Like most aerospace engineers, I spend a fair amount of time contemplating salary and rates in our industry. What on earth is going on? I’ll say straight out that my attitude is one of complete disappointment, and I think I know why, or at least have part of the equation right. As we are all aware, it doesn’t take much to get a job working for a lousy company designing ‘crap’, and the engineer is paid accordingly. Fortunately, it takes a bit more to get a job at an aerospace major or key supplier where you design and analyze mission critical airframe and components. But too often, and I didn’t say always, ‘an engineer is an engineer’ and when there is a demand then it will surely be filled. But by who, is the key here. True the requisition may well state ’10 years minimum experience’ and ‘airframe experience preferred’ but many requisitions are followed by ‘automotive experience considered’, and there goes the rate. Now that’s not a crack against my fellow automotive engineers – I’m a car lover to the bone and a Maserati is a far better example of engineering than some of what I’ve seen at Company X, but you get the message.
The company cannot necessarily be faulted if they can fill their spot at a reduced rate, after all, business is business, but the possible reduced rate has now become the norm. Now let’s put some numbers on all this. These numbers are not based on some exhaustive research effort or even direct input from my peers, they simply come from my own observation and experience, and yours may be very different. But I doubt it! Ten years ago I was seeing rates for experienced aerospace stress analysts at about $75/hour. Today I’m seeing rates for experienced aerospace stress analysts at about $75/hour. Sure, we can talk about the economy and the competition in the aviation industry and then water it down further by using slick terms like ‘lean engineering’ which is nothing more than common sense, but the end result is one of zero growth in rate coupled with an ever increasing cost of living. And there you are – smart, educated, experienced, valued and trusted. Earning less and less every year, and it just gets worse. Registered massage therapists get paid $125/hour, the mechanic that fixes the Maserati you can’t afford gets paid $200/hour, and I bet you pay your maid $100/hour or more. Is your attitude one of complete disappointment yet?
So what part of the equation is right? Yeah, it’s the part about aviation companies being able to fill a serious engineering position with virtually ‘any’ employee simply because they legally can. The FAA doesn’t recognize the PE license, a graduate degree surely isn’t required and most every engineering school is ABET accredited so education really doesn’t mean much. What? We’re talking about aircraft and education really doesn’t mean much? Sad and true, but most aerospace structural engineers have a bachelor’s degree and that’s about it. And the engineer designing ‘crap’? He’s got a bachelor’s degree and that’s about it. And they went to the same school. So fine, what about serious, relevant and required on-the-job, professional training? Other than after hours courses that the engineer takes voluntarily to get, say $78/hour or maybe a promotion for a direct employee, it doesn’t exist either. Safety largely falls on the AR/ODA and even there, the personal and professional responsibility is readily questioned.
When I tell this to friends working in other professions the response is one of disbelief. How can that be? Lawyers have to pass the bar exam, doctors have to be board certified to get malpractice insurance and engineers need nothing in the way of special training to analyze an engine attachment lug? One sign of saving grace, salary-wise anyway, is that jobs offered at $75/hour are easily counter-offered at $125/hour and just recently, I’ve heard of rates cracking the $100/hour mark perhaps allowing us to pay the maid. When I think about the responsibility a stress analyst has, the courses he did take as an undergraduate and what everyone is earning, $300/hour for an experienced guy seems absolutely reasonable. How the company affords such a rate is another article, best written by another engineer.