Insights through O*NET: 10. Engineers, Technicians and Technologists: what are the differences?
The titles and meanings of engineer, technician and – increasingly – technologist occupations are still very loose. In the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfATE’s) apprenticeship standards, for instance, we see ‘engineer’ standards as low as level 2 and ‘technician’ standards as high as level 5. And while ‘technologist’ standards – few as they are – can come anywhere between levels 3 and 6, there seems to be little consistency in a description of what a technologist actually ‘does’.
Here are our definitions:
Engineers are educated in a range of conceptual skills and have mastered engineering fundamentals and design built on a foundation of complex mathematics and science. They have a breadth and depth of engineering knowledge that allows them to function (often with considerable post-education skills training) as, say, engineering researchers or designers.
Engineering technicians are most often employed in service jobs. Their work typically involves equipment installation, troubleshooting and repair, testing and measuring, maintenance and adjustment, manufacturing or operation. The job title ‘technician’ can cover a very wide range of roles, from field service to technical sales to the laboratory, and to associate engineer roles.
Engineering technologists, on the other hand, are specialists devoted to the implementation of existing technology – often specialising in a single technology – within some engineering field. Technologists often work with engineers in an ‘assist’ capacity, across a wide variety of activities. The work of technologists is usually focused on a portion of the technological spectrum closest to product improvement, manufacturing, construction, and engineering operational functions.
In a previous post we showed how the US Occupational Network (O*NET) distinguishes between engineers, technicians and technologists. By being structured in its definitions of the three groups, it can capture critical information, such as the education profiles shown in the chart.
In the chart, we see that in general, the proportion of people with bachelor’s degrees and above who are working as technologists falls between the proportions for technicians (lower) and engineers (higher). Technologists in some engineering branches (e.g. electronics) tend to be relatively lower qualified, while in some fields such as nanotechnology, technologists are almost entirely bachelor degree-level graduates or higher.
Two of the branches – industrial engineering and mechanical engineering – deviate from the pattern we would expect to see. In Industrial Engineering, the proportion of technologists with bachelor degrees and higher are almost equal to engineers, while in mechanical engineering technologists score less highly than technicians in the same measure. Why should that be? We’ll investigate these two groups further in the following posts.
This shows the percentages of incumbents in each occupation with qualification levels at the point of entering the occupations shown. The highlighted bars show the proportions of incumbents with bachelor’s degree and higher qualifications.
 There are only 6 approved ‘technologist’ standards on the IfATE apprenticeship standards website at https://www.instituteforapprenticeships.org/apprenticeship-standards/, of which only 3 are Manufacturing and Engineering standards.