How to increase your engineering salary

Want a bigger paycheck next month?
I can’t help you there.

Willing to take some specific actions to grow your value over time? Let’s talk.

Many engineers stagnate on the career/pay curve after just 5 years in industry. Don’t get me wrong- they do well. The job certainly pays better than flipping burgers. But, why do so many folks with an engineering background see little more than cost of living wage increases?

Better question: What habits of the big engineering earners can you adopt?

Forget about your GPA

Your GPA and prestigious college only matter on your first job interview. Managers looking to hire staff with a few years of industry experience under the belt don’t even look at GPA. They look at the experience and responsibility listed in the work history.

I’ve known plenty of engineers who 10 years after graduation still manage to mention graduating from MIT or Purdue with a 3.9 GPA in every conversation. If this is you, you have to stop. The people around you are not impressed. It screams entitlement, not expertise.

Focus instead on walking the walk with your current position. Be the best you can be, and help others around you do the same.

Learn how to present

Engineering school did many of us a huge disservice. Learn these equations and do this math, but don’t worry about articulating ideas in a compelling way for a live audience. That’s for the Poli-Sci and Drama students.

Most of the big earners in your company appear comfortable and compelling in front of a group. While there are a few natural orators, most of them got good through experience.

Myers-Briggs says I’m strongly introverted. I remember sitting in my first post-college project meetings at GM and sweating bullets as each person took a turn on the weekly round table review. I was so terrified that I couldn’t even listen to the updates before mine.

I quickly fixed my presentation problem by joining Toastmasters. Within a few months, I was making great progress. In the years after, I consciously worked on a couple of presentation skills at every opportunity. After inexplicably moving into Sales, I got more practice than you can imagine. Today, I’m calm and poised in all presentations. No butterflies, even.

Why is this important?
Because, teams are made up of humans. Humans communicate through vocal tones and body language. Having technical expertise is valuable. The ability to effectively pass that expertise along to your team, project, and product is invaluable. And, eventually, it gets you more pay.

Learn how to write

Writing is really just another shade of presentation. Engineers tend toward long words, jargon, and unnecessary volume in technical reports. I believe even the most dry of subjects can be crafted into enjoyable (or at least tolerable) prose.

Take the time to write for readability, not just for accuracy. Clear, concise, engaging writing will also promote clear, concise, engaging thinking. Again, reps and intention will improve your skills here. Think of every email and report as an opportunity to practice.

I also suggest starting a blog. The regularity and public exposure will give you a nice kick in the pants. As a side benefit, you will begin building your own personal brand… which is another great way to eventually increase your salary.

Michael Hyatt details everything you need to know to get started:
How to Launch a Self-Hosted WordPress Blog in 20 Minutes or Less [Screencast]

Learn your business

Have a very clear vision of what your company makes and the profit structure around that. You’ll have to know that to move into management roles. But, I think it’s critical for everyone in an organization.

To get ahead, you don’t have to gain the knowledge of a CFO overnight. Start with something simple… like, “Who buys our products, where do they buy them, and how much do they spend?” In speaking with thousands of engineers over the last decade, I’ve found that only a small minority can answer those basic questions.

The engineers who impress me (and who I later see rising through the ranks) are the ones who take me for a plant tour, point to the widget popping off the end of the line and say, “We make 100,000 of these a year and sell them for around $500 a pop. Not much we can do on the manufacturing side… but if I could save $10 in material per unit, we’re looking at a million in found money.”

If you make laptops, you probably have a good feel for these answers, because you’ve purchased one yourself. But, let’s say you work for a tier 1 auto supplier making HVAC units. How much does the auto OEM pay for each unit? Quite surprising that many engineers can’t even hazard a guess at $10, $100, or $1000.

Knowing this information, along with some rough understanding of material and production costs will quickly set you apart from the standard engineer. Just dropping a couple of these ideas into a presentation or written document to support your engineering choices will most definitely have an impact on how management thinks of you. Rightly so. You become more valuable by being in tune with what really matters at your company. When promotion time comes, who do you think your CEO would rather have in positions of authority?

What other skills and ideas have helped your career?
Please comment and share below.

Image by Charkrem

 

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  • http://twitter.com/jchawner John Chawner

    Great list of ideas. LEARN TO WRITE. That’s my favorite and what I tell engineering students every chance I get.

    • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

      Thanks, John. I probably should have added, “Learn to read” as well. Get enough novels under your belt, and you can’t help but absorb “what just sounds right” and have that show up in your own writing.

  • Ram

    Good post Jeff. I see a lot of the same issues. I am constantly emphasizing to co-workers and customers to focus on the value-add and not the complexity or difficulty or time consumed or ….Ultimately all engineers are paid to solve problems that have enough of a business value in a cost-effective way. Whether this requires calculus or algebra is not relevant to the economic value.

    • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

      Thanks, Ram. Well said!

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  • FlowJoe

    The best skills that I use daily in my work I learned outside of the classroom and finding out about what others were doing outside of engineering. In the end, it made me be a stronger engineer who could come up with different approaches to solve a problem. Yea, I hung out with some of my engineering friends from time to time, but my strong circle of friends were studying other disciplines, like English or History. They liked to drink beer too, and I found the conversations to be more interesting… not about what professor so-and-so taught in lecture earlier that day. I have to say that the girls were typically better looking too.

    I worked at the college radio station as staff engineer (did the antenna freeze up? no, then we’re ok) and a DJ. I hate the feeling when it seems like you’re talking to yourself, even when leaving a voice message on the phone, but I got over my discomfort when being on-the-air. Why this is useful is that when practicing presentations, you do exactly that > talk to yourself. Then when performing in front of an audience, it doesn’t seem so bad. Now I’m to the point where I’m more confident and at ease with what I’m doing that my rehearsal is all mental.

    I still wonder how it might be presenting to thousands, but I’ve heard that with the lights on the stage, you only see the first few rows. The best advice to get started is to just go ahead and do it; get over the awkward feeling; push yourself to up your game; as a result, it’ll become normal… somewhat.

    Jerry Seinfeld made a great joke based on a simple observation:
    “I read a thing that actually says that speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number one fear of the average person. I found that amazing – number two was death! That means to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

    You could say that I’m an INTP trying to be a ENTP. Has it helped my career? I guess you could say that I’m doing just fine.

    P.S. The comedian Don McMillan, the man behind “Technically Funny,” had me ROTF SLOL LMPO BAGL FOFL when I saw him live. Check some of his videos out for yourself: http://www.technicallyfunny.com/Corporate%20Videos.htm

    • http://lifeupfront.com/ Jeff Waters

      Totally agree, Joe. If this is your fear, you’ve got to just get out there and do it. That was the primary thing Toastmasters did for me.

      • FlowJoe

        One thing I missed writing above was that hanging out with non-engineer types forced me to try to explain to them exactly what I do. So work on your 1-min. elevator speech.

        Or test yourself by presenting to friendlys something that you really enjoy and know how to do best, such as shooting a potato out of a pipe or brewing your favorite cup of coffee using an AeroPress. Now after you laid it out (on paper or slides), go back and try to make it as succinct as possible.