It’s the night of a premiere – a star-studded event. A candy-apple-red Saleen S7 pulls up. The scissor doors open slowly, and a gentleman wearing a fine Italian cut tuxedo emerges. He tosses the keys to a valet and confidently gaits down the red carpet. The flashbulbs flicker as the din of the crowd rises in anticipation. A culture beat reporter rushes forward to get the exclusive even though they’re wondering, “who is this man of mystery?” Could it be the structural engineer making his first appearance to the theater he designed?
Was your first impression to cheer the well-deserved attention for a civil engineer, or did you scoff at the portrayal of a public servant flaunting wealth and living in the limelight? In a recent student outreach project, I was presented with a similar concept to be used in promoting the profession. I was generally ill at ease with using an outward display of wealth to represent the profession. Several other practitioners agreed, but the marketing professionals made a compelling counterpoint. In the arms race for talent, does humility weaken the civil engineering brand? Maybe civil engineers really are that cool in the eyes of some?
Civil engineers’ negative reaction to demonstration of wealth may be based on a perceived salary deficiency or a disposition to avoid attention. How then should outreach programs communicate the economic rewards for choosing civil engineering as a profession?
Focus groups of college-bound students reveal that the salaries of civil engineers are highly desirable. U.S. News and World Report estimates the average salary for a civil engineer over $85,000. They report that the earnings are fairly comparable to mechanical engineers. I found it interesting that some of the best paying cities for civil engineers were smaller municipalities, where the cost of living adjustment would be substantially in the civil engineer’s favor. The average in Waco, TX, would amount to almost $140,000 in Chicago dollars. Civil engineers are needed almost everywhere, and localities may need to pay to attract people.
You might rightly point out that these are not Ferrari-owning salaries. But then again, the average mid-career doctor or lawyer isn’t in that class either. Those professionals are also likely to enter their career with a much more substantial student loan debt. Doctors could be half a million dollars behind in real and potential losses, by the early 30s, according to bestmedicaldegree.com. Anecdotally, the experience of friends and neighbors seems to support the claim, if not the full value. For now anyway, engineers can apply just a four-year degree from a state school toward their maximum earning potential. That’s good value!
A strong quality of life argument can also be made for civil engineers in comparison to doctors and lawyers. Sure, we can sometimes be called upon for deadline driven overtime, but the workday is at least based on the old 9 to 5 schedule (adjust that forward if you will for construction management). A sampling of online articles indicates that it’s common for lawyers at big firms work 66+ hours per week!
Don’t underestimate the satisfaction civil engineers can take from their contributions to society. The below quote from U.S. News and World Report highlights why civil engineering ranked among the top 10 for STEM jobs.
Want one reason civil engineering makes for a cool job? Part of the payoff comes from stopping to take a look around. The fruits of civil engineers’ labors are seen everywhere – they have hands in building bridges, retrofitting buildings, and damming reservoirs.
And yet, the old trope goes, “there are no famous engineers, only infamous ones.” Perhaps engineers shy away from self-promotion for fear that litigation comes with recognition. Maybe we just don’t want to jinx our work. Then again, clients reward discretion. Starchitects, politicians, and wealthy business interests may not want attention directed toward their engineers or the safety or performance of their constructions. Civil engineers may have the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and famous, but to grab the attention could do disservice to the client and ultimately hurt business.
I’ve answered student’s questions about compensation in this way: I live a comfortable lifestyle. I own my own home in a desirable community nearby Chicago, one of the great American cities for excitement and entertainment. I own a car – just a Hyundai – but make and model is not a priority for me. I prefer to spend money on travel and could afford an international trip each year. I average a 45-hour work week, but I pretty much have the flexibility to arrive at work whenever my schedule allows. I rarely use all of my vacation and personal days, but I am trusted to take those whenever my responsibilities permit. I split my day between office, field visits, and client meetings. I’ve worked for and met starchitects and millionaires. The day always breezes by, and I’m constantly challenged…
It may not be the life of Tony Stark, but it sounds pretty good on re-read. I don’t think we need to promote the profession with an exaggerated scenario. The life of Clark Kent is still pretty compelling. Civil engineer’s compensation, measured in dollars, time, intrigue, and satisfaction, is more than adequate to attract the next generation.
How did you respond to my intro setup? How should the profession communicate compensation to prospective students? Are you satisfied with your compensation? What financial advice would you give to someone considering a career in civil engineering? Please comment below.