Want to know how much mechanical engineers really make? Well check out our perspective below for a salary survey and critical information you’ll want to find out about before taking the plunge into this (sometimes) lucrative career field.The financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession highlighted a fact that has been known for years, but until recently was ignored by many: It pays to study a technical degree. While it may not have grabbed headlines the same way that factories closing and budget stand-offs in Congress did, the way in which the Great Recession highlighted the disparity in earning power between technical and liberal arts degrees was impossible for many to ignore. Month after month as unemployment numbers were released, the significant difference in employment statistics between blue collar high school graduates and white collar college graduates was mirrored within the white collar ranks; those with technical degrees consistently outperformed their contemporaries who studied liberal arts in regards to employment and salary after graduation. For college students majoring in liberal arts across the country (this author included) considering the prospect of entering a dismal job market, one question kept nagging at the back of their minds: How much do mechanical engineers make?
It’s All About The Benjamins
High employment rates and salaries to match have long been a hallmark of technical degrees such as mechanical engineering, much to the chagrin of those not technically inclined. This fact is largely due to the high level of career focus that studying a degree like mechanical engineering requires. According to a recent study released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released in 2012, individuals who graduate with engineering degrees take home an average salary of $55,000, and at the time the study was released had an unemployment rate hovering around 7.5% (this was relatively low, compared to 11.10% for degrees in the arts, and 8.9% for those in social science).
While the employment statistics are impressive for students graduating with degrees like mechanical engineering, in the end it’s really all about the Benjamins. The base salary it demands is far-and-away one of the best ways to judge the value of a degree. When it comes to technical degrees, the numbers speak for themselves. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May 2012 that individuals employed as mechanical engineers had a national average hourly wage of $40.75, which translates into a mean annual wage of $84,770. When combined with the Georgetown University study’s data on the expected salaries of recent college graduates, the picture of a career with good employment opportunities and a high level of upward mobility in regards to earning power begins to crystallize.
Location, Location, Location
One of the obvious advantages of the high employment rate enjoyed by those in technical fields such as mechanical engineering is the ability to find work across many regions, but like so many things in life, the old adage “location, location, location” still holds true. Despite the widespread national employment rates for mechanical engineers, there are definitely regions that offer not just more career opportunities, but higher paying ones as well. According to the same May 2012 Bureau of Labor and Statistics report, the states with the highest rates of employment for mechanical engineers are as follows (values are: total number employed / number of mechanical engineers employed per thousand jobs):
- Michigan: 30,450 / 7.77
- California: 23,900 / 1.67
- Texas: 17,250 / 1.63
- Illinois: 15,640 / 2.77
- Ohio: 11,650 / 2.30
The top five states for total jobs in the mechanical engineering field do not tell the full story though, as the northern Midwest and Northeast states almost all rank highly in regards to total employment. States such as New York, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts (to name a few), all employ anywhere from 6,000 to 30,500 mechanical engineers at the time the BLS report was compiled.
Interestingly, the states that pay the highest average salaries for mechanical engineers correlate only loosely with the data on where the highest numbers of engineers are employed. The top five highest paying states in order of average annual wage are (values are: average annual wage / average hourly wage):
- Alaska: $103,840 / $49.92
- California: $94,420 / $45.39
- Rhode Island: $92,820 / $44.63
- Texas: $92,470 / $44.46
- Maryland: $92,020 / $44.24
The average salary paid from state to state follows the basic economic principals of supply and demand, as the states with higher numbers of total mechanical engineers employed paying on the lower end of the spectrum (despite the higher demand for mechanical engineers in those states that created a large labor pool, the natural rate of turnover presumably keeps the market fairly saturated with engineers seeking employment). In addition to salaries generally tracking with employment density, there is obvious correlation between salaries and the average cost of living by state as well. A prime example is California, which ranks second in both total number employed and highest average salary paid. In that case the substantially higher cost of living in the Silicon Valley area, a key geographic region employing mechanical engineers, is obviously one of the driving factors behind the higher salaries paid.
More Manufacturing (jobs going overseas), More Problems
Despite the seeming invulnerability of technical careers to the crippling effects of economic recession, even individuals in the mechanical engineering field have seen career prospects diminish in certain sectors as a result. Coincidentally, the source of the shrinkage is the same for these white collar workers as it is for many blue collar skilled and unskilled laborers is outsourcing. As manufacturing jobs are increasingly sent overseas to cut costs, there is simply less demand for highly skilled mechanical engineers to design and work in complex manufacturing facilities. A similar effect is seen in the construction industry. As businesses batten-down their assets and accounts to weather the financial storm, and an anemic economy drives down the demand for new housing, mechanical engineering jobs that used to exist to support the booming construction industry have dried up as well.
The threat that outsourcing possess to the American mechanical engineering field as a whole is relatively small. Given the highly skilled and specialized nature of the trade, the number of mechanical engineers adversely affected by the closure of even a major factory is only a small fraction of the total number when the entire labor force is considered. The same BLS report on the field illustrates just how thinly dispersed engineers are across relevant industries; keep in mind that despite the seemingly low numbers, the national unemployment rate for individuals in the field has tracked well-below the national average (values are total number employed in industry / percent of industry employment):
- Architectural & Related Services: 54,770 / 4.21%
- Scientific Research & Development: 14,470 / 2.30%
- Aerospace Product & Parts Manufacturing: 12,940 / 2.63%
- Federal Executive Branch (OEW Designation): 11,820 / 0.58%
- Navigational, Measuring, Electro-medical, & Control Instruments Manufacturing: 10,980 / 2.71%
While these five categories represent those with the highest total number of mechanical engineers employed, the top industries by percentage of industry are engine and turbine, and industrial machinery manufacturing respectively.
Eyes On The Future
The outsourcing of some manufacturing jobs is a heavy blow to many blue collar workers in the U.S., and it is impacting those in the mechanical engineering field as well. Although domestic manufacturing in other sectors, such as solar panels and turbines used in green tech are replacing some of the lost jobs, the gains are not enough to fill the void. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the growth in job opportunities for mechanical engineers for this decade (2010 – 2020) will be around 9%, a growth rate almost half of that for all occupations (14%). Additionally, the exponential nature of technological development in the manufacturing industry and other sectors relevant to mechanical engineering mean that individuals in the field must remain abreast of the rapidly changing technologies to stay competitive.
Sub-average growth predictions such as those released by the BLS should be taken with a grain of salt. It is important to remember that relative to many other occupations, a technical career in mechanical engineering still offers greater opportunities for recent college graduates in terms of both employment and base salary. The steep barriers to entry for the field, mainly the challenging academic coursework and mastery of complex technical skills, mean that it is unlikely that mechanical engineering will see the same saturation as other less technical occupations such as law. For both individuals beginning college and choosing a major for the first time, or others considering a return to school in order to jump to a new industry, a technical degree such as mechanical engineering is definitely worth considering.
Below is a video featuring Won in the day of a mechanical engineer.