Why Do Many Engineering Students Become Fortune 500 CEOs?

Why Do Many Engineering Students Become Fortune 500 CEOs?

It should come as no surprise that the single most popular graduate degree is the MBA. After all, the advanced business degree is extremely versatile and widely available both online and on campus. It remains the basic threshold for business students who aspire to organizational leadership opportunities. But as it happens, not all natural-born company leaders are business students. Some natural-born company leaders are engineers.

If you take a survey of the current executive leadership landscape, an interesting trend emerges. While a predictably large number of the world’s top-earning CEOs are indeed MBAs, a less predictably large number of these top executives actually hold master’s degrees in engineering.

In fact, the Washington Post says Thirty-four of the top 100 CEOs in 2018, according to the HBR report, had an engineering degree, compared with 32 who had an MBA. Eight of the top CEOs had both degrees. In 2017, 29 CEOs had MBAs and 32 had engineering degrees, the first time that there were fewer MBAs than engineers since 2014, when it began tracking the degree question.

In other words, engineering has actually become the slightly more popular pathway to an executive office and a 7-figure salary.

Why is that? What is it about the engineering discipline that makes students so uniquely predisposed to the challenges of executive leadership? And what is it about the advanced degree in engineering that allows it to command such value?

Well, you could go the direct route, and learn more by actually pursuing your advanced degree in engineering. Indeed, the best online master’s in engineering management degrees combine the technical aspects of engineering with valuable organizational leadership training.

But if you would like to start by learning more about this recent phenomenon, read on and find out why so many engineers are advancing to senior corporate leadership roles.

There’s A Limit to What You Can Earn as An Engineer

A degree in engineering is an inherently valuable degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for all architecture and engineer occupations was $79,840 in 2021. This certainly suggests strong earning potential for engineers. And in fact, a glance at the top tier denotes even greater potential, with the top ten percent of all electrical and electronics engineers, for instance, earning more than $166,890 a year.

Sounds great, right? Well, consider for a moment that this is actually lower than than the median annual wage for chief executives in 2021, which topped $179,520. Executives in the 90th percentile earned more than $208,000 per year.

In other words, engineering pays well, but it does have its limits.

When you factor in executive bonuses, there is no limit to what you could make as a CEO.

Some Engineers Face Professional Discontent

As it happens, many individuals who initially pursue a career in engineering do so simply because they are among the best and brightest students in their respective schools and regions. This may be especially true for international students who arrive in the United States in search of engineering degrees. The Washington Post notes that The prevailing wisdom in many parts of the world, especially developing ones, is that high-achieving students are expected to enroll in either medical or engineering schools. There seems to be a widespread assumption that taking on medical or engineering studies is far more difficult than studying the humanities and social science disciplines. Some of the surveyed executives admitted that since engineers enjoy one of the lowest unemployment rates, engineering has always been perceived as a safe starting major for anyone, providing graduates with a set of skills that cannot be faked and which open doors for professional advancement.

These qualities make engineering a pragmatic pathway to success for students with a predisposition toward STEM and technical skills. However, pragmatism does not always translate into professional satisfaction. Naturally, one must excel in the technical aspects of engineering before parlaying these talents into organizational leadership. But for many engineering professionals, adding leadership responsibilities may be a chance to experience work in a more fulfilling way.

Technical Skills Are Increasingly Valued in Senior Leadership

Speaking of the technical aspects, the depth of knowledge you bring to your field will ultimately make you a better leader. we are all familiar with the aging trope of the luddite CEO who cannot find the “unmute” button on his own Zoom screen. But in reality, this is an increasingly outdated archetype.

Today’s top executives are expected to bring deep knowledge and experience in their respective fields. The abilities to make leadership decisions, delegate effectively, and coordinate an array of moving parts all stem from a profound understanding of the products, processes, and people that make your company succeed. Fortunately, engineering is a discipline that requires a strong sense of organization and coordination.

Such is to say that most successful engineering professionals will already have a strong aptitude for the coordination of numerous moving parts. This aptitude may naturally predispose the mind of an engineer to effective organizational stewardship.

The Engineering Degree is Highly Versatile

It also helps that engineering is among the most varied and versatile disciplines.

Indeed, engineering is actually more of a catch-all discipline that points to an almost infinite variety of subdisciplines from computer, electrical, industrial, and civil engineering to engineering in the automotive, aerospace, defense, and manufacturing sectors.

The variety of opportunities and options is fairly limitless in this way. Indeed, there are few fields where you cannot use an engineering degree to at least get your foot in the door.

If you would like to know which colleges and universities the most alumni who are CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, take a look at this article.


Not sure where to start? Take a look at the Best Colleges and Universities for Engineering Degrees.