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Control's 2020 salary survey

July 2, 2020
Average pay and telecommuting increase in Control's annual salary survey, but so do job security worries and other concerns

We all know humans don't live by bread alone, and this principle is demonstrated by Control's readers, who continually place challenging work far above salary and benefits as the most important ingredient for job satisfaction.

However, the flipside of contentment is worry and upset—if not panic—and there's plenty to be concerned about from the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic to vast unemployment, long-ignored racial justice inequalities and protests, plunging oil and gas prices, plus a global economic recession. That's an almost unbelievable list of 2020's personal, community and economic upheavals, and their impacts are already shaking the hundreds of industries served by the process automation and control disciplines and their engineers, technicians and operators.

Raises plummet, bonuses dip

Figure 2: Both the percentages of pay raises up to $4,000 and bonuses declined in 2020 after holding steady for the previous two years. Raises dropped by more than seven percentage points, while bonuses declined by almost three percentage points.

These unprecedented difficulties were also reflected in the close to 300 respondents to Control's annual salary survey, who provided their answers from March 24 to May 28—just as all these events were unfolding and their effects grew increasingly clear. So, while their initial financial gains were mostly positive, they were obviously well-aware of the larger pandemic, unemployment, social and economic issues facing their families, communities and the rest of the world.

For instance, this year's respondents report their average pay increased by more than 3.5% to $96,843 from $93,517 in 2019, while their average age increased slightly by 2% from 45.6 years to 46.6 years during the same period. However, worries about job security increased almost 10 percentage points to 44.4% in 2020 from a low of 35% last year (Figure 1). Likewise, pay raises up to $4,000 dropped to 74.2% this year from 81.5% in 2019, and respondents reporting bonuses decreased to 61.4% in 2020 from 64% a year earlier (Figure 2).

At the same time, when asked how the current economy is affecting their companies, just more than 30% of the 2020 respondents add they're impacted by layoffs, which was more than double the 14% affected in 2019. Likewise, hiring dropped by almost half to 28.8% this year from 44% in 2019. Meanwhile, added overtime declined to 12.1% this year from 14.7% in 2019, while promotions and raises decreased to 9.3% this year from 12% last year. Of the 42 respondents reporting other economic impacts, eight cited COVID-19 directly, while another seven reported hiring and wage freezes, or possible salary reductions and layoffs (Figure 3).

Layoffs double, hiring halved

Figure 3: After several years of almost no changes due to overall economic forces, respondents to Control's 2020 salary survey report their companies impacted by layoffs have more than doubled to 30.2% this year from 14% in 2018-19, while hiring dropped by almost half to 28.8% this year from 44% in 2019 and 42.2% the year before.

"These are very tumultuous and uncertain times. Because of COVID-19, we had to make some temporary adjustments to pay and benefits for a couple of months," says Chris Alexander, automation manager at Global Process Automation (GPA) in Wilmington, N.C., and a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). "Some of our pulp and paper and other projects slowed down because we were unable to get onsite for installations due to COVID-19, but we're still able to do a lot of remote programming to continue supporting our customers. Some machine builds also slowed in the past few months, and because control follows construction, our involvement in these projects has been delayed, while some capital projects have been frozen until the third or fourth quarter. More recently, it looks like we could be coming back soon, and get back on some sites by the end of June."

Benefits help with COVID-19

Though it isn't among the top benefits provided by employers, the 2020 respondents reported their use of telecommuting skyrocketed to 30.4% this year from 17.9% in 2019, which may indicate some early efforts at working remotely due to social distancing requirements in response to the pandemic.

"Months before the pandemic, we were using Samsung tablets for SCADA access and laptops for other business activities," says Sonny Miller, electrical services and SCADA supervisor at Rancho California Water District. "We switched SCADA access to the PCs, while ensuring secure access, so all business activities were on one device. When COVID-19 arrived, we already had more uniform, remote-access approach using laptops and a more secure remote connection."

Rancho California operates approximately 45 wells, 30 pump stations and 35 reservoirs to provide primarily potable water to about 150,000 residents in Temecula and Murrieta, Calif. It also operates a wastewater treatment plant that provides recycled water mostly for irrigation. Miller reports his team’s background in control systems and his Lean/Six Sigma approach promotes efficiency in work and projects. He also promotes in-sourcing over outsourcing, so knowledge and skills stay in house, which also generates cost savings.

"When the pandemic hit, we were ready due to our prior updates and the cybersecurity protections we'd previously worked out in house," explains Miller. "The laptops and secure remote access also allowed seven electrical services staff, six operators and eight water quality staff to securely complete paperwork, access SCADA, and complete requisitions, orders and timecards. This meant our people didn't have to go to the office each day, but could just go to their first job in the field."

Benefits regain steam

Figure 4: Reversing a three-year slide, benefits in three of the Top 6 categories—medical/dental insurance and 401K—made single-digit gains. And, while pension availability dropped more than five percentage points, there were only slight decreases in life insurance and disability.

Miller adds that Rancho Water replaced most of the motor control centers (MCC) on its sites over the past eight years, and more recently upgraded to new variable frequency drives (VFD) and new PLCs with simpler control routines. It's also upgrading its SCADA system, and did most of this work internally, too. The team designed these systems and panels in-house, and built them with help from a local panel shop. While the SCADA system runs on an upgraded system designed by Rancho Water's staff, they also got some help from a system integrator.

"This gave us the specific design we wanted, lets us train people to work how we want them to, and allows us to collaborate with our other departments on water quality and other tasks," explains Miller. "Our electrical services department strives for overall efficiency in staff and systems. For example, we do closed-loop feedback dosing of chlorine and chloromine at some of our main stations, so we set up a SCADA system to show trends over time. We also added actuators to small dosing pumps, and their VFDs allow us to make remote stroke adjustments, instead of sending people out to turn valves, which is also safer for them during the pandemic."

Similarly, Control's 2020 salary survey also revealed that other benefits like flex time increased to 38.8% in 2020 from 34% last year, while family leave increased to 32.6% this year from 29.2% in 2019. In addition, turning back a three-year decline, benefits in three of the top six categories achieved single-digit gains. Medical coverage increased almost six percentage points to 91.1% this year from 85.4% in 2019, while dental coverage and 401K each gained about two percentage points. Plus, while pension availability dropped more than five percentage points, there were only slight decreases in life insurance and disability (Figure 4).

Social media extends recruiting lead

Beyond trying to manage this year's new crises, process engineering users and managers still face their traditional challenge of finding and educating rookies to replace all the veterans, who continue to retire in increasing numbers.

Attract and recruit new people

Figure 5: LinkedIn and other social media tools continue to dominate process industry recruiting with another gain of five percentage points to more than 55% this year, while print and online ads dropped by seven percentage points, and internshps/co-op programs dropped by eight percentage points during the same period. Meanwhile, visits to local universities, colleges, community colleges and high schools increased five percentage points, while sponsoring local science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, such as FIRST Robotics teams, increased three percentage points. 

The 2020 respondents report that more than half used LinkedIn, Facebook or other social media for the second year in a row to recruit prospective employees. Just over 55% used social media to find staff this year, which was up from 50.4% in 2019 and 44.9% the year before. At the same time, just over 38% reported using print or online advertising, which was a significant drop from the more than 45% advertising the year before (Figure 5).

Likewise, use of internships and co-op programs dropped to 36% in 2020 from 44% the year before. However, in-person visits to colleges and schools increased more than five percentage points to 41.5% this year from 36.3% in 2019. The other winning recruiting strategy was sponsoring local science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teams and programs, which increased to 19.3% in 2020 from 16% the year before.

Alexander adds that system integrator GPA hasn't experienced the retirement-fueled brain drain suffered by many process industry firms because it knows where to find able candidates. "We're in OK shape. Finding people isn't really an issue because we know individuals who are willing to jump in and help us with projects in an as-needed capacity," says Alexander. "We know it's hard for many companies to find staff, especially those who can set up servers, program PLCs, or who know both the OT and IT sides or networking. However, many employers don't recognize the value of these skills, but GPA does and compensates accordingly."

Train to retain—if leaders aren't lacking

Self-reliant training, management lacking

Figure 6: While more than 80% of companies continue to support skills training, self-study was up more than six percentage points in 2020 as most other sources declined. Lack of management was up 14 percentage points from last year among respondents at firms that don't support training.

Of course, once new employees are found and hired, the next mission is developing, training and retaining them, which can be even more of a challenge than finding them in the first place. Consequently, even though about 80% of Control's salary survey respondents are happy with their skills, and add their companies support skills training, self-study jumped to 40% in 2020 from just 34% the year before, while on the job training decreased to 13.5% this year from 16.8% in 2019.

Challenges continue to satisfy

Figure 7: As usual, challenging work continues to be the most important ingredient in job satisfaction for respondents to Control's salary survey, but this year it continued to post significant gains over 2019, while salary and benefits experienced a similar decline in importance during the same period.

At the same time, they add that lack of management was the primary reason training isn't supported this year, which exploded by 14 percentage points to more than 42% in 2020 from just 28.3% the year before. Meanwhile, lack of time as a reason for not supporting training dropped to almost 24% this year from more than 28% a year earlier (Figure 6).

"We shifted to working remotely on March 13, and converted to reaching our customers with virtual engagements," says Bob Rice, VP of engineering at Control Station Inc., which supplies process control analytics software and services. "In three weeks, we converted our traditional in-class curriculum with web tools to virtual training using ReadyTech, WebEx and Microsoft Teams meeting software, and added virtual startup and optimization services. Where we used to ship laptops loaded with training simulations and trained for two eight-hour days, we reorganized our curriculum into four, four-hour, web-based virtual training sessions.

"We delivered this class four times since April, including to Freeport-McMoRan, a mining company in Phoenix, which wanted to switch to virtual, cloud-based training in part due to COVID-19 and because it could save on travel going forward. In general, we can't assume we'll be able to go back to what we did before. Onsite personnel and visitors will have to continue wearing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), but if other staffers can achieve the same performance by working remotely and using virtual engagements, then continuing it in the future will be a win-win."

IIoT stabilizes

Figure 8: After gaining ground the year before, adoption of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) leveled off at just over 53% in 2020 among process control and automation users and applications, which have been implementing Ethernet networking, Internet protocol (IP) communications, cloud-computing services and other IIoT technologies.

Challenges satisfy, IIoT levels off

Perhaps because brains need tasks and obstacles more than anything, the final evolution of successful recruiting and long-term retention is expressed by respondents to Control's salary survey, who always prize challenging work above salary. In fact, this commendable gap widened even more in 2020 with more than 45% valuing challenging work most, compared to 41% last year, while just 17.8% said salary and benefits was most important in 2020, compared to 20.5% last year. Similarly, 12.4% add that appreciation was most important this year, which was a decrease from 16.7% in 2019 (Figure 7).

Finally, another widespread phenomenon revealed by 2020's salary survey is the continuing emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digitalization, which typically employ Ethernet-based networks to talk Internet protocols (IP) among devices, as well as access enterprise-level platforms and access cloud-computing services. After gaining ground two years ago and passing the halfway mark last year, adoption of the IIoT leveled off at just over 53% in 2020 among process control and automation users. (Figure 8).

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.