How to Become a Principal Engineer (With Average Salary)
Updated 18 November 2023
Principal engineers represent expertise and professionalism in the engineering sector. Becoming a principal engineer demonstrates innovation and showcases extensive knowledge that can impress potential employers. Learning about what a principal engineer is and how to become one can help you choose if this career path is right for your interests and career goals. In this article, we discuss how to become a principal engineer, explain why this qualification is valuable, share some skills for principal engineers and list some industries where principal engineers are highly useful.
What is a principal engineer?
Principal engineers are highly skilled and very experienced engineers who supervise and sometimes direct a range of projects. Typically, they've been an engineer for several years and have a vast portfolio of projects, making them the most skilled engineer on a project at one time. They offer guidance and instruction to engineers in a more junior position and take on a leadership and planning role during a project.
Principal engineers are usually responsible for the following tasks:
guiding more junior engineers through a project process
consulting on projects that are complex and demanding
taking on a leadership role and being in charge of the hiring and management of junior staff
negotiating with suppliers and third parties on materials, equipment and planning strategies
developing new strategies for tackling complicated design
advising clients on the best course of action
researching new ways of approaching projects
consulting on environmental and budget requirements and recommendations
constructing reports on spending or construction requirements
designing project specifications and ensuring their team meets requirements.
How to become a principal engineer
Learning how to become a principal engineer can help you plan your next career step. Becoming a principal engineer requires years of experience and extensive study to be as proficient and technically skilled as possible. Principal engineers work in multiple industries, so the pathway to the career can differ depending on the sector, but below is a step guide that can help you become a principal engineer:
1. Gain a bachelor degree
Engineers require a bachelor's degree in their chosen field of study, such as mechanical, chemical or bioengineering. The course equips you with the necessary mathematical, analytical and engineering basics required for this career. Aspiring principal engineers benefit from industry experience and exposure during their course, giving them a fuller perspective and a better understanding of what a day as an engineer is like.
After graduation, consider a wider industry speciality that you wish to take on further into your career. Making this decision may help you narrow down your job search and make pursuing further education easier. Focusing on an industry also prepares you to become an expert in that field.
This can be any of the following sectors of engineering:
construction or civil.
Related: What Does an Engineer Do?
2. Consider further education
Gaining a master degree in engineering or your specific speciality showcases to your employer that may have more experience, skills and theoretical knowledge than other candidates. A master course, typically lasting between one and two years, can equip you with more industry exposure, better networking opportunities and an advanced knowledge basis in topics such as advanced mathematics or physics. A master degree may better prepare you for a job as a principal engineer.
3. Gain accreditation
Formal recognition as a registered professional engineer is essential for this career. You may pass an exam to help you qualify for this registration. Gaining accreditation is a great way of demonstrating a proactive work ethic and professionalism and can make you a great candidate for engineering jobs. Accreditation prepares you for the workforce and ensures you operate at the national standard.
4. Get work experience
As principal engineers have a wealth of experience, you may want to first gain experience from entry-level and junior roles to develop your skill set. Consider a junior or entry-level engineering role in your speciality to gain as much exposure and experience as possible. This can also help you gain networking opportunities, which may lead to a more senior role in the future.
When applying for a job as a principal engineer, consider attaching a portfolio of previous projects to demonstrate your full skill set to the employer. This is a good way to demonstrate competence in many aspects of a successful project and may make you more prepared to assume a senior position.
The average salary of a principal engineer
Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.
The national average salary for a principal engineer is $121,806 per year. Annual income can also fluctuate depending on education level, experience and location. For example, a principal engineer who has consulted on several vastly different projects with an extensive portfolio is more likely to earn more, as clients and employers value the experience.
Engineering is a stable career to join, with projected growth expected to be strong in the next five years.
What skills does a principal engineer need?
Here are some skills required to be a principal engineer:
Part of a principal engineers role is to solve complex design issues efficiently. Executing plans is similar to assembling a puzzle, so principal engineers are often solutions-driven and willing to be innovative in their problem-solving process. Problem-solving also applies to the team management element of their role.
Principal engineers may take on multiple projects at one time. This means they manage several aspects of several projects at once. Good prioritisation and project management skills help principal engineers compartmentalise their workload and tackle each task efficiently and effectively.
Principal engineers are experts within their field. This requires them to have extensive industry knowledge on the project they're working on. A principal engineer can benefit from keeping up to date with the latest industry knowledge, including the current engineering principles and guidelines.
Principal engineers may work with a variety of different people with varying skill sets. This means that they work effectively within a team and brainstorm ideas and solutions collaboratively. Engineers rely on each other's consultation to tackle complex designs and create innovative solutions, this is especially important if an engineer is working on a large scale project with construction workers, architects, estimators and surveyors.
Depending on the speciality, principal engineers may have to construct reports on the progress of projects, so they may be very analytical to be able to spot trends or issues with design or function. Principal engineers may have many channels relying on their expertise, so they're as thorough as possible in their inspection process. Analytical thinking also helps identify the most efficient solution to problems or projects.
Principal engineers are seen as leaders and pioneers in their field, meaning that many junior engineers may look to them for mentoring and guidance. This means that principal engineers have basic leadership skills that give them the power to delegate tasks, support, train and hire staff. They develop leadership skills during their years of project work, interacting with various teams and seeing how successful managers have handled projects.
Committed to research and further education
As with many academic industries, the engineering field is constantly adapting and changing to government regulation, scientific findings and innovative solutions. The principal engineer stays up to date with the latest findings and solutions in their field to give their clients and staff the best possible service. Working in an innovative environment, engineers are critical thinkers at any stage of their career.
Sectors where a principal engineer can make a difference
Principal engineers can work in almost any sector or scenario, as engineering is valuable to every industry. Here is a list of industries where principal engineers could be instrumental:
Principal engineers work on construction and property environments to ensure that the property projects meet the desired specifications. Principal engineers can also help with the project surroundings such as road and transport planning. They can also help with negotiating costs and designing innovative solutions to bring down the overall cost of the project.
Principal engineers can help in the mechanics field by helping design greener solutions in transport for electric cars. As senior figures, principal engineers have a large say in what the design process looks like, so are instrumental in the construction of modern solutions. Principal engineers can also consult on high profile productions like aerospace engineering which requires the very best in the industry.
Environment and sustainability
Principal engineers can help innovate greener solutions and expand the knowledge basis of our planet. They may pioneer new designs in energy production, for example. Principal engineers can consult local authorities and governments on how to adopt greener practices through things like public transport.
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