Engineering is an exciting field. It offers opportunities to be creative and innovative, engage in hands-on work to design and build new projects, and make a positive impact on the world. There are also a lot of opportunities for movement within the field. An engineer can move laterally into other specialties, change companies to tackle new challenges, or transition into advanced positions such as those of senior engineer or engineering manager.
When it comes to career advancement, becoming an engineering manager is a logical step. The increased responsibilities that come with the role can make the change lucrative. According to Salary.com, the median annual salary for engineering managers in the United States is $146,657 (as of July 2023). That compares very favourably with the median salary for engineers in general, which is reported to be $100,772. Of course, there may be other perks offered at the management level beyond increased salary. And, the skills and competencies that you refine in each engineering management position will open doors to further (and better) management opportunities.
While moving into engineering management can be a key step in advancing your career, the duties and responsibilities are significantly different at the management level. As well, engineering managers require well-developed soft skills that are not always critical for success as an engineer. As you transition into your new role as an engineering manager, you should be prepared for a big shift in how you approach your work.
What Is An Engineering Manager?
Engineering managers are skilled engineers who are responsible for the successful completion of projects. Besides strong technical skills, they require well-developed soft skills to lead the teams of engineers and support professionals that are involved in their projects. Engineering managers work across all engineering subfields, including mechanical, civil, geological, environmental, chemical, biomedical, and aerospace.
In addition to their expert understanding of the projects they are responsible for, engineering managers are people leaders. In their role, engineering managers often:
- Plan, design, and oversee projects;
- Create a vision for their project and team;
- Consult with vendors, clients, and upper management;
- Report to key stakeholders;
- Develop and communicate goals and procedures;
- Prioritize tasks and keep team members on track;
- Effectively manage all resources allocated to the project; and
- Lead their teams by hiring, mentoring, supervising, delegating, problem-solving, and directing day-to-day activities.
It’s easy to see that the role of engineering manager requires a wide,well-developed skill set.
How To Become An Engineering Manager
Because of the technical expertise required in the role, engineering managers are typically engineers who decide to level up in their careers. The most common path to becoming an engineering manager includes:
- Earning an undergraduate degree in engineering or engineering management;
- Gaining relevant work experience, including internships; and
- Becoming licensed as a Professional Engineer (PE), which requires:
- Graduating from an ABET-accredited engineering program;
- Passing the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam;
- Working as an engineer for four years under the supervision of a PE (or PEs); and
- Passing the PE exam.
While you can become an engineering manager through demonstrated technical expertise and people skills, many employers prefer to hire candidates who have a master’s degree in engineering management. The courseload for this degree is typically heavy on business and management courses since it’s expected that those pursuing this degree already have an undergraduate diploma in an engineering field. However, the degree may require some classes in the engineering subspecialty that you expect to work in.
Additionally, certifications can help advance your career as an engineering manager. While some project management certifications are useful to the role, the American Society for Engineering Management (ASEM) offers two certifications specific to engineering management: the Certified Associate in Engineering Management (CAEM) and the Certified Professional in Engineering Management (CPEM).
Skills Required For Engineering Management
To successfully develop and implement projects and lead teams of engineers and related personnel, an engineering manager needs expert technical understanding in their subspecialty. But they also need strong soft skills, especially those needed to work as a people leader.
Soft skills are difficult to define and they can also be difficult to teach. They help us function in our everyday lives since they impact how we interact with others and complete our daily tasks. For example, empathy, conflict management, teamwork, leadership, time management, decision-making, and critical thinking are all soft skills.
Many soft skills are inherent personality traits but they can be developed and refined through practice. If management positions interest you, seek out situations where you can hone your soft skills. For example, offer to present your team’s project, assist or mentor a new employee, become a team leader, or handle communications that are not part of your usual job duties. You can also sign up for professional development opportunities, attend online workshops, or pick up a book on the soft skills that you need to work on. And always be open to feedback and constructive criticism.
The key soft skills for an engineering manager include:
- Leadership skills to keep your teams motivated and productive, to delegate tasks to those best suited to the duties, to resolve conflicts, and help team members develop their own skills;
- Communication skills, both in person and written, to effectively communicate with your team, upper management, clients, and vendors;
- Creativity and innovation skills to find solutions to both technical problems and issues on your team;
- Decision-making and time-management skills to successfully usher your projects to completion; and
- Relationship-building and negotiation skills to earn the trust and cooperation of your team members, upper management, clients, and vendors.
Great engineering managers understand that their soft people and organizational skills are more critical than their technical knowledge because they will be able to rely on their teams to provide technical expertise.
Transitioning Into An Engineering Management Role
In a terrific piece, Karl Hughes talks about how hard it is to transition into a management role. Hughes makes the point that, “Adjusting to management is difficult because the skills and metrics required for management success are completely different from those for individual contributors.” Engineers typically become engineers because they like solving problems and doing innovative hands-on work. It can be difficult to let go of that individual work and trust that your team can competently do it for you.
When you become an engineering manager, you need to give up many things that you may value as an independent contributor, including blocks of time where you can intently focus on a problem, the ability to avoid and ride out conflict, and opportunities to acquire new technical skills. In exchange, you may be asked to deal with issues that you may be uncomfortable handling, such as employee terminations.
Although you are still working in the same field and may have even progressed to the role of engineering manager at the same company, this change in roles can be difficult to adjust to.
If you are interested in engineering management, start preparing for the role before you apply for a position. Gergely Orosz suggests preparing by:
- Changing projects, teams, roles, and/or companies frequently so that you gain a wide breadth of experience with different projects, people, teams, and management styles;
- Carefully observing your own managers and taking away lessons on what is and is not effective when it comes to people and project management;
- Learning as much as you can about leadership and project management through reading, online courses, or professional development opportunities;
- Offering to teach, mentor, and/or lead your current teammates;
- Inviting feedback from your team members and managers, being receptive to suggestions for improvement; and, finally,
- Seeking out opportunities at the next level.
Becoming an engineering manager can be very challenging. It may require that you learn new skills and step out of your comfort zone. However, engineering management is essentially problem-solving: breaking down the steps needed to complete a complex project and making sure that all contributors are on board and motivated to work with you. It is a logical career step up and can be quite rewarding. It is helpful, however, to be prepared for the differences between being an engineer and an engineering manager.