Where Experienced Engineers Earn the Most, and the Shortfall of Petroleum Engineers

Published on Jul 26, 2013

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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In an enlightening CNNMoney article, a recruiter who specializes in locating oil and gas engineers declared that “it’s an all-out war for talent.” The market for experienced engineers is especially cutthroat — in oil and gas and elsewhere. This has led to quickly escalating wages for engineers in the United States, Canada, and other countries, just as we’d expect given the limited supply of highly skilled workers in any in-demand field.

To see where in the U.S. earnings are the highest for experienced engineers, we looked at EMSI’s detailed occupation wage information in Analyst. One of the neat things about EMSI’s labor market data is that we showcase what the BLS calls percentile wages — the percentage of workers in an occupation that earn less than a given wage and the percentage that earn more.

Percentile wages allow us to see the wage curve for any occupation, including the broad “engineers” category that encompasses 16 specific engineering job titles (from aerospace engineers to nuclear engineers). Wage curves can serve as a proxy for experience: entry-level workers are likely to be at the 10th or 25th percentile, and most experienced or management-level workers are likely to be at the 75th or 90th percentile.

These wage estimates are useful if you’re trying to figure out how competitive your region is for high-end jobs in any of the 700-plus classified occupations that the government tracks and we include in Analyst.

For this analysis, we looked at every metropolitan statistical area in the country to find metros that rank highest in two wage categories:

  1. The 90th percentile: These are metros with the highest top-end wages for engineers — 90% percent of workers in the field earn less; 10% earn more. These are presumably experienced engineers, or the ones who have risen quickly to management positions.

  2. The 10th percentile: These are metros with the highest entry-level wages for engineers. This gives us a good indication of where new engineers make the most.

At the Very Top

Nationally, engineers at the 90th percentile make $62.13 per hour, or $129,230 per year (see chart above). That’s a nice salary no doubt, but dozens of regions dwarf the national mark. And at the very top are oil and gas-dominated regions: Williston, N.D.; Midland, Texas; and Houston.

Several cities are at or near the top of the 10th percentile and 90th percentile rankings: San Jose, Anchorage, San Francisco, Williston, and Houston. Rochester, Minn., also offers competitive wages at both ends of the spectrum.

In Williston, engineer jobs have grown 175% (from 203 to 559) since 2010, when the area’s economic boom was in full bloom. Half of all engineers in Williston are, you guessed it, petroleum engineers — and they make $91.66 per hour at the median level. Why are petroleum engineers making so much in Williston and other places? There simply aren’t enough of them, and there aren’t enough graduates from U.S. schools (see our full discussion of this below).

The top 10% of all engineers in Williston make at least $127.86 per hour or $265,949 per year, which is 36% higher than Midland, the second-highest metro area at $94.27 per hour or $196,082 annually. Houston comes in third, at $178,838 — and it has added nearly 8,000 engineering jobs since 2010, the most in the nation.

Other notable metros on this list:

  • Bloomington-Normal, Ill., is fourth, and the majority of engineers work in the corporate, subsidiary, and regional managing offices industry. State Farm Insurance is headquartered in this MSA.

  • San Jose is known as a computer/IT hub, but engineers have a considerable presence, too. And at the 90th percentile, they make the fifth-most among any MSA.

  • Idaho Falls holds a lofty spot in engineer wages for one reason: the Idaho National Lab. (Not included in this list because it’s so small is Los Alamos, which has the highest median wages for engineers in the country, at $72.30 per hour, also because of a national lab.)

Outside the top 10, other oil and gas-driven metros have high top-end wages (Beaumont-Port Arthur and Odessa in Texas), as well as other tech and innovation centers (San Francisco, Boulder, and Washington, D.C.). Los Angeles rounds out the top 15. We’ve included a larger list at the bottom of the post.

Metros with Highest Entry-Level Earnings

This list of cities looks quite different than the one we just discussed. The highest 10th percentile, or entry-level, earnings for engineers are found in Yuba City, Calif. — a metro with the third-highest unemployment rate, at 13.9%, in the nation among all MSAs as of May 2013. Over half of the estimated 419 engineers in Yuba City work in government, which perhaps explains the competitive starting wage level ($36.67 per hour or $76,274 per year). Yuba is above the national median salary (the 50th percentile) for engineers, but well below at the 90th percentile — so the earning potential isn’t as great as it is in some other cities. (Plus, engineering jobs have been stagnant since 2010 in Yuba City.)

Two other California metros are next on the list: Napa and San Jose. They’re followed by Decatur, Ala.; Anchorage, Alaska; Sacramento; Merced, Calif.; and Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, Wash. Most of these are strongly concentrated in government employment.

Several cities are at or near the top of the 10th percentile and 90th percentile rankings: San Jose, Anchorage, San Francisco, Williston, and Houston. Rochester, Minn., also offers competitive wages at both ends of the spectrum, thanks to a strong (but declining) electronic computer manufacturing industry that employs computer hardware engineers, among others.


The following table gives the 10th and 90th percentile wages for the metros where top-end wages are at or above the national median for engineers.

CityEngineers' 10th Percentile SalaryEngineers' 90th Percentile SalaryWilliston, ND$65,229$265,949Midland, TX$53,914$196,082Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX$64,438$178,838Bloomington-Normal, IL$58,053$168,376San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA$72,322$160,846Anchorage, AK$68,120$159,390Tyler, TX$51,314$158,205Idaho Falls, ID$57,470$154,960New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA$59,322$151,029Rochester, MN$63,024$150,966Boulder, CO$57,138$149,947Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX$61,672$148,803Odessa, TX$56,846$148,616Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV$62,982$147,222San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA$67,226$146,682Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA$60,258$144,040Bakersfield-Delano, CA$62,525$142,230Monroe, LA$48,339$142,064Huntsville, AL$63,482$141,856Oklahoma City, OK$52,125$141,648Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta, CA$64,210$140,754Bellingham, WA$64,043$140,629Kankakee-Bradley, IL$43,493$140,546Kennewick-Pasco-Richland, WA$65,520$138,798Durham-Chapel Hill, NC$59,654$137,821Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX$59,093$137,322Corpus Christi, TX$57,970$136,906Baton Rouge, LA$54,933$136,469Knoxville, TN$50,731$136,094Fort Collins-Loveland, CO$58,989$135,658Atlantic City-Hammonton, NJ$58,074$135,533Santa Rosa-Petaluma, CA$64,750$135,138Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX$55,494$135,138Napa, CA$72,634$134,534Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, NY$63,211$134,514Vallejo-Fairfield, CA$52,312$134,243Binghamton, NY$55,474$134,202Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH$61,859$134,098Sheboygan, WI$54,122$133,328Baltimore-Towson, MD$53,706$133,266Lafayette, LA$50,731$133,162Savannah, GA$59,259$132,954Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA$62,483$132,787Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ$59,322$132,787New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA$59,259$132,704Waco, TX$55,245$132,205San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA$60,674$132,184Tulsa, OK$52,520$131,622Wilmington, NC$56,722$131,498Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ$56,867$131,394Burlington-South Burlington, VT$56,680$131,352Victoria, TX$53,165$130,749Albuquerque, NM$61,714$130,478Dayton, OH$56,909$130,291Pueblo, CO$57,907$130,250Greeley, CO$56,805$130,146Tucson, AZ$59,675$129,522San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX$54,122$129,314Corvallis, OR$59,758$129,230Source: QCEW Employees, Non-QCEW Employees & Self-Employed - EMSI 2013.2 Class of Worker

Shortfall of Petroleum Engineers

If there’s a real supply-and-demand engineering issue, it’s probably most acutely felt with petroleum engineers. The oil and gas boom has ratcheted up the need and wages for these highly paid engineers (median U.S. wage: $59.29 per hour). Meanwhile, U.S. universities and colleges produced a mere 1,594 petroleum engineering degrees in 2012. Contrast that with the demand: EMSI estimates 2,464 petroleum engineer job openings in the 2013 calendar year, with 654 in Houston alone. That’s a substantial shortfall of new entrants into the petroleum engineering market nationwide.

National median earnings for petroleum engineers are $58.77 per hour or $122,241 annually — the highest median earnings for any engineering occupation. Aerospace engineers and nuclear engineers are the next best paid, at $49.24 and $47.94 per hour, respectively.

Data shown in this post comes from Analyst, EMSI’s web-based labor market data and analysis tool. To look at engineering wages and jobs in your region or for more information on EMSI, contact Josh Wright (jwright@economicmodeling.com). Follow Wright on Twitter at @ByJoshWright and EMSI @DesktopEcon. Illustration by Mark Beauchamp.