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Control's 2021 salary survey

July 23, 2021
Despite COVID-era stresses, readers report strong skills demand in latest Salary Survey

It's been a crazy and draining year and a half, but things are looking up. Despite the unprecedented difficulties and tragic human toll caused by the pandemic, COVID-19 is beginning to recede as vaccinations increase and businesses start to reopen in the U.S. and worldwide. At the same time, many process industries never closed—or even slowed down—because their products and services such as water/wastewater treatment, power generation/distribution, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, oil and gas, food/beverage and many others are crucial to the lives and well-being of almost all individuals, families and communities.

These operations and industries were sustained during COVID-19 by combinations of courageous and often depleted staffs onsite, and hastily implemented, remote-work tools and software. However, none of the essential process industries could have kept going without the reliable, consistent and unfailing personnel that have always maintained them and their supporting infrastructures. The steadfastness of these operators, maintenance technicians, process engineers and supervisors is once again reflected by the almost 300 respondents to Control's annual salary survey.

This group routinely achieves remarkable consistency despite evolving challenges from and responses to the pandemic, accelerating retirements, loss of expertise and staffing shortages, as well as absorbing the impacts of rapidly advancing digital transformations. Despite the pandemic, more than 44% of the respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey once again reported that challenging work is the single most important factor in their job satisfaction, and again indicated it's twice as motivating as salary and benefits, and four times as motivating as appreciation, job security and opportunity for advancement (Figure 1).

  2018 2019 2020 2021
Challenging work 37.7% 41.0% 45.3% 44.1%
Salary/benefits 23.4% 20.5% 17.8% 20.9%
Appreciation 14.4% 16.7% 12.4% 12.3%
Job security 12.2% 10.5% 12.0% 10.9%
Opportunity for advancement 10.5% 10.0% 11.6% 10.0%
Other 1.9% 1.3% 0.9% 1.8%

Figure 1: The most crucial element in job satisfaction for respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey continues to be challenging work, as it is every year. It's twice as motivating as salary and benefits, and four times as motivating as appreciation, job security and opportunity for advancement.

More pay, added hours

The good news is that, for the first time, the average salary of respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey broke the $100,000 barrier, increasing by 4% to $100,744 in 2021 from $96,843 the year before (Figure 2). And what made this collective milestone even more amazing was the survey's participants achieved it with almost the same average age and experience levels they possessed a year earlier.

In fact, those with 30 years in process control decreased to 27.9% of respondents this year from 32.2% in 2020. However, those with 7-10 years in process control increased to 11.4% of respondents this year from 9.4% in 2020.

Similarly, respondents with two to 20 years of supervisory experience decreased by single-digit percentages in several age groups, while those with zero to one year increased to 8.7% in 2021 from 3.5% the year before, and those with no supervisory experience jumped to 22.3% this year from 16% in 2020. At the same time, numbers of people supervised by the respondents from less than two to more than 20 remained almost the same at all levels from 2020 to this year.

However, these gains in responsibilities and rewards came with the usual costs, primarily in the form of added work hours. For example, respondents working 41-50 hours per week shot up almost 12 percentage points to 67% this year from 55.6% in 2020. Likewise, those working more overtime increased almost five percentage points to almost 17% in 2021 from just over 12% in the previous year.

Figure 2: After years of hovering around $95,000, the average salary for respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey posted a four percentage point increase from the year before, and broke through to almost $101,000. This gain was even more remarkable because their average age, personal and supervisory experience, percentage with PE licenses, and number of subordinates all gradually decreased. Meanwhile, as the COVID-19 pandemic became a long, slow battle, respondents' job security worries declined more than five percentage points, but their happiness with their career choices also dropped by the same amount.

Similar to every other industry and business, many of these added hours are likely due to more staffers working at home during COVID-19, skeleton crews putting in added hours, and everyone collaborating more via online teleconferences. Not surprisingly, use of telecommuting by Control's respondents more than doubled to above 30% in 2020-21 from 14.6% two years earlier.

Myles Petruskavich, instrument and electrical engineering technologist at TriMac Engineering, in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, adds it's doing more of its mechanical and electrical consulting and designs with a cloud-computing service due to COVID-19-related, work-at-home requirements. "When we do a design project now, it's tricky because my boss can't walk me through it as much, and we have less chances to touch base," says Petruskavich. "Now, we're more on the phone, and we use TeamViewer remote desktop platform to work with Autodesk's AutoCAD software and Rockwell Automation's Studio 5000 software, so we're still able to collaborate."

Less worry, but less happy

Besides the epic reorganizations required by COVID-19, Control's 2021 salary survey revealed several other sneaky impacts that only emerged as the pandemic progressed from an immediate crisis in its initial weeks to an 18-month-long slog that continues even after it's partially abated.

For instance, in the early months of COVID-19 in mid-2020, more than 44% of respondents were worried about job security, but more than 85% were still happy in the automation profession. However, as the pandemic dragged on and repeatedly demanded above-and-beyond labor and adaptability, these numbers reversed course. Consequently, while just 38.8% of respondents remain worried about job security this year, only 79.6% are still happy in the automation profession. Despite these recent stresses, one optimistic note came from respondents who are also parents. Almost the same percentage this year (83.9%) stated they would encourage their children to pursue careers in automation as did last year (84.1%).

  2016 2018 2020 2021
Received raise up to $4,000 87.0% 81.6% 74.2% 78.7%
Received bonus 57.1% 64.1% 61.4% 62.6%

Figure 3: Both the percentages of pay raises up to $4,000 and bonuses increased in 2021, following a few years of gradual declines. Raises gained more than four percentage points, while bonuses increased more than one percentage point. 

Perhaps to boost retention of weary employees, the respondents added that "raises up to $4,000" increased 4.5 percentage points to 78.7% this year compared to 74.2% in 2020. This gain followed a four-year decline from 87% in 2016 (Figure 3).

Petruskavich reports that, even though Nova Scotia Power is TriMac's biggest customer, COVID-19 halted any commissioned projects during the past year, so it's work had to evolve. "We used the time to go through NSP's facility and upgrade old PLCs on many systems, such as the coal feeder to its boiler and its ash handling system," says Petruskavich. "We mostly use ControlLogix and CompactLogix PLCs from Rockwell Automation, but the recent break let us investigate possibly using less-costly Productivity Open PLCs from AutomationDirect that are based on Arduino open-source hardware and software.

"We've also been using VTScada software from Trihedral Engineering for a couple of years because its drivers can communicate with any PLC or control device, and pull data directly from them without added programming and steps. We'd already used it with three or four of the water utilities we work with, so we recently added it to a new lift station. VTScada tied into the station's existing backbone, including its Modbus RTU and serial radio."

Despite shifts caused by the pandemic, Petruskavich adds that TriMac's projects have kept its staff busier than ever. "Some jobs are pretty weird. They force us to find innovative solutions, but we like that best because it's more challenging than easy, repeat work," says Petruskavich. "However, it can also be draining to deal with new problems all day. During the pandemic, we did more expected and repeatable projects, and we learned it can be comforting to just do some cookie-cutter jobs."

Figure 4: Increasing retirements further accelerated by COVID-19 likely drove a close to 12 percentage point increase in hiring efforts among respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey, while those impacted by layoffs dropped by more than eight percentage points. In another likely symptom of the pandemic, use of overtime gained close to five percentage points. 

Similarly, just as COVID-19 reportedly inspired a deluge of older workers opting for earlier retirements in many mainstream businesses, it's further ramping up retirements by older process control engineers, operators and other professionals, accelerating the longstanding brain drain among process control and automation companies, and apparently driving frantic efforts to replace them. For example, Control's 2020-21 salary surveys found that just over 9% of respondents were planning to retire in one year, which was close to double the 5.2% in 2018 that planned to retire in one year.

Stopping shortfalls

Beyond attrition due to retirements, many process industry companies also lose personnel because more are moving more frequently between organizations. Veterans who stayed with one employer for decades or entire careers often equate this professional mobility with disloyalty, while younger colleagues who experienced more layoffs believe employer loyalty disappeared first and forced frequent job changes to become a way of life for everyone.

In any case, Control's 2021 salary survey revealed that 53.9% of respondents are facing staffing shortfalls due to all causes. This was a more than seven percentage point increase over the 46.5% who faced shortfalls in the prior year.

  2018 2020 2021
Medical insurance 89.7% 91.1% 88.6%
Dental insurance 70.0% 70.5% 70.3%
Life insurance 74.1% 69.6% 76.3%
Disability 57.6% 56.7% 60.3%
Pension 34.8% 28.6% 26.5%
401K 57.6% 58.9% 65.3%
Flex Time 29.0% 38.8% 35.2%
Tuition reimbursement 34.8% 35.7% 35.2%
Telecommuting 14.6% 30.4% 33.3%
Family leave 34.8% 32.6% 32.0%

Figure 5: While most non-salary benefits remain relatively constant, respondents in 2020-21 reported increases over 2018 in an increasingly varied selection of benefits, such as 401K availability, flex time and family leave. Not surprisingly, use of telecommuting more than doubled to above 30% in 2020-21 from 14.6% two years earlier, which was also likely due to COVID-19 driving huge increases in remote work.

Probably in response to similar exoduses, hiring by respondents' organizations jumped more than 10 percentage points to 40.4% in 2021 from just 28.8% in 2020, while layoffs dropped eight percentage points to just over 22% in 2021 from over 30% a year ago (Figure 4).

Beyond basic compensation, several types of employee benefits, such as availability of life insurance, 401K plans, profit sharing, flex time and family leave, increased and maintained single-digital percentage points increases in 2020-21 compared to two years earlier (Figure 5).

Recruiting finds new paths

In the same way that COVID-19 prevented many coworkers, clients and other business associates from meeting during the past 18 months, it also blocked the majority of avenues for meeting with potential job candidates such as soon-to-be-graduating students. The respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey report trips to colleges and universities were down by at least 10 percentage points from the previous year, while they also experienced single-digit percentage point decreases in joining local science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, hosting open-house events, developing process control curricula, or teaching at local colleges and high schools (Figure 6).

Figure 6: While social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook keep gaining dominance as the go-to venues for recruiting and professional networking, COVID-19 put the brakes on most in-person ways of attracting talent to the process industries. Logically, visits to colleges and universities were down at least 10 percentage points, while participating in local STEM programs, holding open houses, developing process control curricula or teaching at local colleges and high schools were all down by single digits this year. The lone bright spot was internships and co-op programs that gained seven percentage points.

Online gatherings no doubt replaced in-person recruiting, just as they replaced physical meetings. Of course, these virtual venues accompany the expanding dominance of social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook. This year's respondents indicate that social media continues to account for more than half of all their recruiting efforts and professional networking.

"When I started here 24 years ago, I was the only guy under 25 years old, and there was only one other under 30 years old. We had a lot of older people, so there was a big retirement turnover about 13 years ago, and the cycle repeated three years ago," says Richard Della Penta Jr., senior sales engineer for final controls at Control Associates Inc., an 88-year-old Fisher Controls representative with 90 employees in Allendale, N.J. "We all worked at home as much as we could in the past year, as long as we could keep our warehouse open and keep shipping. We started a soft return in May with engineering, support and accounting working back onsite two days per week. Just like working at home, we did online recruiting, but we're also getting back to onsite interviews. It helps during a second or third interview if candidates can spend a day with their potential boss and the senior engineers, and get a taste of what's going on because some jobs follow similar patterns, but here it's a nice mix of different jobs everyday."

  2016 2018 2020 2021
No program 64.7% 60.2% 57.7% 59.0%
1 year or less 14.3% 18.8% 20.7% 18.9%
1-3 years 11.3% 11.3% 10.6% 14.0%
3 years or more 3.7% 3.0% 4.0% 2.7%
Length varies 6.1% 6.7% 7.0% 5.4%

Figure 7: In addition to networking and recruiting, apprenticeships programs remained relatively steading in 2021, though one- to three-year programs gained an impressive 3.6 percentage points, while shorter and longer programs decreased slightly.

The one countervailing trend in online recruiting identified by the 2021 survey was that internships and co-op programs gained seven percentage points from 36.2% in 2020 to 43.8% this year. Likewise, apprenticeships programs remained relatively steady in 2021, though one- to three-year programs gained 3.6 percentage points, while shorter- and longer-duration programs decreased slightly (Figure 7).

Training to also bridge generations

Yet another area impacted by COVID-19 is training. Because onsite staff were stretched thin covering and/or maintaining interfaces for offsite coworkers, and because everyone was adapting to remote-work procedures, many types of traditional training have been on the back burner for more than a year.

Figure 8: In another likely symptom of the pandemic, lack of time for training shot up 14 percentage points as the primary reason why training wasn't supported for respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey, and possibly why those happy with their skills and training decreased by four percentage points. More than 80% of companies continue to support skills training, while about 40% of respondents report that self-study is their primary training source.

This may explain why respondents "happy with existing and knowledge" in Control's 2021 salary survey decreased four percentage points to 78.4% in this year from 82.4% in 2020, even though they add that companies supporting skills training increased more than one percentage point to 82.3% in 2021 from 81% the year before. Most notably, among companies not supporting training, respondents citing "lack of time" shot up 14 percentage points to 38% this year from 23.9% in 2020, switching places with "lack of management" that plummeted to 21.5% in 2021 from 42.3% in the previous year. Meanwhile, training sources remained pretty consistent from 2020 to now, with "self study" and "employer" retaining the top spots at close to 40% and 26%, respectively (Figure 8).

Della Penta reports that Control Associates focuses on natural gas, steam generation and pharmaceutical applications, so many of the companies it works for expanded their operations during the pandemic, and are also digitalizing as they revamp brownfield facilities. Of course, these upgrades require added training and retaining the personnel who can provide it.

"Keeping people happy and retaining them means the usual pay, benefits, 401K packages and challenging projects. However, after six to 12 months of training, we also tell our engineers that as long as quality work gets done, we're not going to be looking over their shoulders all the time," says Della Penta. "We believe this helps us maintain our high retention rate, which is presently about 15 years average length of employment. Control Associates was founded in 1933 on doing quality work on a consistent basis, and keeping customers happy in what's still a relationship business. And that tried-and-true mantra is still true today. We found that Microsoft Teams gave us some face-to-face time during the pandemic, but we think it was successful because we used it with colleagues and customers with whom we already had longtime relationships, and that's what really got us through the past year."

Figure 9: After leveling off in 2019-20, adoption of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices and related networking gained seven percentage points to reach 60.6% this year among process control and automation users, which have been implementing Ethernet hardware and communication protocols, Internet protocol (IP) and web-based interfaces, cloud-computing services and other IIoT-enabled capabilities.

Digital transformation and IIoT boom

Just as the pandemic fueled increases in telecommuting, remote work, and online recruiting and training, the Internet continues to increase its technological presence in the form of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In fact, after leveling off at just over 53% in 2019-20, respondents to Control's 2021 salary survey reported that adoption of IIoT devices gained seven percentage points to exceed 60% this year (Figure 9). These include process control and automation users which have been implementing Ethernet hardware and communication protocols, Internet protocol (IP) and web-based interfaces, cloud-computing services and other IIoT-enabled capabilities.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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