“I didn’t come here to be average,” basketball great Michael Jordan once said.
That’s all right, Michael. While “average” or “typical” is not something we’d ever call you, respondents in the engineering world’s largest annual salary survey are just fine with that description.
In IEEE-USA’s 2018 Salary & Benefits Survey, conducted this past spring among U.S. IEEE members, the typical respondent was a male in his late 40s, with an advanced degree. He has about 23 years of professional experience. Moreover, he continues to find engineering a very good way to make a living.
For members working full time in their primary area of technical competency (PATC), median pre-tax income in 2017 was $145,000, up from $141,589 in 2016. After excluding overtime pay, profit sharing and other supplemental earnings, median pre-tax income from all primary sources (salary, commissions, bonuses and net self-employment) was $139,000, up from $138,000 in 2017.
On the other hand, the unhappy truth is that salaries for women and minority groups not only haven’t improved, but the gaps with the “typical” Caucasian male engineer have widened. Even when experience is factored in, female engineers earn median salaries $20,000 less than their male counterparts—up about $3,500 compared to last year’s gap. In addition, African-Americans reported median incomes roughly $24,250 less than Caucasians. This gap is $2,250 larger than in the previous year’s report.
While other engineering salary reports are available, IEEE-USA’s survey is possibly the most highly regarded, because of its longevity. This year marks the 31st such survey, and IEEE-USA has conducted it most years since 1972. The online study also draws an impressive volume of responses. For 2018, the report contains data from a total of 5,513 IEEE member participants, including 4,285 employed full time in their PATC—the most relevant group from both employer and employee standpoints.
The Salary & Benefits Survey is comprehensive; it includes differences in each respondent’s income, technology sector, level of responsibility, age, education, gender, ethnic background, geographic location, and a great deal more. Specific questions are included for the roughly 10 percent of IEEE-USA members who are academics. Members who indicate that half or more of their earned income comes from fee-based consulting are not included, as they are queried for the IEEE-USA Consultants Fee Survey.
2018 Major Results
The report provides statistics on income from primary sources for 10 broad areas of technical competence, as well as subgroups within these broad areas. Median 2017 primary compensation is highest for those in the Mobile Technology specialty ($177,000); the lowest median salary is for those in the Industrial Applications Engineering ($123,000) category, followed closely by Energy and Power Engineering ($125,000). Especially lucrative subspecialties include lasers and electro-optics, vehicular technology and aerospace and electronic systems—all at median salaries of more than $150,000 a year.
Employment sector remains significant in determining an engineer’s salary; according to the survey. Private industry still pays the most, with medians of $153,000 at defense-related companies; and $148,000, at companies other than defense or utilities. On average, those earning the least work for state or local governments ($118,884), or an educational institution ($108,000).
The largest firms, those with more than 10,000 employees, tend to pay the best—with a median salary of $154,000. However, the data from this year’s survey show that firms with 500 or fewer employees also pay similar median incomes.
In a trend extending back to 2009, IEEE’s U.S. members tend to work for large organizations: enterprises with more than 10,000 U.S. employees employ 29.4%; another 35.9% work for establishments with 501 to 10,000 employees. Private, non-defense companies employ more than half (52.5%) of U.S. IEEE members in the workforce. When defense-related firms are added in, the private industry share increases to nearly two-thirds of the workforce members (64.6%).
Not surprising, management jobs still yield the highest median primary income. The effect of position responsibility is meaningful, with a range of $132,700 separating the median incomes of those working at entry level (Level 1), from those working at the highest level (Level 9). This year’s survey shows $160,000 as the highest median income for those with 30-34 years of professional/managerial experience. This income declines to a median of $148,500 after 45 or more years, a common characteristic of technical salaries among the most experienced. It is related to a tendency for many of the best-paid people to rise into general management, leave engineering altogether, or take early retirement.
Areas of Concern
Women constitute only 8.4% of all members working full time in their PATCs, and women’s salaries continue to substantially trail men’s, even among those working full time in their PATC. This year, the gap is $20,000—up about $3,500 compared to last year.
The salary gap between Caucasians and African-Americans also increased last year, with Caucasians earning $24,250 more than African-Americans. This gap is $2,250 greater than in the previous year’s report. Asians and Pacific Islanders remain the largest minority group (10.5%) of members in the workforce, and had a median salary of $140,000—very slightly more ($500) than that of non-Hispanic Caucasians. In contrast, the relatively small number of Hispanics and non-Hispanic African-Americans report median incomes roughly $18,300 and $23,550 below the overall median.
Members in Academe
Because the nature of employment in higher education differs so greatly from industry and the types of organizations, specific survey questions help to profile this small but vital group of U.S. members. In the latest report, slightly more than one in ten (11%) indicated that an academic, degree-granting institution was their primary employer. Of this group, 54.2% are on a nine- or 10-month contract; 31.7% on an 11- or 12-month contract and 14.1% have some other arrangement.
One third of this group (33.9%) are full professors. Nearly one in five is an associate professor or assistant professor (14.9%). The largest percentage of the academic group working in their PATC are full professors, who earn a median salary of $149,000 a year; associate professors trail with a median salary of $100,500, and assistant professors with a median of $90,000. Less than half of the academic respondents (41.7%) are tenured, but an additional 14.5% are on a tenure track. Tenure matters; the median salary for tenured academics is $130, 00, while those on a tenure track earn a median salary of $92,080. Those not on a tenure track reported a median salary of $80,000.
Where an engineer lives and works continues to significantly affect earnings. The 2018 study reports median incomes according to both the six IEEE regions and the nine U.S. Census Bureau divisions. In terms of IEEE regions, those in Region 6 (West) fare substantially better than those in Region 4 (Central) or Region 3 (Southeast) with a gap of more than $33,000. Census divisions show a similar pattern; with those in the Pacific states (Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California), faring more than $39,000 a year better than those in the East North Central states (Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio). However, the report points out that living costs are substantially higher in the West than in these other states.
Benefits and Job Satisfaction
U.S. IEEE members who work full time are offered a broad array of benefits, although some shifts have taken place in the primary benefit categories: pension and retirement, health and insurance, and miscellaneous, which includes support for professional association dues and conferences.
In the 2001 survey, more than half of full-time workers (55%) were offered “defined benefit” (pension) retirement plans, in which employees are promised a certain amount if they meet the terms of the plan, such as minimum number of years of service. In keeping with the broader societal trend, that percentage has dropped to 31.9% in 2018. At the same time, “defined contribution” plans such as 401(k), 403(b) and 456 salary reduction plans have remained essentially flat since 2001, with 91.3% in the current survey.
Profit sharing plans are offered by 23% of employees, down from about 38% more than 15 years ago. Stock option offers have diminished even more, from 49% in 20001 to 24% in 2017. Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) offers are similarly reduced, from 40% then to 23% now.
However, employers offer virtually all full-time workers extensive health benefits. More than nine in ten receive basic health and dental insurance, for both themselves and their dependents. Ninety-one percent were offered prescription drug coverage, and 94.2% were offered coverage for eyeglasses, lenses and exams. More than four out of five full-time workers are offered flexible working hours, and 51.9% are offered professional association membership fees. Some 68.8% of employers offer paid attendance at professional conferences.
The complete IEEE-USA 2018 Salary & Benefits Survey is available at https://ieeeusa.org/shop/careers/compensation/ieee-usa-salary-benefits-survey-report-2018-edition/. The member price is $125; non-members pay $225.
Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as staff director, IEEE Corporate Communications.