What is your engineering degree worth?

I see my engineering degree every morning. It hangs above my dresser, a badge of honor for five of the toughest, yet most rewarding years of my life. It represents late nights studying, way too much calculus and thermodynamics, and likely an ulcer or two.

I was lucky to have chosen a public institution where even the out-of-state tuition was reasonable. And I was fortunate to have grandparents who were willing to help cover the cost of tuition. Many of my friends graduated with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

But more and more, I ask myself: What is an engineering degree worth these days?

According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, engineering degrees account for four of the five most highly paid majors. Tops are petroleum engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering and electrical/electronics engineering.

With starting salaries ranging from $59,000 to $75,000, the top engineering degrees hold their places on the list because of demand. NACE says that as of 2008, engineering degrees represented a mere 5.4% of all undergraduate degrees earned in the U.S.

Several years back, MSN Money claimed that the value of an engineering degree over a high school diploma was $497,930 over a 40-year career. But my concern is that the cost of engineering degrees is outstripping this value. The four-year tuition at MIT is now $156,000. At Stanford, it’s $154,000. Even a state school like The Ohio State University clocks in at $37,000 in-state or $94,000 out-of-state for a degree. Keep in mind these are tuition fees only. They don’t include room, board, books, fees, etc. Add that in and you’re likely looking at numbers approaching a quarter-million dollars—especially if the degree takes closer to five years, as many engineering schools are loathe to admit.

You can counter that many or most students get some kind of financial aid. While that’s true, there are a lot of student loans that are classified as “aid.” Graduating with $100,000 in low-interest loans is not an efficient way to start a career. Talk about bad deals—even with a well-paying job like engineering, those loans are going to be overwhelming to a young professional who needs to be saving for his or her future.

Some have been wondering whether higher education is the next bubble to burst. Honestly, I don’t see how it can’t be. The cost of college has been climbing more rapidly than almost anything else in our economy. Forecasts show that trend continuing into the future—but it simply can’t go on forever. Pressure from non-traditional institutions, online learning, and smaller schools will reverse the trend at some point.

For engineering in particular, one answer is to greatly expand co-op programs. Some colleges (the University of Cincinnati immediately comes to mind) have strong, successful co-op programs across their engineering disciplines. But at most institutions, it’s merely an option, and oftentimes, not a well-marketed option at that. Giving kids the opportunity to learn in the real world, not to mention earning real money toward those loans, is a step in the right direction. And in this struggling economy, some relatively inexpensive labor isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either.

What do you think the solution is for today’s engineering students?

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Comment by G S Jha on January 16, 2012 at 12:39am

It is obvious that if somebody takes the degree by spending so much of money,he definetly will need the return thru' highly paid salary.But sometimes it is not happening in the real life.Without having the practical knowledge survival is difficult.But at the same time some people work better other than engineering.I feel during the engineering study a practical session must be included to various factories to have a practical knowledge.During beginning of the job learning is must.Sometimes,due to poor economic condition,people may loose the job.Here no degree is helpful.

In the present scenario everybody should be ready for the diversification of the carrier and saving must be started from the first day of the job to secure future.Selection of the carrier at the beginning is also very important.

Comment by James J Savino on January 11, 2012 at 10:05am
Hello, Andrew;

Weep is a very good choice of words. I haven't wept, but I have had to drag my jaw off the ground on a number of occasions.

I had no clue that it would be this bad. Publicly we engineers get lots of respect, but that doesn't translate into security at all. Back in the days when listening to talk radio was a rare addiction, my mother used to listen to a host named Bernard Meltzer who had a show on one of the many NY city stations. This fellow had been an electrical engineer, but had left the profession and gone into radio because (and I quote, even after 4 decades) "industry abuses their engineers so terribly". She often worried that I was going into something that she knew to be a dead end....but like you, it was the only thing that interested me at all.

I also lament the loss of the Moon and what would have come after it, which given a finite Earth, is everything. NASA said in the late '90s that even if they got a blank check, they could not get back to the Moon before 2015. When asked "why so long" NASA plainly said that the manufacturing base that built the Saturns no longer existed and would have to be rebuilt completely from scratch.

The reasons why this was allowed to happen are plain, and have to do with shortness of vision at best, and outright greed at worst. It embitters me to see so much in greatness and progress for the entire human race, exchanged for so little in profit for a few.

Compete internationally? Why should we compete, when we could have left 'em in the dust?

Oh, well, it is as it is, and not as we might wish it to be.

Best to all

Comment by Andrew Dreasler on January 11, 2012 at 9:36am

Well, James, I'm from the baby bust generation, and when it was time for me to choose a profession, there wasn't any real choice to be made, I simply followed my passion.  I did not choose to be an Engineer any more than I chose to be third-generation German-American.  I grew up with a belief that Science and Technology would find the solutions to all life's drudgery, that not only was the rate of progress increasing, the rate of the increase was increasing.  I wanted to be a part of that, no I needed it, as much as I needed air to breathe.

I never wanted to be rich, well, not beyond 'financially secure enough to have no worries when retirement came,' but I wanted to feel useful, respected.  The way this country is treating Engineers, and manufacturing in general, makes me want to weep.  Man had walked on the Moon mere months before I joined the party we call life, but now that orb seems as untouchable and unattainable as in the days when stars were thought to be holes in the sky that let the light of Heaven shine through.

Comment by James J Savino on January 11, 2012 at 7:28am
Hello, Andrew!

I see we can add another voice to the chorus!

"Replaceable commodity" - you got that right.

I wonder how many of us there are, i.e., Boomers who became engineers because of the space race, nuclear submarines under the Pole, jet-packs and all the other ultra-cool stuff that was going on in the Fifties & Sixties, and for whom "Made In USA" was a point of pride.

Your point about nurses and how they get abused is well taken. I've heard from more than one source.

After my business tanked in 1998, I could only get "executive" interviews and always wound up first-runner-up. So, to keep food on the table, I did a few years teaching math & science in a rural high school as a long-term substitute. The kids gave me a lot of credibility; they said "There's only you and one other teacher here that have actually done anything in the real world. The rest of them, all they've ever done is go to school." But I counseled them that teacher was not at the bottom of the list when it came to reasonable things to do with one's life, because at least it was steady, came with retirement benefits, was hard to get laid off of, and would never get outsourced to China or some other place.

I said to many of them that, unless you are in something that comes with a guaranteed pension, what you handle during your working life is what you will have a lot of when it's over. There are always exceptions, but that's where the centers of the bell curves are. If you handle cars, you will have lots of cars and car parts. If you are an engineer, you will have a lot of stuff that you designed and tech books. If you are in a care profession, you will have the thanks of a lot of people that you cared for. If you are in something that handles money, whether it be business, sales, finance or banking, you will have a lot of money. So....what do you want? It really is that simple.

My two little sons are already showing interest in how things work and how to put things together. I am thinking that I want to indulge the heck out of that (to maybe get it out of their systems), while warning them continuously that creating things is a fun & useful hobby but very few people make a decent living at it. If I have my druthers, I want them to wind up doing something that either has some ownership attached, or else is part of a union and is steady, with a pension (like my parents said).

best to all

Comment by Andrew Dreasler on January 11, 2012 at 6:41am

And we have another solid hammer-blow right on target.

You may be right about 'Engineer Unions,' James.  The 'professional associations,' such as IEEE were all we needed back in the day, when Engineers were in high demand and companies were fighting each other to get the best talent.  However, with the current market, the companies hold all the cards, and we Engineers need some way to be seen as something more than a replaceable commodity.

In a way I'm reminded of the shortage of nurses in the US, which is an actual shortage, not a 'shortage of good nurses who will work cheap.'  The reason for the nursing shortage is that most prospective nurses will talk with a trained nurse as part of their decision making about entering the profession, and almost all trained nurses will encourage the prospective nurse to look at other fields.  The reason for this is due to the way nurses get treated during their 'internships' in the hospitals.  The prevailing attitude among hospital doctors is that the nurses are somewhere between slave and prostitute in status (although with the advent of the 'harassment free workplace' laws the latter is not so prevalent.)  I have heard stories, directly from a trained RN, about doctors calling the nursing staff for a department into a meeting to state that two nurses in the next shift had called in sick, and so NONE of the current shift will be released until two nurses 'volunteer' to pull a double-shift.  The nurses also suffer a barrage of verbal abuse from the hospital doctors, who are typically fresh from their own training and therefore consider themselves as gods because they hold the power of Life and Death in their hands.

I truly fear the day when one of my younger cousins comes to me wanting to be an Engineer, will I tell them 'go for it,' or will I say 'run away while you still can'?

Comment by James J Savino on January 10, 2012 at 7:36pm
Hello, Tom;

How right you are, especially about the golf. At one of the better interviews I ever went on, a company president asked me "Can you swing a golf stick?"
I've known several design and other types of engineering consultants (and been one), and all of them are out of it and doing other things now. Like manufacturing custom equipment, it's just too hard to make a living that way. Without in-country manufacturing on the former scale, and without the Cold War to keep technology progressing at breakneck speed, the need for experienced savvy engineers is way down and I don't expect it to recover.
Also, if your comment about "under-supply of lower wage recently graduated engineers" didn't hit the nail concentrically on its circular end face, and with velocity vector precisely aligned with the surface normal, then I don't know what would.
There's no shortage of engineers....but there's a big shortage of energetic, enthusiastic lower-paid ones who still have lots of moxie, having not yet fallen into the gears and thinking their stars will keep rising that way for the rest of their careers.
Again, I often think of my unionized civil-servant parents and how they did OK over a lifetime in spite of very modest educations....and wonder if we need a union, or some other form of buffer.

Comment by Thomas M. Cunningham on January 10, 2012 at 3:08pm


#1: most valuable skill (in a business setting) is charisma.  #2:  Ability to close the sale  (# 3 may be golf !).   Think of those with the 1-2 punch like Donald Trump.

Imagine having a good salesman as a partner in your consulting business.   Not only could they take that sales and marketing role, but they could also get more proposals and close a higher percentage of the proposals.

However I don't think I could ever make enough to pay a person like that for their sales skills.  There are plenty of successful examples of technical expertise combining with good sales skills to create a viable entity, but that combination needs to be focused at some high dollar enterprise.   Consulting is rarely that, unless in computers.

Which bring us to the computer consultant model.   Computer consulting firms can do very well and have a team of programmers, salespeople and other support.   They also can get paid a high rate for their expertise.   There are a few engineering consulting firms, and often I see them struggling.   Others are "virtual" consulting groups like Cecon.   I've been on their list for 3 years and got about 2 inquiries and no jobs.  

It is always about supply and demand.  We are supposed to be in an under-supply of engineers, but correctly stated we are in an under-supply of lower wage recently graduated engineers.   There are plenty of underemployed COBs (Crusty Old Bastards) like Jim and I.  

Comment by James J Savino on January 10, 2012 at 1:23pm
Hello, Tom;

If you ever got consulting to pay as well as a job, you're already doing better than I was able to. I tried consulting on several levels ranging from house inspections thru FEA to sophisticated equipment design - but was stunned by the amount of time I had to put into marketing efforts and proposals. I wound up hitting on roughly 1 proposal out of 7. Even then, when you finally got the work, the extra time you had to put in to clean up all the details and maintain your qualitative edge lowered your rate to the point where it was less than what a decent job would pay.
The feast or famine aspect of consulting was trouble, too. It's possible that I never got to critical mass on these things and that having done so would have made a difference - but who really knows?
I came to the conclusion that technical inventiveness and the ability to inspire others to be inventive, was a fairly common skill and it really wasn't worth that much. So now I have a job which if not a great payer is at least reasonably secure. I'll take slow-and-steady over flush, then broke, then flush, then broke again, etc.

Selling, on the other hand, doesn't require all that detail orientation, process knowledge, or the extensive education & experience that underlie them. BUT - it's the highest-paying skill in America and probably the world. There's a reason that in most companies the marketing and sales guys make more than the engineers - their jobs are much more relevant to the successful prosecution of a business endeavor.
In any company, engineers represent the future...but when cash is low, the future is the first thing to go. From a business perspective, you can always get back to it later if more cash shows up. Unfortunately for guys like us, getting rid of the most expensive engineers is a very quick and almost painless way to make more cash show up immediately.

I've told many people that of the 5 most successful guys I know (financial security), all 5 of them sell something that they don't have to invent or make, and there's not a 4-year degree among them. So your buddy's success comes as no surprise - he did the smart thing. If there was something I could sell, let me assure you that's what I'd be doing - but all I seem to be able to sell are ideas, and ideas are cheap.

More later. Good luck and God bless.

Comment by Thomas M. Cunningham on January 2, 2012 at 4:53pm

James,   Thanks for your thoughts and prayers.  

Right now I am 90% pursuing reviving my consulting business and 10% looking for another job.  I have 10 years of consulting experience and financial success was about even with employment in the long run.  That means I need to do 10-20% better in my consulting to make it work, which is possible.  One thing engineers are good at is solving problems, and I am trying to solve this one.  Unfortunately consulting requires even more hours than employment.   A buddy of mine who was consulting transformed his business into developing and selling a specialty chemical.   With many years of hard work he does not now need to put in those long hours.  Food for thought.  

James has the wisdom of already going down many of these roads.  What are the solutions?

Comment by Alyssa Sittig on January 2, 2012 at 11:25am

I think a lot of the comments here are really interesting, and it is sad to hear about the hard times that so many are experiencing. I have to believe that we are getting close to reevaluating education in this country - we are expected to go to college to get anywhere now-a-days, yet we are also expected to go into debt doing it. It seems really unfair.


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