Is there decent money in mechanical design engineering? The shortest answer possible is: there is as long as you don’t hang out a lot, don’t intend to spend your savings on your two week vacation and have a good retirement plan as well as a good position in a decent company. The more complicated, longer, truthful and confusing answer is debatable. We hope this article will prompt a discussion focused on the current state of the international engineering sector. What harm can it do?
A fair pay for a fair days work
While none of the people I know are satisfied with their salaries (from stockbrokers to bankers, consultants to government workers), engineers and specially design engineers seem to have the lowest salaries. Many complain they can’t afford a decent living unless they curtail their social lives, cut back on the quality of food they buy (and where they buy it) and live in rural neighbourhoods. Going off my own experiences and from what I have seen, in Morocco, India, Canada and heard from other parts of the world, mechanical engineering won’t guarantee a savings account AND a vacation account.
It will pay the rent, buy the food, pay the utility bills and it will occasionally support a social life, but don’t go thinking you’ll be fine without a room-mate. Put aside thoughts of making it to some exotic country even if your currency can hold its ground without draining your savings. Things can get even more complicated if a retirement plan and health insurance aren’t provided with your work contract. Unless you make it into the big league a career in mechanical engineering or mechanical design engineering will support a basic lifestyle – you may have to put the parties, holidays and expensive ventures on hold at least for the time being.
The real world of engineering
I remember when I was in engineering school, our professors used to warn us against accepting work for less than 8,000 MAD (FYI, for 8000 MAD in a pretty rural neighbourhood, with a room mate and no more than a night out a week is achievable but it won’t extend to spending on someone else or spending extravagantly but you can actually make a life in Morocco) and to negotiate for 10,000 MAD. We were even advised that a short period of unemployment may be beneficial in the longer term as a means of demonstrating we were not willing to compromise our skills set and high standards with low wages. Can you imagine ending up as a +5 years graduate working more than 44 hours a week for a ridiculous wage. Taking a wage which does not reflect your education, hard work, high standards and skill set, and one that won’t even guarantee a good savings plan and a fund for emergencies, just does not make sense in the longer term.
Driven by money? Is engineering for you?
In Canada, where wages dropped to 3,000 dollars per month and even less (take it or leave it), my friends were actually wondering why they didn’t learn plumbing or wood crafting to make a second income. I will not discuss PhD students but all in all, the wages this generation heard and expected are farfetched from the actual reality – many seemed to expect extravagant wages would fall into their laps once they had finished their studies. In reality, once you have finished your studies and you are ready to utilise your skills to the full in the engineering marketplace this is when the real challenges begin!
Some of my colleagues are studying MBA and other MASTERS to get out of engineering “because there is no good money in it and I will not slave away for 50 hours at least per week so I can barely guarantee a good education for my kids. I’m not even getting started on car and apartment’s loans”. One naïve colleague was convinced by her father to go for mechanical engineering “because there is good money in it”. I told her we were constantly warned by professors and professionals during our years of study that this profession is meant for the passionate and the resilient, not those driven by money. They went on about how the markets are getting more competitive and engineers more available than technicians. Many of us found out that they were correct, this really is the case.
How do you maximise your engineering salary?
Now, either people want to reach a high level of management in their respective field or aim to completely switch the kind of work they are doing. Of course, you can always ascend to a certain level of expertise in your work and prove to be an irreplaceable member of the workforce. However, there is another system at work in the markets: clusters.
Once your company is part of a cluster of its peers, there is no possibility of working for a competitor even one willing to pay more. Competition is killed stone dead and safety and consistency of performance is more valued than reaching for more challenging and innovative products. Hence, you end up being the expert up-to-date senior bound by agreements you weren’t even aware of. You are constantly barred from working for bigger and better firms because you’re a “valued member of the workforce”. This despite the fact you may be the perfect fit for a more challenging position offering a better remuneration package. Some of the more ambitious engineers are forced to take a gap period of one or two years in their employment so that they can reapply free from any restrictive contracts. However, do you think that dream position you looked at two years ago will still be there?
Long term investment in staff is the key
The other reason for the relatively low remuneration on offer, compared to the highly demanding engineering degrees, is the coming of technicians. Technicians can now complete a two year course after high school, receive training to execute a particular set of tasks and save an employer the hours and the wages of a qualified engineer. It is difficult to understand how some managers got to where they are today because hiring a technician will save money but will you maximise the company’s potential, will a technician be able to think outside the box and will you be able to keep pace with your competitors?
It might be a shock for many looking towards engineering as a career but if you are in this purely for the money, above any practical achievements, you may need to think again. For those who decide that a career in engineering is right for them, you need to haggle for the best starting wage, ensure you are rewarded for your achievements and constantly fight to get recognised. Many engineering companies will talk the talk but will they walk the walk when it comes to remuneration?
Everybody likes to be appreciated but at some point appreciation needs to be shown in terms of cold hard cash. If your employer does not show their appreciation in the correct manner, are there others out there who may value your skills and your innovation a little more? Might they be the ones to reward you accordingly?