A principal engineer is an engineering professional who has several years of experience working in his respective field of engineering. Principal engineers are responsible for providing guidance and oversight to multiple teams working on numerous products or developing various forms of technologies. They are leaders who think strategically and have a long-range goal in mind.
Duties and Responsibilities
Principal engineers manage all phases of technical projects. They oversee the product's or project’s conception, design and initial product specifications and manage scheduling, estimating and securing materials. They draft and execute construction contracts, track project progress and keep costs under control. Principal engineers also conduct engineering studies and investigations, and prepare reports for company leadership. They also provide engineering guidance to other departments, help to train new engineers and keep abreast of industry trends and issues.
To become a principal engineer, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree in any discipline of engineering, such as chemical, civil, computer, electrical, mechanical or microelectronic engineering. In general, these programs cover engineering fundamentals along with physics and mathematics, plus course work specific to the principles found in each engineering discipline. Students should attend undergraduate engineering programs that have been accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The ABET is a worldwide leader in assuring quality in undergraduate programs in engineering, engineering technology, applied science and computing. This accreditation certifies that a program meets the organization’s highest standards of quality in curriculum, facilities and faculty.
In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering, principal engineers should apply for licensure to become a registered Professional Engineer (PE). The PE licensure is the engineering profession’s highest standard of competence. To earn the PE licensure, engineers must complete a four-year college degree, work under a professional engineer for a minimum of four years, pass two intensive competency exams (the Fundamentals of Engineering exam and the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam) and earn a license from their state licensing board. To maintain the license, PEs must continually maintain and improve their skills throughout their careers.
Salary and Career Outlook
Any engineer, working in any discipline, can become a principal engineer. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median average salary for an engineer varies by discipline. For biomedical engineers, it is $81,500; chemical engineers make $90,300; electrical engineers earn $87,900; industrial engineers bring in $58,200; mechanical engineers average $78,000; nuclear engineers earn $99,900; and petroleum engineers make $114,000. Job prospects are strong for all areas of engineering, though some disciplines will experience higher than average increases in opportunities due to changes in the market. The job outlook for biomedical engineers, for example, will experience a 62 percent increase in growth due to the aging Baby Boomer population. Petroleum engineers will experience a 17 percent increase in growth due to efforts to conserve energy and identify clean fuels.