Systems Integration

Process Engineering--The Complaint Department

There's More Work to Be Done by Fewer People

By Nancy Bartels

No company or job is 100% perfect. Chances are good that the employees in the process automation department in heaven have one or two suggestions for making things better. But not surprisingly perhaps, the comments we receive on our survey stay remarkably similar from year to year. One of our respondents commented, "Nothing really new or that hasn't been covered in previous years."

Every year, we get a few complaints about "low morale," "lack of opportunity for advancement," and the always ominous "[I can't comment because] they are watching," and "[Commenting] would not be prudent."

Read Our 2013 Salary Survey: Process Engineering--The State of Pay

In 2010, one unhappy worker said, "There's more work to be done by fewer people." In 2011, the complaint was, "The past couple of years have been quite profitable for my employer. Yet they continue to increase employee workloads, rather than hire additional resources, citing economic uncertainly as the reason." In 2012, the gripe was "The company is still trying to do more with less, and keeps stretching things thinner and thinner." This year, the response was slightly more succinct: "Try to do far too much with far too few people," and "Doing more with less and less is the theme across the country. At a certain point, both the quality and quantity of services will suffer."

There is also the usual refrain of not being paid enough. This year, it comes down to, "The salaries are comparably worse than they should be to other professions," and "Maintenance techs feel they are stagnating in their careers due to no or small salary increases the last five years." Another says, "You need to complain enough to get a market-comparative salary." And another respondent observes, "The salaries of engineers generally are too low for the amount of education and responsibility. Most people are unhappy with the pay," and still another says, "We have not had a raise in five years, along with taking a pay cut and no more 401K match."

On the other hand, a few comments reflect the growing global nature of our respondents and provide a bit of perspective. This year's comments include, "Mexico has a different economy, so the salaries are lower than in the U.S. or Europe," and  "I work in West Africa. No options available. In the environment where I work, a large portion of my colleagues battle to perform basic tasks, leaving more experienced and capable people to become the ‘flogged horse.' Companies seem to be going for more ‘cheap' labor rather than capable, experienced, higher-cost employees." Another adds, "I am in a foreign country. It helps to have better conditions."

Inevitably management comes in for its share of criticism. Year over year, we hear about "nepotism," "micromanaging," lack of understanding of what automation professionals do, poor quality leadership and communication, short-sightedness and "job politics."

The "kids these days" syndrome is chronic as well. "Everyone wants to be paid, but does not want the responsibilities to go with it," observes one of our respondents. "The younger guys have no work ethic, and don't generally do a good job. Work is not a priority," says another. And a third adds, "Graduates have little or no appreciation of control in the real world."

The flip side of this is the lingering concern over the aging workforce. In 2010, one respondent said, "We have a noticeably aging workforce for which no replacement bench strength is being developed." This year, the observation comes in equation form: "Aging workforce with few employees backfilling retiring knowledge = BAD. Obsolete automation hardware with limited access to funds to migrate + retiring knowledgeable support resources = BAD." And finally, "Not seeing many college grads joining the automation ranks. We have more positions approved than we can get new college grads,"  and "[There is] a lack of graduates interested in following a career in control engineering."

On the Other Hand

We can't forget that 75% of automation workers who are happy in their jobs. They too continue to weigh in. One respondent commented, "There has been a significant culture change at my company over the last four years. We are actively pursing long-term goals in technology implementation and sustainability. The goals being projected are one main reason I look forward to the future of the company. Job politics aside, it is exciting to think of what can become of this company in the years ahead."

Another calls himself, "amazingly blessed in position and salary." As in past years, we also had plenty of folks calling their places of employment a "good work environment" and "a great company with solid growth." Another satisfied control professional said, "Excellent company and parent corporation. Work is challenging but satisfying. Our facility is full of coworkers, who have a strong, Midwestern, rural farm, work ethic."

What About More Women?

One respondent's comment, which is rare to the point we haven't seen it before, reminds us that 7% of the process control and automation workforce is now   female. The comment—an observation more than a complaint—says, "I'm still seeing a very, very low ratio of women to men—not much better than 13 years ago! I wish I knew why. Fixing this imbalance is important, in my opinion. It seems to me that the dominance of men in this profession contributes to some unsettling phenomena, such as utter disregard for proper documentation and control of the automated system and changes made to it.

"A large biotech facility, fully automated, was built hastily and spent a handful of years in production mode before management finally got the message that a small majority had been trying to convey since its inception—and ended up having to overhaul the entire automation/control database—a very costly mistake that actually consisted of myriad decision turning points, both small and large. I firmly believe that the virtual absence of women in automation leadership roles had a lot to do with it."