Wasn’t it obvious

During a discussion today about how to elaborate our key messages a friend of ours who is not an engineer asked: but wasn’t the problem obvious to you before choosing civil engineering?

That got us thinking: why wasn’t it obvious and common knowledge for us that as Civil Engineers we will feel we are unfairly underpaid? Under appreciated for the work we are doing, for the financial and legal risks we take, for the projects we deliver with long hours at (unpaid) overtime. Probably it should have been, let me give just two examples. It was clear that doctors study extremely hard during university years and work long hours as professionals, often night shifts. They have huge responsibility. It was obvious to us that a criminal lawyer would be required to protect the client even if their moral inclination would suggest differently and that can cause distress. Or that they will have tough clientele. So why didn’t we know before choosing professions that most Civil Engineer are unhappy with their career and prestige?

A small number of engineers in my circle noted (mainly people from families with engineering and business backgrounds) that they knew and anticipated this unsatisfying workplace and financial outcome. They prepared for it. Most of us (in my social circle: 95%) however were idealist. We liked the idea of civil engineering, we liked the studies, we liked the technical-intellectual challenges. We liked that what we do is meaningful. That it gets built. We didn’t explore the financial side, if we can support a family eventually. We thought that will take care of itself if we are good at solely engineering.

But back to the original question: we should have known. We should have done our research and appreciate the economics in the industry. We should have thought about that as technical professionals we will be employed for the lowest possible salary simply because there is always someone who would to do the job cheaper out of need. We should have been better informed. Educational institutions, societies and engineering boards don’t give an direct insight (or seminars) about the everyday economics of working as an engineer as an employee or making our own firm as an entrepreneur. This is a difficult topic, it’s not surprising there is lack of communication about it. Whoever wants to organize a workshop or seminar have to make engineers talk about their personal finances, which nobody really eager to do. (Project financing is an easy topic in comparison, any senior engineer cum project manager can talk for hours about it.) Personal finances of a Civil Engineer is in good case admittedly going well and hence confidential (minority of engineers), in bad case embarrassing. Because considerably less compared to our piers in other professions of similar responsibility of project values and assets.

But, there is a small group of engineers who command similar incomes to progressive professions, with similar years of experience. So there is a way, there is a formula that might work. The rest of the community just have to face the problem. Own the mistake we made. Share the information about the issues and finally give some thought to it. It is a problem that need to be solved. That’s what we do for a living as engineers: problem solving.

The bigger questions are: can we solve it on personal level? Or we can improve the industry, the same way we improve people’s lives? Can we make this struggle easier for the next generation of engineers, and through this it is possible to better the construction industry? We seek the answers, the blog to be continued…


Market Value of Engineering

We mentioned that there is a lack of information and communication on the low market value of Civil Engineering design work. Without going after the background, reasons and solutions, in this post we simply want to describe the problem in detail. The rest will be captured in following posts.

It seems that actually doing the calculations, modelling, analysis, design, problem solving and drawing production has very little market value. It is often done by interns and fresh graduates. The managers trying to spend as little project budget as possible in order to make the project more profitable. These calculations and drawings later are checked by a more experienced engineer, who has been doing the previously mentioned design job for a few years. This “senior” understands the design principles and risks in further depth and gained sufficient knowledge of design standards and some practical (buildability, constructability and value engineering) experience as well. Thus a credible person to defend and explain the design to the client and she/he is still very affordable, the project budget can be well controlled. Finally the finished product, the design drawings are reviewed by the Engineer who signs and takes the responsibility. That’s it. From all three participants the last one, the Engineer may claim a slightly higher salary, because of the liability involved, and his signature is required by law. But let’s not mystify this, we are not talking about huge difference in remuneration. About 10%-30% more than a well established senior engineer who produced the drawing, but didn’t sign. It is relatively easy to find a registered engineer who signs these drawing as his own (after reviewing of course) just out of personal financial necessity.

Delegating the design job, the technical checking as well as single and multidisciplinary coordination to the lowest possible level seems to be the trend that engineering firms follow. It is possible to keep these jobs at the pay scale of entry level positions (almost, annual 3-5% increment if the business allows and we talk about well performing staff, no pay rise if the business is bad). There is an abundance of fresh starters, eager to get some practical experience. So these people need to be technically trained enough, so an acceptable level of design quality can be maintained. Some form of technical training must be provided, and firms usually insist on engineering registration or  institution membership, this way ensuring the level of technical and commercial knowledge. However it seems to be bad business to make operation level, working level civil engineers financially successful. Increasing their salary proportionately with knowledge and experience would be too expensive. Or in other words: it makes financial sense for the individual projects to choose someone cheaper, because it is easy to find cheaper workforce again and again and let go of experienced engineers when they became too “experienced” i.e. expensive. So this project budgeting and resource planning trend seems to prove as well, that “classical” engineering work is not worth much after a specific level. Well, if this specific level is high or low, that’s debatable. We think it is low, it is lower than than same years of experience, effort and level of provided services earns professionals in finance or commercial sectors. (See post Competitive Industry, Uncompetitive Salaries)

So engineers who are unhappy with their remuneration, and realize the above phenomenon, usually have two alternatives. Either they change companies (usually for 10%-20% increase in salary) or become project managers/project controllers or start working in business development of commercial management at their current company. Which means they only do technical work at about 10% of their time and spend 90% time on things that is worth more to their employers: project finances, project management, client facing and winning new jobs. Also delegating to the lowest possible level, if you are a manager “spend time on the things that only you can do”goes the famous saying. (Last time I read it was in the The Structural Engineer, October 2016, IstructeE magazine: Don’t be an accidental manager. Good read, some tips about how to become good managers. About don’t retreat into the “technical comfort zone”, if you are a manager. Do management.) Which translates to me: your time is money, you are worth more now, don’t spend time on engineering that can be done cheaply.

I wish professors, senior colleagues and professional societies would clearly communicate this future engineers early in their studies/careers.

In short it seems to me that doing project management, finances and commercial management worth much more even at companies providing civil engineering services. Simply because the actual product, civil engineering design, can be acquired at low lost, by delegating down and always finding the cheapest engineers a company can hire, but still capable of doing the job (maybe low quality but that risk can be managed). While project managers, financial and commercial consultants are making a difference, engineers don’t. At least that’s what this trend tells me. Civil engineering consultancies are not looking for the cheapest financial consultant or commercial manager they can find. It is worth paying for their services, it is good business. They know too much, they add value. But there are too many Civil Engineers who can do the design job. (Maybe not fantastic quality, but can get the job done eventually. Furthermore, many cases it is possible to hire an experienced even registered engineer who will provide good quality for cheap, just because needs some income and for hope of further, better paying assignments.)

If one works for a prime multinational consultancy, there is always talks about the “Technical” Route of career development, when one becomes a technical expert. Well, even these companies admit, that on that route is much difficult to succeed and become an accomplished professional than the “Project Management” or “Business Development” Route. At every large international company there are technical experts, who are nationwide or internationally regarded as one of the bests. These engineers are fantastic, ingenious, I had the luck to work with a few in person. One learns so much from them, from their 20-30 years of experience on great international projects. They are lecturers (some of them guest lecturers at colleges, but some of them are established academics), team leaders and innovators. We are talking about rare breed of engineers here. And also, they do earn well, after about 25 years of experience they might do as well as a quite talented financial professional, manager accountant or IT project manager with 8-10 years experience. Or their colleagues who picked the “Project Management” route and worked their way up to project director in 12-15 years. I think this discrepancy in time spent matters. The fact that this is the top of the career for our Engineering Technical Expert, while the project director still has 10 more years to go, that salary won’t stagnate there.

We hope we prove the point here. However, some of us, prefer to do engineering. We don’t want to distance ourselves from the technical fields and slowly but surely become managers just so our careers can progress. We are eager to become better and better in providing solutions and technical services, we don’t mind managing clients, leading teams and handling our own budget, but could this be 60% technical work, 40% management? That is why we studied Engineering and not Economics for 4-5 years. We prefer to be the guy who designed or built the bridge, not the one who used some engineers and delegated the design work. Also, we don’t really like that Civil Engineering Resources (basically the engineers salaries) are the cheap part of the project, and surely it is manageable for a lower cost. So we are looking into solving this. Unlikely that we can change the supply and demand correlations in business. But we might be able to improve the quality of some aspects of engineering and maybe there will be demand for that. Maybe we could save time, cost, manhours. The above is solely problem description. The rest will yet to come.

Competitive Industry, Uncompetitive Salaries

Not the most important topic but important enough to start the problem identification with. Salary and how much an engineer makes is a bit of a taboo between Civil Engineers. Still, there should be a forum where one can discuss this openly or in confidential manner.

The salary of Civil Engineers lags behind of other professional fields of similar academic requirements, responsibility and social impact. This is especially true for Structural Engineers.

Starting salary of graduate Civil Engineers is somewhere close to the bottom of the list every year among college educated technical professionals. And this picture only gets worse if we start looking at broader picture and include graduates in finance, law or commercial fields.

I live in a first world major city, combined expenses and living costs are similar to London, New York or Sydney.  For a quick comparison: a promising graduate Civil Engineer medium salary is equivalent of 22000 USD/year, if working for an international consultancy, coming from a recognized university. Maximum I personally heared of was 26000 USD/year, the guy was a genius, I felt my IQ increase just talking to him in the lift. Don’t think it is easy to get a graduate design engineer position at one of the top consultancies, these jobs are highly sought by hundreds of others leaving universities. One has to have top grades and need to stand out of the crowd, possibly with relevant work experience during studies.

On the other hand a fresh starter salary as a financial consultant is easily above 35000 USD/year at an international firm, no need to be a unique talente, just do your job, learn from your mentors.

(These facts are very easy to check if one talks with professionals honestly about the salaries they draw. Many online forums are available, but one can refer to online salary research sites as well. At the end of the post I left some useful links.)

Many people say graduate salaries are not suitable markers and it is worth looking at how salaries change with 5, 10, 20 years of experience. That is true, career progression matters more than the starting point. Unfortunately Civil Engineering will continue to show disappointing figures. As a result oriented and successful Civil Engineer, after 5-6 years one will earn about 45000-55000 USD/year. Of course professional accredited status, Professional Engineer licence or  Chartership at a recognized institution is a requirement, otherwise one’s salary is closer to the graduates. One must keep up with professional development, pass exams, stay competitive. By that time most of us led a desing team as senior engineer and probably had project manager role too.

Comparing this to someone who works in software development, product management, human resources, marketing or branding, the salary gap has noticeably grown. Most of my friends and acquaintances in the above fields earn between 75000 USD/year (software) to 95000 USD/year (marketing communication). They are not unusually successful at their fields, top 20%, so they are good, they make an effort. Some very talented and career focused individuals in finance and law make about 120000 USD/year after 6-7 years work experience. And this is still not the very top. These are people who are good at their jobs and work hard.

For completeness sake we mention that every few years professional magazines and newsletters write about a star Civil Engineer, a new prodigy, who became a deputy director with 7-8 years of experience and (never confirmed with any of them) but presumably earn the above 90000 USD/year salary. We are proud of these ladies and gents, you are literally one in a million, you are fantastic. Please share bits of the secret, it is definitely not just working hard, it is a way of working smart.
For due diligence I also have to mention that in Australia in a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass: civil engineering salaries can easily be better than lawyers and accountants. It s just a cool place. Also, it is a confirmed by online research and from multiple sources, that if one is a registered professional engineer in Hong Kong, the salary is much better than any part of the civil engineering world (our unnamed sources mention a multiplier of 1.3 than in other developed countries). Hong Kong culture working means extreme long office hours though, that needs to be factored in.

After 10-12 years of experience a driven, motivated Civil Engineer possibly made it to middle management: senior project manager/ principal/ associate director level, every company calls it differently. By that time one usually manages multiple projects, leads a large team and handles multi-millions USD project finances as well as work is business development, trying to win new jobs for the company. By that time, engineers salaries start to vary by discipline quite a bit, but the above mentioned scenario allows our Civil Engineer to earn 65000-80000 USD/year.

I asked around, I have a few acquaintances in building service engineering, medical equipment sales, controlling and similar. I did my online research to confirm the answers match a good median value (internet overestimated slightly). After 9-14 years professionals in “non-civil” industries were earning about 105000-140000 USD/year.

Crunching the above numbers is easy, you can quickly calculate the cumulative Difference between the two salary groups (civil engineering versus more progressive professions), early life choices. In 5-6 years time this Sun of this Difference in salaries adds up to the equivalent of a 4 years Bsc/BA in an average (but well recognized) college fee fully paid for two kids. The Sum of Difference in salaries between the next 5 years means quite a few year of retirement savings.

And at that age, 11 years work experience you are 35 years old (even if you enjoyed life fullt, took it easy and finished university at the age of 24). So this tendency will continue till you are 50-65 years old, whenever you plan (able to) retire.

See a few useful sites for comparison below. Just note, I often find these salaries quoted on the web 5-10% higher than in reality. Might be because they are partially built on online surveys and employees completing the survey make their salaries sound better.

This is the inconvenient truth many of us, Civil Engineers didn’t know when we were at the age of 18. We could have done the research, but we didn’t think of it. If this is the only difference this blog makes, it is already worth it. At our times our universities, our engineering institutions never showed us these tough realities (we will discuss the possible reasons later). But prospective engineers need to know and need to prepare. So we can plan. Solution can be crafted.

Check the above numbers, make your own assumptions and calculations, network and talk to engineers! Understand this, appreciate this. Or even better, prove it wrong. Show that there is a basic flaw in these estimations.

Sites similar to http://typesofengineeringdegrees.org/highest-paid-engineering-jobs/#context/api/listings/prefilter
Just google: engineering salary list, or similar.

If you want to make your own online research among a wide jobs use can use the below or similar sites. You can compare locations, years of experience, professions: www.payscale.com.

Why we started this blog

We started this blog for two key reasons. Firstly we want to start a discourse on the status of Civil Engineering – which we think is particularly low compared to other professions –  with the intention to improve the situation. We strongly believe that an honest problem identification, evaluation and possible action plan(s) are required. We strive to engage a large number of civil engineering and construction professionals as well as interested parties in other sectors. We want to collect and listen to as many people’s opinions as possible because other’s experiences might be vastly different from ours. Which may hence enhance the understanding of the above problem and lead to solutions.

Secondly we want to inform fellow and prospective engineers about the professional and personal problems they are likely to face if they  pursue this challenging and worthwhile career. We feel that there is a lack of warning regarding the disadvantages and set backs in personal/professional life and career if one chooses Civil Engineering. While we sincerely promote this profession for its intellectual merits and value to society, it is our responsibility to make future engineers aware of the high workload and liability but definite low prestige and remunerations of civil engineering work. Prospective engineers also need to consider that engineering education and career progression is likely to lock one into a disadvantageous and alarming situation of Catch-22. Improving one’s non-rewarded professional status without changing industry shows low success rate, but shifting to a more prospering industry can be challenging because our skills and work experience are unique and specialized.

The issue is not as dramatic as it might seem from above. Civil Engineers survive somehow. They are generally unhappy but they carry on. However the question remains: couldn’t this be better? Couldn’t we change this for the better? As engineers our professional mission is to improve people’s lives. We understand people’s needs, evaluate their problems and then tackle those problems. Effectively, on time, within budget. So I think we just have to do this with the above problem too. Just another challenge that needs to be Engineered. We believe that by helping the individual engineers to be more successful, we improve the construction industry. Hence it is aligned with every professional engineering board and comity.