Principal like it’s 1999

Jul 29, 2019

A look at what it means to be a principal in the AEC industry and how this has and hasn’t changed over the past two decades.

Almost 30 years ago, Zweig Group launched its first Principals, Partners & Owners Survey. In May, Zweig Group released the 2019 Principals, Partners, & Owners Survey of AEC Firms. While some things are remarkably similar – the average principal in the AEC industry is still a registered technical professional with a bachelor’s degree, Caucasian, male, and over the age of 40 – quite a few things have changed.

When Zweig Group first started this survey in 1991, just 45 percent of AEC firm principals had a computer in their workspace. This is a question we no longer have to ask! Technology, staffing, and workplace perks are just a few of the areas we’ve seen major evolution over the past three decades.

Comparing Zweig Group’s just released 2019 survey to the 1999 version, some remarkable similarities and surprising differences stand out.

Virtually unchanged. It’s pretty amazing that the role of principal is reported to be highly rewarding. In 1999, 91 percent of principals reported that their investment in their firm was worth more than they paid for it. In 2019, 92 percent felt this way.

Coupled with the perceived value of their investment, principals have not strayed away from personal commitments to their firms. In 1999, 58 percent signed a personal guarantee for some or all of the firm’s debts. In 2019 this was 57 percent.

Big changes come to light when we look at salaries. Principals in the AEC industry have seen large increases in salary, well beyond simple inflation. In 1999, median annual base salary was $100,000 and median total compensation was $140,000. In 2019, median annual base salary was $165,000 and median total compensation was $241,875! Billing rates have also increased – going from $125 per hour to $205 per hour.

Although principals have higher salaries and bonuses/distributions, workplace perks have declined. In 1999, 52 percent of principals had a company car. In 2019, that was just 37 percent. In 1999, 24 percent of principals had a company provided country, health, or social club membership; 20 years later, that number has been cut in half to just 13 percent.

Technology has also changed the way principals work. In 1999, 5 percent still didn’t have a computer in their workspace (in 1991 this was the majority, 55 percent). Although computers were present in workspaces, only 86 percent of principals had a unique email address, 92 percent had internet access at work, and only 77 percent had internet access at home.

In 1999, just like 2019, principals worked a median of 50 hours per week. Two decades ago, 31 percent of principals reported frequently working on weekends/holidays. Possibly due to the widespread availability of internet and technology, in 2019, 40 percent report frequently working on weekends/holidays.

It’s clear the industry has not been immune to the political climate. In 1999, 54 percent of respondents reported Republican, 22 percent Democrat, and 21 percent independent. In 2019, 37 percent identified with being Republican, 21 percent Democrat, and 42 percent none/independent.

In 1999, 41 percent were between the ages of 40 and 49, with an additional 44 percent older than 50. The industry is aging with many of the same principals sticking it out in their role 20 years later! In 2019, just 16 percent of principals were between the ages of 40 and 49, and 80 percent are over the age of 50.

In 1999, 96 percent of principals were Caucasian and just 5 percent were female. Despite what is happening in the larger world, the AEC industry, particularly in the principal role, has not diversified much. In 2019, 90 percent of principals were Caucasian. Slightly more women have made it into the role, now 17 percent of principals are female, but still drastically less than the overall workforce, which is approaching a 50/50 gender split.

Still, principals today by and large don’t feel the industry has a problem with a lack of diversity. Although 75 percent of women principals feel this is an issue, just 58 percent of men feel the same.

As recruiting remains the top challenge cited among principals, a focus on diversity and creating a more inclusive workplace is going to become a necessity.

Christina Zweig Niehues is Zweig Group’s director of of research and e-commerce. She can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.