What am I - electrician or engineer?


Thread Starter


Are technicians the unsung heroes of the automation world? I don't possess an engineering degree nor do I have time or money to get one. Yet I design, build, install and start-up thousands of dollar systems. The responsibility is mine and there is no one but me to pick up pieces if things go wrong. So why do I have the title of technician. Its because I don't possess that 11 x 8 frame that says I'm qualified. Who would have known my father would be right. If you are young and read the postings on this site like I do, get that degree or you will be subject to proving yourself everywhere you go in the automation industry. When your a technician no matter what you learn on your own will always be
overshadowed by your education limits. After all new engineers start at what a tech with 12 years experience worked his whole career to work up to. Seems unfair huh.
I feel your pain, I just have an associates degree. The company I work for, the engineers have to move to different manchines or even plants every couple of years, so it is the technician, me, that that holds all the resources and knowledge for the machine I work on. I have the money and could make the time to be an engineer, but I'm not sure if that's what I want, the only real difference in an engineer and a technicain is the politics of the game of the company you work with. As far a money goes I'm hourly my engineer is salaried, he's here as much as I am but because I get overtime I make twice as much as he does
I am a Field Service Technician for an industrial equipment manufacturer and have been for over 20 years. As a rule at my company, once
the equipment exits out the building, it becomes the responsibility of the Field Service Department. Any electrical or mechanical
engineering -errors- have to be corrected by us Field Boys. Any failures repaired. Any operational problems solved. And this must be done anytime or anyplace.

On top of this technical stuff, a field service technician is an ambassador of the company, his attitude and actions will reflect directly
on the company and how the customer views the company. Even affect future sales. A good field service technician is worth his weight in
gold to his company. He can have a higher value than a stay-at-home engineer.

Therefore, I would not classify us technicians as simply electricians -- we do much more. I agree that it takes years to equal or exceed the
salary of the college grads, but its not impossible. Your father was right - the degree will simplify getting through the door and get you more money to start. Unfair - not really. The young engineer spent four or more years to prove himself; that^Òs what the 11 by 8 says.
Typically, a young technician hasn't proven anything yet. However, once you are in, regardless of the job, engineer or technician, you have to keep proving yourself. Your proven value to the company will or should determine the amount money you can earn.

Remember, to sell, design, manufacture, maintain and support industrial systems, it takes a complete team of professional people.
Technicians are the bridge between the white-collar and blue-collar professionals. I don't know if we wear a white shirt with a blue collar
or a blue shirt with a white collar or something different altogether. The title of Technician is a good as the title Engineer.

That's a very good question and a hard one to answer. i like you should have listened to my dad and gone to school but the truth is that i didn't. needless to say, I am non degreed but have managed to work my way into an engineering
position that I love very much. took me years and years of proving myself over and over again to get to where i am but let me tell you it's all well worth the wait. and yes kids just coming out of school do get good money and perhaps its better than us "old" timers are making at the time but its like any other job, once you prove your worth you'll get your money and once you get
your "foot in the door" to engineering and prove that you can perform at that capacity you'll always be an engineer (degreed or not).

Alexander Beketov

Hello Mike, Hello List

Mike, your mail - it's only emotions. Just relax and try
to think again about yourself. Education (or "frame" like
you said) - isn't all. I'm 25 years old, I have engineer
degree and I have a lot of knowledge and experience and I want to use them - but I can't. My country has very hard economical situation and it's not easy to get contract there - so I only sit and watching how my knowledge are flying away from my head. The work is the best present for me. You said you have taken important part in many projects - good, very good for you! Just improve your knowledge - one time you'll meet the boss who will pay for work not for "frame". But it will be only if you will have the experience for which you will be paid. So don't give up, go ahead!

Best Regards, Alexander.
Sorry for my non-perfect english, I'm working on it.
In my opinion, the Engineering profession is not as "professional" as it should be. Those of us who are engineers spent a lot of long hard hours, and a lot of money, getting our degrees. We most likely lost a lot of wages we could be earning while we were sitting in a classroom. If you have an engineering degree, and especially if you have a PE, you are an engineer. If you don't have those things, you're not. Do you want a doctor, dentist, or lawyer who learned everything they knew from the school of hard knocks and the internet? Regardless of whether you do or don't, the law and the professions don't allow it. Same should be true of engineers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an Engineering Technician, Automation Technician, or Controls Technician. They provide valuable services at a rate typically cheaper than an engineer. Same with a legal secretary, dental hygenist, or medical assistant. They all do most of what the "real" professional does, and probably all of his/her "grunt work". But they don't get the glory or the pay. It's the way the world works, and in my opinion the way the engineering profession should be working as well. Stick up for what you are! A few tests leads to a certificate that proves you have the knowledge, and you can be a certified instrument tech or network tech, and you'll be one- up on me in those areas. Richard E. Lamb, P.E.

Jose Tolentino

List Member,

As a consolation I would say you are very lucky to be considered as Electrician. In the bottling Industry, Technicians are called "Bottling Mechanics" regardless if you are implementing a Data Highway network or designing a new Instrumentation System; On the other hand, Quality Control Technicians are called "Syrup Blenders". So CHEER UP!

David Bergeron

One of the big differences between a Technician and an Engineer is that an Engineer understands the science (physics, math, chemistry, etc...) behind the design. A degreed engineer also has the Liberal Arts background to more effectively communicate concepts and have a better perspective of the work he or she does.

Your email reminds me of something a professor in college once told me.

"A Technician knows How
A Scientists knows Why
An Engineer must know How and Why"

David Bergeron, P.E.
I work for a building controls company in northern Illinois in the service department. We have a crew of field technicians that have the title of "Field Engineer" despite the fact that only a couple of us have any type of degree. After working with a large number of P.E.'s in the
mechanical contracting industry, I hesitate to associate myself with them, even by occupational
title. In fact comparing them with the Medical or Legal professions is ludicrous. At least the
structural engineering licensing program in this state seems to be effective. Maybe the title
of "Technician" holds more merit.
I never concern myself with the cover on the book, it is what is in the book that interests me.
During my years as a Field Service Technician, I have had the chance to work with hundreds of
technicians and engineers. Whenever I embark on a new project, I always try to weigh people up,
based on their communication skills, work ethic, and above all, the ability to get things done. I
don't care if this individual, has a degree in engineering, or just got out of high school. I
want to work with the people who have the same goals as me. Engineers with lots of degrees are
great, but if they are unable to clesrly convey their ideas they are worthless, and the same goes
for technicians.
From what I see, there are many employers who are beginning to recognize, that salary should not
be based strictly on education, but more on a persons ability to perform, and keep up with new
If I were to start my own company I would hire strictly PHD's. People who were Poor, Hungry, and

Good Luck,

As a veteran technician, I've had the opportunity to work with many engineers and other technicians.

In my opinion, the chief fallacy in technicians thinking is that engineers are (or should be)
super-technicians. Some are, most are not. What the exceptionally good engineers are, are
businesspeople and project managers who know a great deal about applied technology. I heard a
statement once that I can't quote exactly, but it was something like "Anyone can do what engineers do, but they will spend $10.00 for every dollar that an engineer would."

After 17 years with a major utility company that placed great stock in engineering, I now work
for a smaller company that has no engineering staff and uses consultants sparingly. Most if not
all installations and expansions have been done by techs and maintenance people, all kings of
There is no planning, little reliable documentation and no standardization. Every day, without fail, I see waste, failures and inefficiencies that are costing this company big, all of which could've been avoided with sound engineering practices.

Technicians are not engineers and vice-versa... you just have to look at the Big Picture to see
the differences.

Engineers? Boy, I'm missing them now!
Mike, you have my sympathies. I started off as a technician while going to school at night to
earn my engineering degree. Here's my take on the issue:

A technician can usually assume that whatever the thing is that they're working on, once upon a
time it worked somewhere in some configuration. An engineer, however, is working from a clean
sheet of paper. They have only the laws of physics, chemistry, theorems of mathematics, and of
course, past experiences and standards to guide them.

Some have mentioned certification. Certification is what others use to identify an engineer or a
technician. However, it is no guarantee of performance. I've known just as many stupid idiot as
genius engineers --and the PE certificate or lack thereof had no relationship to who had what

I've also noticed that there are generally three types of engineers: Research, Production, and
Field engineering. Research engineers are trying a new scale or a new type of thing that has
never been built before. Production engineers have past experience and standards to fall back
on. They focus on application. And finally, field engineers are the ones who actually look at a
finished product to find out why it doesn't work the way it was intended to.

Note that the latter is NOT installation work. It's a case of "we installed it as described, and
it doesn't perform." The field engineer has to figure out what got past two generations of
Research and Production engineers, so answers are often obscure or unexpected problems. An
example of this kind of engineering is aircraft accident analysis.

If the latter describes what you do, then you're most certainly an engineer. On the other hand,
there is no shame in declaring yourself a technician (or electrician).

Engineers often know what they want the finished product to look like, but they have no idea how
it is built. Welding, machining, or typical electrical work is too often a mystery to these
folks. Good electricians are worth at least as much as an engineer, though you'll find some will
be reluctant to admit it.

I'm proud to say that I'm a degreed electrical engineer with a technician background. If you
feel your work is engineering, not software or installation, then by all means call yourself an
engineer. The degree or the PE certificate doesn't count for much with me...

I hear ya Mike! Sometimes I have thought similar thoughts. My background is like yours, I have an AA degree (liberal arts), but no engineering degree. Fortunately in the 20 years that I have been in the automation business, I have had the good fortune to work with some great engineers. The Engineers that have "made a good impression" have been skilled at getting funding for
projects, following through with all disiplines to make sure the project was done correctly, on time, and reasonably close to the original budget, and "in touch" with the people operating the equipment. I have always felt fortunate to be given the responsibility to do the grunt work for the Engineers! It is amazing how much you can learn by being humble. Your topic has generated some great feedback! Thanks,
Ray Spangler
Systems Engineering Manager (Proof of the whole title issue)
Prousys, Inc.
I have an associates degree and work as an engineer. My work considers me as an engineer. I design the control panels and create the programs for the SCADA systems for my company. I am also a technician, I can troubleshoot PCBs or electrical control panels. In my opinion a technician makes a better engineer. Some engineers do not know what it takes for a system to operate. Just because you have a degree does not make you an engineer- you have to know what you are doing... Experience will override a degree anyday. If I were to own a company I would hire the person with the experience before I hire a engineer that has a degree fresh from college. The field is the true education!
(Note: This post is my personal opinion. I am not slamming anyone personally, nor am I saying that formal education is useless. I am only trying to make a point to encourage someone who is discouraged about their situation. So please don't get your feathers ruffled if you are a degreed engineer.)


I'm in the same boat. I'm not a "real" engineer, but I perform engineering functions, and I have worked with, hired, and fired engineers for over twenty years.

I disagree with your conclusion, with the proviso that you desire and have the energy to overcome and succeed. I'm 46 years old, have only high school, and I wouldn't go back to enroll in college for anything. To me, being "educated" in the current sense of the word means you have an 11 x 8 frame that makes a nice sturdy box out of your career. That's not to say that engineers are less capable or anything else pejorative; it's only to say that those of us who aren't "real" engineers have to compete in a different domain.

The first thing you have to decide is "What do I want to do? Where do I want to be (physically and careerwise) in 10, 20, 30 years?". Just as the correct way to write a program is by considering the end result (the output), the correct way to write your life history is by looking at where you want to end up. If you need help in this area, I would recommend the book "What Color is Your Parachute?". It will help you prioritize and codify your own personal and unique objectives, and will make you realize your value, even if it's seemingly hidden from you yourself.

I started in the Automation field twenty years ago, as a consultant with no experience but a lot of enthusiasm. Since the engineers with whom I was competing typically "won" any new projects, I soon shifted my focus to taking over or fixing projects that had been abandoned by others, whether for lack of money or technical (and/or political) problems. Sometimes I didn't know what I was getting into, but I would still take the risk and eventually learn enough to solve the problem, usually in some way that no one else had thought of. And the people who hired me LOVED getting the situation turned around; they had typically given up and written off everything that had been done. Again, while I wasn't an engineer, I performed engineering functions in areas that "real" engineers didn't want to touch or had given up on for one reason or another.

This is not a slam on degreed engineers at all; they have their place and deserve their pay! I'm just saying that since you're not one, YOU have to accept that, and then find the niches where you fit, where your gifts lie. You obviously are self-motivated or you wouldn't have learned enough to do your job in the first place. Maybe you just have to learn to be more of a risk-taker; this is one area where degreed engineers (who have perhaps stifled their creativity and sense of adventure by forcing themselves to conform to the educational system) usually have a hard time with.

Another possibility is that you can become more of a generalist. What other talents do you have, even if they seem unrelated? In our specialized society, those whose knowledge covers a broader range have a competitive advantage because they can see relationships that are not obvious to everyone else. Do you have an unrequited love either as a hobby or buried in your brain, something you want(ed) to pursue since you were a kid? Maybe you should switch careers for a while and pursue that. My first jobs were in the financial sector, analyzing and trading stocks, bonds, and commodities. While I loved that, I switched when I got burned out; but now that I am on a higher level in the automation field, my knowledge gained in these areas over twenty years ago easily came back, and helps me every day. If you are that burnout point, switching jobs can give you a new point of view and renewed energy to overcome and succeed. If you do that, make sure you absolutely can't wait to get started in your new field, then you will have the best chance of success.

How fast can you learn? Companies (read: managers) don't want to learn because it's a lot of work. They will *pay* you to learn and make yourself more valuable. Since I refused to go to school anymore, I actively sought out positions where I became "apprenticed" (even though it was never a formal title) to someone who knew a lot more than I did, with the express purpose of extracting as much knowledge as possible from them. But you have to make sure to choose a person and position where this can happen. And you have to know when it's time to leave. My rule for leaving is when your mentor starts copying you as much as you copy him; you've reached a major plateau at this point.

If your goal is just to "get a job" that will last you for the rest of your life (if that's still possible) and make you comfortable without doing too much introspection, then by all means go back to school and get your degree. But if your goal is more along the lines of developing your own self, in all its potential aspects, then you just need to get outside your current situation and think of ways that will make it better, by putting yourself in challenging new positions, and "taking the road less traveled". Do a LaPlace transform on your attitudes, putting them into a different domain where you can solve the equations.

In case you think I'm just spouting a bunch of BS, I will tell you that I put my money and time where my mouth is. These techniques do work, both in my life and others'. I've personally heard a lot of great stories, people who have succeeded despite beginning with zero education in their field. My wife and I have taught our children this same philosophy. They've never even been to grade school. We gave them the basics up until they were twelve, then let them pursue their hearts' desires with our guidance. Now that they have had four years or more of pursuing their dreams, they are independent, self-motivated, articulate, and very focused. When they find a hole in their knowledge, they fix it by mastering it, instead of complaining about it and saying they should go back to school. To me, this is a key point; you should do the things that you are good at, that you have such a desire to pursue that you can't stop thinking about them. School can't give this to you easily, as it typically demands too much conformity among the students, starting at a very early age. Many people are even burned out when they graduate from college, and are only ready for a job where they can rest for a while!

BTW my favorite allegory for this situation is the film "The Matrix". You've already taken the red pill, Mike! I don't think you can go back with as much success as you will if you go forward; you just need to think outside the box a little. The world is changing VERY quickly, and you can turn your perceived weakness into an advantage, by finding out where you fit in it. A lot of people will try to discourage you and tell you that you can't succeed or do what you want to do, what you are good at. Set your face like a flint and ignore them, don't let them get in your way.


Willy Smith

Gotta love it.

Be proud of what you are....MY gopher. You fulfill a vital purpose.. to elevate ME to the heights of glory and credit taking I so richly deserve. Persue your low budget dreams, it's the way of the world. ROFLMAO... That attitude will fly only if you are _really_ , _really_ good. I've been called a technician before, among other things. My advice? IF you have to work with someone like this or train them, or are employed by someone who strictly enforces this caste system, move to a different job. There is absolutely no percentage in making these guys look good and they will always insure that you are a peon. Times are a bit tight right now, but there are still opportunities to work to your full potential and working where they aren't hung up on titles will always be better for you. Very few people have learned much about automation in college. You have access to the same books.

From long experience, there are x per cent people who can apply what they have learned and know what they are doing and y per cent people who can't and don't. I have found that possession of a degree doesn't change those percentages at all. I respect a _good_ practitioner, degreed or not and IMHO, at the end of the day, that's the only accomplishment that matters.

What's even more hilarious is when people cop this attitude and talk about teamwork in the same breath.


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Anthony Kerstens

I've watched this discussion and have noticed some misunderstanding about Professional Engineers. It is not about certificates, or even ability, but rather Licensure.

There are people with an education in engineering, but who are not Licensed Engineers. There are people who do not have an education in engineering, but who are Licensed Engineers. The former simply graduates and starts an internship somewhere. The latter usually take a series of exams from their local governing body relating to their specific discipline to achieve licensure. Both take compulsory exams covering law and ethics as applied to engineering. Both must provide suitable references to verify ability and character (yes, character). (Kinda sounds like doctors and lawyers, doesn't it. :)

Those who call themselves engineers, but are not licensed as such are committing a fraud on those they service and the general public. In every Canadian province it is illegal to do so. Perhaps someone who knows could comment about the states.

Licensure as a Professional Engineer is not about self-image or self-worth. Licensure indicates that you accept responsibility for you work, are liable for your mistakes, and can be found guilty of professional misconduct. (Not to mention criminal charges as they may apply, civil suits, and the ever-present need for malpractice insurance.)

In short, if you are not a Licensed Engineer, you may call yourself a specialist, analyst, or whatever tickles your fancy, as long as you DO NOT call yourself an engineer. If you're an electrician or other tradesman, be proud of that. It's worth something.

Anthony Kerstens P.Eng.
Designing, creating, building , and problem solving are the skills that I learned in engineering school. I was taught to find the tools to do these things and what to do when I found them. These skills and the knowledge to use them are not on the certificate but in my head and in my hands. I was lucky enough to have a structured and organized program provided by an institution called "Engineering School". where the material was presented to me. We were taught the basics and it was expected that the "experience" and specialized knowledge would be available from the experts, namely, the specialist in the business. For example, the motor manufacturer would know how to make motors. etc.

For me, there really is no intrinsic difference between an "electrician" and an "engineer". In my experience, I have met great "engineers" and "engineers" who should have been great cooks and "electricians" who should have been professors and others who should have been great cooks.

However, I found it a lot easier to gain these skills over 4 years rather than 20. Hopefully, I'm a better engineer/electrician than a cook.

Best Regards
Erich Mertz

Burda, Jason M.

I agree that salary should not be based strictly on education.

However this conversation has brought me back to some comments....why should graduates from MIT make more or should his/her degree carry more clout than say someone with a degree from a good state school? Let's face it a recruiter/ HR personnel tend to look more towards the more expensive schools ... notice I did not say better.

Also, I was under the assumption that a degree was a starting place for evaluating knowledge in a field and by the way....PHD....as I started out by working in the research sector until I found out what PHDs were making compared with those carrying only a BS...I think PHD stands for Paid Heavily with a Degree.