Salary Survey 2011: Half Full or Half Empty?

In Spite of Relatively Steady Conditions, Respondents to Our 2011 Salary Survey Don't Feel the Love, and They're Grumpy About it

By Nancy Bartels

Nancy BartelsNancy Bartels is Control's managing editor. You can her at or check out her Google+ profile.

This year is the twenty-first time we've surveyed our readers about their salary, benefits, working conditions and the state of the process automation industry as they see it. In many respects, the responses are remarkably similar from year to year. In spite of economic turbulence, salary numbers, bonuses paid, hours worked and general conditions have remained steady or slightly improved. Even many of the complaints seem the same from year to year.

How Big a Piece of the Pie?

In spite of economic anxiety and some frustration, process automation is still, comparatively speaking, a well-paying gig. Seventy-six percent of our respondents have a gross annual salary of more than $60,000 a year, about the same as last year. A little more than half of those (35%) earn more than $100,000. That's up 8% over last year (Figure 1). This seeming anomaly may be explained by the fact that every year, the age of our respondents goes up, meaning they get higher on the seniority level. This year, 60% of our respondents were over 45. Last year, only 53% were there.

Raises—or lack thereof—are a pain point for many of our respondents. A whopping 83% reported a raise of $4000 or less this year, and 36% said they got less than $1000—if they got a raise at all. That's better than last year, when 88% reported small raises, 54% of them less than $1000. On the other hand, a fortunate few took home raises of anywhere from $11,000 to $25,000 (Figure 2).

If the improving economy is ending up in our responders' paychecks anywhere, it's in a bonus. Sixty-six percent got bonuses in addition to salary (up from 57% last year), ranging from under 2% of their salary (24%) to the lucky 18% who got more than 15% of their salary as an extra check (Figure 3).

The type of benefits offered remains pretty much unchanged (Figure 4). Eighty-nine percent of our respondents say they get medical benefits; last year 90% said they did. Dental insurance is actually up to 73% this year, from 71% last year. Company-provided life insurance coverage remains at 75%, and both disability insurance and pension plans are a little better; the number receiving a pension plan is up to 48% this year compared to last (44%), and those with disability insurance also increased four percentage points from 58% last year to 62% this year.

So What's the Problem?

Things are looking a bit better than last year on the overall compensation front—or at least no worse. So what's the problem? A recurring complaint is that pension and 401K plans aren't providing the kind of long-term security people would like, and that health care is costing individuals more and providing less in return. As of last year, many complain that increasing costs eat up any raises they may have earned. As one of our respondents said, "There seems to be downward pressure on wages, and benefits are costing more and/or decreasing. Despite a 6% raise last year, my medical insurance costs increased 4%, and the coverage was not as good."

There's also the sense that, even as the economy is improving, none of that improvement is showing up in respondents' paychecks. As one respondent says, "Employers seemed to take advantage of the recession to lower their bottom lines. Now that jobs and profits are coming back, the wages and benefits aren't."

The lack of pension plans or 401K co-contributions is a sore point on its own, but it's exacerbated by a general anxiety about any alternative safety net. One of our respondents put it this way: "I don't like loosing my pension contribution from the company. With the government failure in Social Security, I am depending on company retirement and 401K more."

The strain of longer hours and less overtime is telling as well. Three-fourths (73%) of our respondents do not get overtime in spite of working more than 40 hours a week. That's down a little from last year, when 75% reported that they got no overtime. On the other hand, 63% got four weeks or more of vacation each year. Fully one-third got more than four weeks, and another 30% had a month off. What we didn't ask, however, is how many of them feel free to take all that time away (Figure 5).

Play Time
Play Time
Figure 5.  Sixty-three percent of our respondents get a month or more of
vacation every year, another reflection of their growing seniority.

Tired of It All

Make no mistake, the last three years have been tough, and it's starting to wear on our respondents. It's the optional comments that tell the story the numbers alone mask. Our respondents are tired—tired of being asked to do more with less; of living with frozen salaries while taking pension and benefit cuts; and of having overtime cut. They're frustrated by returning company profits that never seem to trickle down into either their paychecks or spending on improvements that would ultimately make them more efficient or improve the bottom line.

One of our readers summed it up this way: "The past couple years have been quite profitable for my employer. Yet they continue to increase employee workloads, rather than hire additional resources, citing economic uncertainty as the reason."

A number of respondents complain of not having had a raise in three years—despite continuously hearing the order to "do more with less."

Another respondent put it this way: "During the downturn of 2009, many of the plant staff was downsized, and those that were left inherited all the tasks of those individuals. With the upturn in business, none of the staff members are keeping up with everything they now have to do. Many important tasks are falling through the cracks, and corporate management seams oblivious to what the consequences of this can be. Upper management appears unwilling to add staff, causing severe enough stress that some of the staff have thrown in the towel and left the company for other opportunities. They, in turn, are not being replaced, adding even more tasks to those who are left. Upper management seams to have the delusion that LSS [Lean Six Sigma] activities will solve all of the problems and, through some miracle, make the remaining staff so efficient that they do not have to add staff. These extra activities only add to the overloading. It is a vicious circle right now."

The Demographic Bomb Still Ticking

We reported last year that 53% of respondents were over 45 and 20% were over 55. This year the numbers are 60% and 23% respectively. Only 13% of those surveyed fall in the 18-to-35 age bracket. Last year, 20% were under 35. (Figure 6)

The graybeards rule
The graybeards rule
Figure 6. The number of those surveyed older than 55 is 60%, up another
7% from last year. Only 13% are younger than 35. 

This is another source of frustration for those surveyed. Says one of our respondents, "As professionals age, companies seem to drag their heels about replacement planning. While the older workforce is in place, companies should be thinking about passing on that knowledge base. Companies are overly concerned about their bottom line based on quarter-to-quarter earnings and profits. Anything longer than two years is considered too long-term."

Adds another, "We still have a general lack of new hires. Most all professionals are in their late 30s or older."
This worry about who's stepping up to do the work long-term shows up in comments reflecting concern about training, as well as the perennial lament that the young 'uns just aren't up to snuff. While nearly three-quarters of those surveyed say they're happy with their basic skill level, only 41% say they're doing any basic training now. The others indicate training on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Twenty-six percent train by "reading up on it"; 14% by learning on the job from peers; some 3% saying they lack either the time or the money, and 15.5% do no training at all. Fifty-one percent rely on "self-study" for their training.

"Technical tradesmen are becoming harder to find, especially in industrial maintenance. The level of knowledge of technical persons hired in the past seven years has been subpar," observes one respondent.

One manager remarks, "As one who has had several hundred indirect employees at one time, I find that many engineers entering the field seem not to have as much understanding of it as those in past decades."

Finally, one frustrated respondent says his biggest challenge is "Finding qualified employees who do not feel so entitled and that actually try to earn their respect by performing and doing what they are supposed to do."

Is Everybody Unhappy?

To suggest that process automation is filled with overworked, disgruntled, frustrated and generally unhappy folks simply wouldn't be true.

The improving economy and, possibly, the upside of that demographic bomb is that the number of respondents worried about losing their jobs has flipped from last year. This year, 53% say they're not worried. Last year, 53% were concerned about job security.

More telling is the job satisfaction number. Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said they were happy in the automation profession, up 2% from last year. Another 22% said they were happy "some of the time." That makes 98% of process automation professionals happy in their work. Seventy-one percent would encourage their children to follow in their footsteps. How many other professions can say that?

Why, in spite of all the frustrations, are they happy? Well, 42% of respondents, "challenging work" is the most important reason, followed by salary/benefits for 20%, "appreciation" for 15%  (Figure 7).

Where we're getting satisfaction
Figure 7. "Challenging work" is the big draw in process automation for 42%
of our respondents. Salary/benefits is a distant second at 20%.

Our reader comments suggest a slightly more complicated—and perhaps hopeful—picture.

"[This] has been a great career which has allowed me to live and work all over the world. Not wealthy, but certainly comfortable. Always a challenge, never boring," says one happy automation professional.

"My company gives me flexible work hours, opportunities to work on interesting and challenging projects, and I work with teams of engineers in various disciplines to design small to large water/wastewater projects," says another. "The I&C group also does SCADA system programming for larger projects, giving us a chance to be on a project from the beginning through start-up, which enhances the pleasure derived from the job."

Then there's the happy soul who confesses, "I love my job and the type of work I do."

If you're a corporate executive or HR manager reading this, you might take the following observation to heart when addressing the question of how to keep your good process automation people from moving elsewhere: "Job satisfaction is a result of a number of factors including, challenging work, expectation of constant change, appreciation of your efforts, sufficient training to handle current work, as well as future challenges, pleasant work environment, respectful worker interaction, constant objective feedback, wages high enough to not worry about meeting financial obligations, trust and respect between management and employees."

Sounds like a good plan. 

Nancy Bartels is Contol's managing editor.