• Mel Butcher

You Don't Get What You Deserve: Salary Negotiation for Early-Career Engineers

Updated: May 15

(Written for Engineering YPs in 2017)

Patrick Star (from Spongebob Squarepants)  holding cash, looking forelorn.

There is a lot of career impactful material that college courses do not cover: how to garner multiple job offers upon graduation; explanation of the sectors where engineers might work, such as industry, consulting, construction, research, government; how to keep a project on budget; and salary negotiation. 

The latter is a tricky topic, because in U.S. culture, it is somewhat taboo to even discuss money.

When you get out of school, should you just take the first offer you get, or is there room for negotiation? How should you respond when asked, “What is your salary expectation?”

These are valid questions, and you should be well prepared for negotiation whether you are just getting out of school or hoping to ratchet up your earnings in the first couple of years in your career. Here are some things you can do to set yourself up for a successful negotiation:

1.   Do your homework – There are two specific areas you need to research in advance. 

First, understand the economic climate. Is the market area you are entering flourishing, or experiencing a downturn? For example, when the overall economy is not doing well, many construction activities come to a halt; this can trickle into design work. During similar economic circumstances, engineers in your area might outnumber demand, which diminishes room for negotiation. It is important to get a sense of the economy by using your network, particularly more seasoned professionals (such as those you meet through ASCE, ASME, WEF, etc.), to discern this. 

Second, learn your market value. Research to gain a sense of what other engineers/scientists with your skills and level of experience are earning, particularly in your geographic region. Do not rely on what a few classmates tell you. Get on the internet and poke around places like Salary.com, Glassdoor.com, and Payscale.com. As an example, you can get an idea of the Engineer I salary range for Environmental Engineers in the Tampa area by clicking here.

2.      Practice – Practice negotiating, preferably with someone who has experience interviewing prospective new hires.

Ask a confidant to role-play a mock interview and negotiation with you. Have them ask you difficult questions. The negotiation portion could go something like this:

Confidant as Interviewer: "We really enjoyed getting to know you in the interview process. We believe you would be a good fit for our company. What is your salary expectation?"

(You don’t want to be the first one to give a number, but they put you on the spot. Luckily, you have done your homework...)

You: "Thank you so much for the positive feedback; I agree that ABC company could be a fantastic fit for me too. Regarding salary-- according to my research, entry level Environmental Engineers in the Tampa area with similar experience to my own earn between $53k and $57k. I have gathered that this position requires extra work with AutoCAD and, as we have discussed, I have extensive experience with the program through X project at school, and Z project work at my internship. How negotiable is the salary for this position?"

Confidant as Interviewer: "We may be able to go as high as $X, but I will have to verify with management. I can get back to you in a couple of days."

You: "That would be great. Thank you very much."

… And so on. Practice techniques for keeping the discussion going. Ask "how" negotiable it is [open] rather than "is it negotiable" [closed]. Be prepared with your practice and research to volley these questions.

And, importantly, have a clear understanding of what you bring to the table. As Liz Ryan often highlights, you need to know and understand the employer’s pain, and be able to articulate how you can alleviate it.

3.      Know your floor – For every potential job offer, you need to know your floor, or the minimum amount you would be willing to accept.

This comes after your homework in #1, and will vary by location. If you are looking for jobs in multiple cities, look at cost of living, your research on what engineers/scientists at your level make in that region, and then determine your minimum for each location/region. 

Your minimum might also vary by the type of opportunity. For example, if you really want to work for company A because they are doing cutting edge design in the field you are most interested in, your floor might be lower than an offer from company B.

4.   Non-salary negotiation - Be prepared with non-salary negotiables. 

Let’s say you get an offer from a company you love. You go through the negotiation process, and you get to a number that is close to what you want, but not quite. What can you do? Be prepared to ask about other options such as:

  • Can you get a sign-on bonus?

  • Are there other types of bonuses you could earn throughout the year and how, precisely, are they awarded?

  • Will the company pay for your cell phone?

  • Are the number of paid vacation days negotiable?

These are just a few examples. There could be other intangibles that are important to you, such as the ability to work from home a couple of days a week. Such perks are valuable, and you should prioritize them according to the career experience you want.

A parting thought… One of my supervisor’s gave me a nugget of wisdom that I will leave you with today:

“You don’t get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.”

Through a bit of research and preparation, you can facilitate salary negotiation success.

A message for the Ladies….

Sisters, I simply cannot stress enough how important it is for you to research and practice negotiation. Look at your male peers around you. Do they deserve more pay than you? Of course not, but you can bet that the majority of them are going to attempt to negotiate higher pay regardless of whether or not they are more qualified than you. Simply put: this is a difficult area where you must stand up for yourself. Negotiation is a skill you can continue to hone to your benefit throughout the entirety of your career (for salary, business deals, and more). Note the amount of money you take off the table over the course of your career by not negotiating (spoiler alert: it's a lot!). We walk a fine line in this communication process so as not to come across as pushy or demanding; therefore, it is critical that you are equipped for the challenge. Develop relationships with more senior engineers/scientists and ask for their help. Another great place to learn more about negotiation basics is this video by Margaret Neale.  


Feel welcome to reach out to me on LinkedIn with questions. Sign up to hear about upcoming Underdog Engineers courses here.

#Engineer #Engineers #YoungProfessionals #Salary #Negotiation #SalaryNegotiation

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