Get up, out and about

Though some engineers say their industries and job prospects have recovered recently, many say that their administrators’ main mission is to wring as much short-term cash as possible from their operations.

By Jim Montague

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Jim Montague, Executive EditorNumbers have their limits. Sure, they can indicate precise physical measurements to engineers, and even I often use them to describe best practices, efficiencies gained and other aspects of control and automation. However, if no startling evidence or trends turn up, I begin to glaze over and yearn for a human to talk to. Despite their differing perceptions and interpretive flaws, I’ve found that almost everyone can describe events, situations and environments they’re experiencing directly. Few people can’t answer the question, “What’s going on here?”

For instance, this issue’s feature story on Control’s 17th annual Salary Survey is chock-full of input from 691 responding process control engineers and many other technical professionals about their salaries, benefits, jobs, education and companies. The compiled and lightly analyzed results found that engineers earning more than $100,000 are becoming more numerous, and that more are receiving larger bonuses, raises and promotions, and that their firms are hiring more and laying off less, though they’re also doing more outsourcing.

All this input and the trends identified can give individual readers some context they can use to better gauge their own experiences and improve their situations—perhaps by demanding a raise or by dusting off that resume, posting it online and seeing what other jobs are available.     

However it’s the 182 anecdotal comments by individual respondents that mean the most to me. Some are compiled in a sidebar to the main article. Not to get too touchy-feely, but I think that learning how much engineers earn isn’t as significant as them telling me what they’re going through, why it’s happening, and what they think about it.

Some of these statements include cliché workplace gripes about ignorant managers and undeservingly promoted co-workers, but others convey deep and sincere misgivings about the “do more with less” scam that has replaced clear-eyed, intelligent leadership in so many U.S. companies in recent years.

Though some engineers say their industries and job prospects have recovered recently, many seem painfully aware that their administrators’ main mission is to wring as much short-term cash as possible from their operations, and that long-term investment in their companies and steady, incremental improvement in performance and results is charmingly obsolete. Other engineers lament how many of their jobs are being outsourced to India, China, and elsewhere:

  • "Eight years ago there were three engineers and 38 maintenance men at this site. Now, we have more production, but only one engineer and 19 maintenance men to keep everything going. I’m paid a good bit less now than the other engineers I replaced were paid in 1999,” says a plant maintenance engineer in the mining industry. 
  • “Executives continue to make more and care less about employees. We have more incentive, but it’s not calculated into pension, and so retirement benefits have decreased,” adds an engineer in the energy industry.
  • “The marked decrease in regulatory oversight over past six years has been good for short-term, nearsighted corporate profits, but not so good for public interest or probable long term business interests,” says a quality control engineer in the pharmaceutical field.
  • “I worked 26 years for one company and was downsized in 1998. I’ve worked for several companies since then, but the economy is very soft in this sector. I’m 60 years old, and age discrimination is very real. Employment is of much greater concern than salary. A low income is better than no income,” says an OEM technician in the food and beverage industry.

Unfortunately, because identifying a problem carries with it at least some of the burden for solving it, and mainly because I have no other avenue, I’m obliged to call on the survey’s respondents to speak up more forcefully for organizational and operational improvements at their existing organizations. It’s not easy. It can come with heavy personal and professional costs. Also, it’s usually thankless, and it may achieve no lasting change. Believe me. I’m told you get extra free-beer coupons in heaven, but so far I can’t confirm this theory.

Of course, you can simply update your resume, field a few offers and split. However, you won’t have developed and practiced the courage you’ll need to improve operations in your new job either. Rock. Hard place. Devil. Deep blue sea. Take your pick. Me, I’m really hoping that beer-in-heaven story is true.

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