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What's the Difference Between an Engineer and a Technician?

Thinking of becoming a technician or an engineer? Here is what you should know.

Technicians vs. engineers. These terms are used fairly frequently in various industries, from IT to healthcare, and everywhere in between. But what makes one person an engineer and another a technician? The terms exist across a variety of industries, and job descriptions can vary widely, too. To many non-professionals, the words appear to be synonyms for one another, but is this true? There are differences between technicians and engineers as well as an overlap between the two professions.

Furthermore, there is a wide range of variety when comparing the job descriptions of a technician and an engineer.

This article will make use of some simplification to help distinguish between them. Consider yourself warned.

Technicians are highly trained to perform a specific task

Let’s start to unpick the confusion with a few definitions. A technician is defined as “a specialist in the technical details of a subject or occupation.” Other definitions expand a little bit more on this by explaining that technicians are workers “trained with special skills, especially in science or engineering.” In this sense, technicians are highly specialized professionals who are assigned a task and complete it to the best of their abilities and the customer’s satisfaction.

To simplify this, we can say that technicians tend to learn how to fix a problem or install a system, and when presented with one, they will follow procedures they have learned.

One way to think of a technician is as someone who is always in “go” mode. This means technicians are focused on solving issues in front of them and on how to fix customer’s problems. Typically, technicians will complete an associate degree, training program, or professional qualifications taking around two years.

Engineers go to work applying math and science to solve problems or design new products 

Now, let’s turn to engineers. An engineer is defined as “a person who is trained in or follows as a profession a branch of engineering.” In other words, “a person whose job is to design or build machines, engines, electrical equipment, or things such as roads, railways, or bridges, using scientific principles.” In general, engineers will often have similar skill sets to technicians plus additional training in their particular field of expertise.

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What's the Difference Between an Engineer and a Technician?
Engineers and technicians working together at CERN. Source: IEEE

Some, such as mechanical engineers, may even have excellent “hands-on” experience and practical skills, similar to technicians. However, when compared to technicians, engineers are usually required to take a step back and see more than just the immediate problem before them. Engineers will typically complete an undergraduate degree, and possibly a master’s degree, in a particular field, taking four years or more of learning.

They will be trained to ask questions such as, “Is this the best way to design this?” or “This item keeps breaking all the time, why is that, and how can we stop it from happening again?” In effect, engineering involves being able to see the bigger picture and issues that are likely to crop up in the future.

Engineers will work to find solutions to problems that exist now and issues that are likely to exist down the road. All well and good, but engineers are also responsible for more than just fixing problems. They also design and build entirely new products. They will have been trained in the theory of their field and can apply this to create solutions to problems using existing techniques and invent new ones where needed.

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Who makes more money?

Another important topic in this career comparison is technician's salary vs. engineer's salary. If you are on the fence about which career path is best for you, we have found that the expected-salary can give you the right push over the edge to the job best suited for you. An average technician's salary in the United States is $54,027 as of January 29, 2021. While the average base salary of an engineer is $69,284. Even more so, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, engineers have the highest average starting salary.  Overall, it is important to note that money should not be your primary motivator when selecting an opportunity. Look for an opportunity that is fulfilling. 

But, what is an engineering technician? 

As the name implies, an engineering technician sits on the fence of both skillsets mentioned in this article. Commonly found in the mechanical engineering and civil engineering fields, engineering technicians trained engineering professionals who work with engineers and help them with many of their duties. They might work with engineers in collecting data, designing and performing tests, assembling equipment, and recording test data. Over time they eventually take on more engineering tasks. 

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The more you know

A technician’s job can be thought of as dealing with existing systems and end-products, while engineers tend to design and implement the development of those systems and end-products. Many technicians are true craftspeople in their field. Engineers, while capable, in theory, of completing a similar practical task, will often lack the experience to complete it to an equivalent level of skill.

In short, and with some generalization: Technicians tend to fix or install systems or products that already exist, while engineers design and build from the ground up.

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