Engineering job titles – what do they really mean?

Engineering job titles – what do they really mean?

Engineering job titles in the workplace are a bit like the Bee Gees:  There used to be three of them, but it’s not cool to talk about them anymore.  Where once upon a time, a typical engineering office had a simple hierarchy of Engineers, Senior Engineers, and Directors, the industry now has a confusing range of terms and titles that often have tenuous connections to their literal meaning or the job roles they entail.  Let’s dig deeper…

In the world of consulting engineering, things used to be pretty simple.  If you left university and joined a consulting firm, you were an Engineer.  Depending on the size of the practice, there were probably quite a lot of Engineers.   And their level of experience and years in the industry varied from 1 to between 12-15 years.  There was then a small handful of older, evidently wiser folks who carried the grand job title of Senior Engineer.  And they were literally that:  They were the senior personnel; the gurus in the office; the ones you turned to to seek guidance and help with difficult tasks; they often headed up the larger projects; and they were – sometimes for better or worse – your mentors.   Generally speaking, they had around 15 to 20 years’ experience in the industry.  And above them, typically, were the owners/founders of the business, who carried the rarefied title of Director.

Two firms I worked for – one in the 1990’s, one in the early 2000’s – had exactly that hierarchy and all staff generally held one of those three titles.  Many firms also had a fourth title of Associate, which denoted a Senior Engineer who had taken some equity in the firm.

Fast forward to today, and the industry has shuffled things around; come up with new terms; re-defined what some of these titles denote; and subsequently created a myriad of job titles that make for a cluttered and confusing landscape.   In no particular order or level of significance, try these on for size:  Senior Engineer, Graduate Engineer, Engineer, Principal, Lead Engineer, Executive Engineer, Associate, Project Engineer, Senior Associate, Junior Engineer, Director, Team Leader, Design Engineer, Associate Director, Team Head, Chief Engineer, and moreApart from many of these job titles being non-linear in a sense of progression, they often rarely align with their literal meaning.  For example, many firms now assign the title of Senior Engineer to people with as little four to five years’ experience.  And whilst Principal should generally denote the owner/founder or CEO of a business, larger consulting engineering firms now assign this title to mid-level staff with, say, seven to ten years’ experience.  Director is also an interesting term: In Australia, at least, this should suggest someone who’s actually listed as a corporate director of the company with ASIC, but is now sometimes applied to someone who simply heads up a team or division within a company.

For the most part, the driving forces behind this workplace development in the last two decades come down to emotion and aspiration.  And much of that is, simply, generational.  Tied in closely with this is the influence of the now-ubiquitous recruiter, combined with a changing mindset around employee tenure, loyalty, and career development.  At the risk of bringing the politics and controversies of generation stereotypes into the conversation, many suggest the current situation is a response to the demands, expectations, and aspirations of a mindset commonly associated with the Gen Y workforce.

Look up any publication or authority that lists or defines the characteristics and traits of Gen Y (generally those born between 1981 and 1996; also referred to as millennials), and you’ll read words to the effect of “They also expect to rise rapidly through the organisation and move up the ladder faster.”  Yes, we’re being very general here and dredging up a crass stereotype, but for a cohort raised and schooled on a foundation of receiving a trophy just for turning up, sticking around in a company for 10-12 years just to be promoted from Engineer to Senior Engineer doesn’t cut the mustard.

Engineering job titles - Climbing the corporate ladder

Climbing the corporate ladder implies there are rungs on the ladder to climb, and many of the engineering job titles now floating around are the result of employers having to create more intermediate rungs to satisfy a workforce hungry for promotion and perceived progress.  The irony is that the ladder didn’t get any shorter, and the time taken to climb it hasn’t got any quicker.  There are simply more rungs in between…and it’s questionable which ones actually carry much weight.  In the real world of consulting engineering, design, and project management, it typically takes 12-15 years at the industry’s coal face to reach the level of knowledge, wisdom, and experience necessary to be considered a senior, yet we have a workforce that seeks recognition, affirmation, and promotion every two to three years.  And so engineering job titles – whose actual meaning is often difficult to define, and certainly vary in status from one office to the next – have been inserted into the industry’s workplace lexicon.  Examples include the likes of Lead Engineer, Principal, Team Leader, and Executive Engineer.  Even the once highly-respected and coveted title of Senior Engineer has been devalued and pushed down the order, now used in some firms to denote the stepping stone from a fresh graduate to someone with as little as five years under their belt.

For workplaces whose size, structure, or hierarchy cannot accommodate such employee expectations for constant promotion and title change, it is common to lose millennial staff as they change employers in search of a perceived title upgrade – not necessarily for an accompanying, significant salary increase or change in responsibility.  Such workplace limitations also cause employee angst purely from peer comparison.  An engineer might feel he or she is being undervalued, overlooked, or left behind as they see their peers from their graduating year seemingly progress faster than them in other firms, merely because of title changes.  Sadly and unfortunately, such misplaced evaluation and angst rarely seems to put into perspective or objectively compare the actual job role, the day-to-day duties, the level of responsibility, and the degree of autonomy they work with.  Alas, such metrics can’t be measured by clicks, likes, number of followers, or LinkedIn updates.

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Not surprisingly, this state of affairs can cause confusion for our colleagues in other sectors of the construction industry.  Witness the 50 year-old site foreman or project architect who arranges a meeting on site with someone s/he understands from an email signature to be a senior, experienced player, only to be confronted by an engineer in their mid-to-late 20’s, who hasn’t been around the traps long enough and just can’t bring the necessary firepower to the conversation or the problem at hand.  There is bemusement (and often frustration), followed by the inevitable phone call to one of the firm’s directors to “send someone more senior”.

The paradox in exploring and writing about this topic is that you know you’ll get two predictably opposite reactions from readers, each shaped by the camp they sit in, and each equally feeling their reaction is the correct and valid response.  Older readers – let’s face it, the Baby Boomers and Generation X engineers who feel they served their time and waited patiently for their promotions and opportunities to come along – will find this narrative resonates and speaks to their experiences as they’ve managed younger, ambitious staff coming through the system.  In contrast, most Gen Y readers will sigh; dismiss the article as a straw man, and accuse the premise as failing to evolve with the changing times.  Regardless of where you sit on the spectrum of responses and your own experience with the subject matter, for all of us, our perception is our reality.

However, irrespective of one’s job title, and regardless of one’s sense of self-worth, two things don’t and won’t change in the engineering workplace: (1) As discussed above, the corporate ladder doesn’t get any shorter between its bottom and its top, no matter how many intermediate rungs a consulting firm inserts along the way.  (2) Your value, contribution, esteem, and standing in any organisation is not measured by the letters after your name, or the title on your business card.  Rather, they are measured by your attitude, your performance, your experience, and your actual achievements.  Take care of those things, and your title will take care of itself.

Cheers,
AD

PS – for those actually wanting a genuine indication or guideline as to where some of the titles fit in the pecking order, it’s difficult to be too accurate or definitive.  As we’ve explored above, different companies use these titles in different ways, and some titles (such as Principal, for example) can mean a very high, senior position at one office, yet denote a mid-level position at another.   Not to be taken too seriously, here’s a possible “line of best fit”, using years of experience since leaving university as our calibrating scale:

  • 0-2 years: Graduate Engineer, Junior Engineer, Engineer
  • 2-5 years: Engineer, Project Engineer, Design Engineer, Lead Engineer, Senior Engineer
  • 3-10 years: Lead Engineer, Senior Engineer, Principal, Team Head/Leader
  • 7-15 years: Senior Engineer, Principal, Associate, Chief Engineer, Executive Engineer
  • 10-20+ years: All of the above, plus possibly Associate Director, Director

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