Since 2000, many educators, students, U.S. government officials, and employers have focused intently on the STEM disciplines and the careers associated with them. They have followed the conventional wisdom that there is a widespread shortage of STEM expertise and accordingly upward pressure on the wages of related jobs. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, incorporating four fields that often intersect in their respective subject matters but that were only viewed as a coherent bloc after the National Science Foundation coined the STEM acronym almost 20 years ago.
Engineering and STEM under the spotlight
Why has STEM achieved such purchase in education in recent years? As noted above, STEM knowledge is thought to be in great demand at the moment, and some recent numbers about educational attainment and career growth prospects definitely make the case for this viewpoint:
- During the Obama Administration, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimated that the U.S. would produce 1 million fewer STEM professionals than the economy would require through 2022, a shortfall it claimed would jeopardize the country’s “historical preeminence in science and technology.”
- The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has noted that certain STEM occupations are growing (in terms of employment) faster than the average for all professions. For example, the projected increases in biomedical engineers (24 percent) and software developers (17 percent) from 2014 to 2024 are indeed much greater than for most other jobs.
- An expansive definition of STEM, one that includes every profession from mechanical engineers to science teachers, would encompass up to 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the BLS. Ensuring sufficient numbers of STEM graduates is thus essential for sustaining a significant portion of the economy.
- Many of these STEM jobs also offer compensation significantly higher than the national average. In 2016, a biomedical engineer could expect a median salary of $85,260, which equates to more than $40 per hour- well above the pay for most other careers.
On that note, careers in engineering (the “E” in STEM), in particular, cover a wide range of compensation levels, probably because there are so many distinctive types of engineering. An environmental engineer and an aerospace engineer have some overlapping knowledge and skills, but they typically work on very different projects, which results in disparate pay. Moreover, although there is a STEM crunch in some engineering fields, there is a surplus in others.
Which engineering professions are the most lucrative at the moment for new degree holders? Let’s take a look at a few of them, based on recent data from PayScale.
Breaking down three of the best-paying jobs for engineering majors
Directors of engineering and similar executive positions, especially within mechanical engineering, account for half of PayScale’s top ten job titles for earning potential in engineering. All but one of the rest were related to computer and electrical engineering, both of which have benefited from the proliferation of mobile apps, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things.
1. Architectural and engineering managers
Positions such as “senior director, engineering” (first on the PayScale list, at nearly $200,000) and “vice president, engineering” (second and third, for computer and mechanical engineering, respectively) can be grouped under the BLS banner of “architectural and engineering managers.” These professionals had a 2016 median compensation of $134,730, which puts them in the top 14 percent of U.S. income earners, based on 2014 Census Bureau data.
Many engineering managers are distinguished not only by high pay but also by extensive educational attainment. A master’s degree in engineering or business administration is common, in addition to the bachelor’s degree that is a standard requirement for most engineers.
2. Software engineers
PayScale projects a mid-career earning potential of $140,000 for software developers. This projection is in line with BLS numbers, which indicate median annual pay in excess of $102,000. Unlike architectural and engineering managers software engineers can expect exceptionally fast growth in new positions for the rest of the decade.
An estimated 186,600 such jobs will ultimately be created from 2014 to 2024, as the demand for software will benefit these engineers as well as others (like electrical engineers) who work on computers. That total would represent 17 percent growth in the sector, as mentioned above. As with managers, directors, and vice presidents, staff software engineers can also broaden their opportunities and increase their earning potential by obtaining a graduate degree in the field.
3. Mechanical engineers
This is a catch-all category for several of the job titles on the PayScale list, including “research and development director” and “engineering consultant,” which were categorized by PayScale as specific positions in mechanical engineering. Fundamental principles of mechanical engineering, such as product design and fluid mechanics, are essential in other engineering fields such as agricultural engineering and are also important areas of knowledge for executive-level managers.
The average mechanical engineer makes $84,190 in salary. However, PayScale has pegged compensation for senior engineers in the field at $136,000 and up. Years of experience, licensure as a professional engineer (PE), and a master’s degree or doctorate can all greatly elevate the earning potential of mechanical engineers.
Laying the groundwork for a rewarding career in engineering
The track to becoming a successful engineer, regardless of specialty, takes time and dedication to complete. Students must finish coursework that builds a bounty of skills across the STEM subjects and also prepares them to become effective communicators, researchers, and team leaders.
An online master’s degree in engineering from University of California, Riverside can pave the way to a top-notch position in engineering, whether you become a mechanical, environmental, nanoscale, or other type of engineer. Learn more about the curriculum and possible career options on our main program page, where you can also request additional information.