1985:     3,166
Doctoral degrees earned in engineering in the U.S. in 1999:     5,337
Doctoral degrees earned in engineering in China in 1985:     68
Doctoral degrees earned in engineering in China in 1999:     3,269
Annual salary of electronic engineers in mainland China in 2002:     $8,136
Annual salary of electronic engineers in U.S. in 2002 (according to Machine Design salary survey):     $74,600

Sources:
National Science Foundation's Science & Engineering Indicators - 2002
National Center for Education Statistics
Electronic Engineering Times-Asia 2002 salary survey

By Region
Engineers are best paid in the Pacific & West and Northeast regions of the U.S. The Northeast made a big leap from last year's third-place finish.

By Discipline
Materials engineers report the biggest jump in salary from last year's results, making them this year's highest-paid engineers. But electronic engineers, routine chart toppers, aren't far behind.

By Education
While average wages for engineers with bachelors degrees remain in the mid-$60,000 range, reported salaries for doctorate degrees substantially increased since 2001.

By Experience
Average salary for engineers with more than 21 years under their belt increased $2,400. But things aren't as easy at the bottom. Those with less than three years of experience make $2,500 less than in 2001.