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By Nancy Bartels
Shakespeare, always a man able to nail a situation with a few well-chosen words, called it "the winter of our discontent," which is a pretty good way to describe the feelings of the more than 1,500 respondents to our 2009 salary survey. No matter that the actual key numbers shown have changed little from last year in most categories. Except for a few sunny optimists and contented souls, most of those surveyed are Not Happy.
Much of the discontent is an understandable free-floating anxiety about the economy in general and job security in particular. Some of it relates to perennial complaints about the "suits" that "just don't get it;" the clueless newbies who seem to be less well-prepared to enter the workplace than ever; the parsimonious bean-counters who are penny-wise and dollar-foolish; and the sense that the people who do the real engineering work don't get the respect they deserve. Some unhappiness reflects the frustration that comes from dealing with long-ignored issues, such as the aging workforce and related loss of intellectual capital to retirement, continued outsourcing of work to lower-cost countries, the persistent demand to do more work with fewer people, and long hours and lack of concern about work-life balance.
Whatever the reasons, this winter seems a particularly cold one. Interestingly, the statistic in our survey that has changed the most is "number of respondents." Last year about 750 engineers took time to fill out the survey. This year, the number was more than double at 1,594. Three hundred and forty five of those took the time to add additional comments to their surveys—and it is in those additional comments that the icy winds are felt.
One Texas-based chemical engineer summed things up succinctly: "I don't get to see my family when I work 70 hours a week. This job sucks."
A Louisiana-based process engineer with a master's degree added, "We have a transient workforce. Corporations are treating their workers more and more like temps."
An Ohio-based chemical engineer who has worked at the same company for more than 20 years says, "Recognition and advancement opportunities are generally only for those in management. Those doing the work to produce a quality, cost-effective product are treated as a necessary evil."
And an Illinois-based electrical engineer chimes in about management: "They do not have a clue as to what we do, how we do it, or what landmines lay ahead." This is happening despite the Automation Federation and ISA's work with the U.S. Department of Labor on raising the identity of automation professionals.
Oddly, at first glance, the numbers in our survey don't seem to warrant this gloom. Most of the 2009 numbers are within two to three percentage points of last year's results.
Comparatively speaking, process automation folks make good money. This year, 50% of our respondents make more than $60,000 and 36% make more than $100,000 per year. That's up from only 28% in 2007 (Figure 1).
Raises remained good across the board. Ninety percent of our respondents reported getting a raise last year—54% of them between $2,000 and $4,000 dollars. A substantial 16% reported raises between $5,000 and $7,000. A lucky 5% reported raises of $8,000 to $10,000. In addition, 68% of those surveyed reported getting a bonus last year. A little more than a quarter of them (27%) fell in the 2% to 5% range, and another quarter in the 6% to 10% category, but a substantial 18% reported a bonus of more than 18% of their salary. These numbers nearly match those in the 2008 survey (Figure 2). Of course, many of those bonuses may have been earned before the shoe dropped at the end of 2008. It will be interesting to see what the bonus numbers look like in next year's survey.
Benefits remain fairly typical, with 98% reporting they get medical coverage and 89% reporting that they get dental insurance. Eight-eight percent have company-paid life insurance and 77% get disability. On the other hand, pensions continue to decline. Only 48% of those surveyed reported getting a pension, down from 54% in 2006, but 90% say they have a 401K plan, and 15% say they get stock options—which, given current stock market conditions, may put something of a damper on those big gross salary numbers. Notably, 30% now say they get flex time and 9% have the option of telecommuting—perhaps because of company dollars spent on wireless connectivity and Internet-enabled resources.
Vacation time numbers shifted only marginally. In 2008, 32% reported having three weeks' vacation. This year, it was down to 30%. But those taking four weeks moved up slightly from 26.4% to 27%. Those taking more than a month increased from 27% to 28%—a number probably reflective of the advancing age and seniority of many of our respondents.
The downside of this apparent largesse is that it comes at an increase in the number of hours worked. As in 2008, nearly 78% of respondents said they worked 41 to 60 hours a week—a number that has remained remarkably steady in our survey since 2005. Another 10% said they worked more than 60 hours. And nearly 79% reported they didn't get paid for overtime, up from 77.2% in last year's survey.
However, buried in these seemingly nearly static benefit numbers is one of the sources of discontent. A Michigan-based plant maintenance technician reports, "The company just got rid of its pension plan and announced no raises this year, except medical costs went up."
An Indiana-based mechanical engineer in plant operations and maintenance for a plastics plant added, "Employee contributions for medical benefits keeps eating up any raise that is received. Deductibles for medical are very high and result in another $200-$300 dollars a month in expenses to cover the deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. The net effect seems to be a reduction in the overall compensation."