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Posting gains: CONTROL's 2006 Salary Survey

June 1, 2006
Respondents to the CONTROL 2006 Salary Survey are collectively earning more money, experiencing increased job security, reporting more hiring and fewer layoffs, and even growing slightly younger.
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

IT HAD TO happen eventually. Good news, that is. After years of receiving tiny, incremental pay raises, the process control engineers and other technical professionals answering Control’s 16th annual Salary Survey have finally made some substantial gains in compensation and other job-related areas. They’re also less worried about job security, and report their companies are doing more hiring and making fewer layoffs.

And the good news doesn’t end there. In seeming contradiction to natural laws, the respondents have even gotten younger—at least as a collective group.

The survey’s few negative results were that control engineers and their colleagues are working a couple more hours per week on average, and that their firms are continuing to increase outsourcing activities.  

Paydays and Profiles
The respondents to 2006’s e-mailed salary survey reported a dramatic upward shift in their numbers in the two highest salary categories compared to the year before (See Figure 1 below). Basically, respondents earning salaries above $80,000 increased significantly, while those below this threshold decreased slightly. Similarly, those receiving bonuses of 6-10% of their salaries increased from 19.5% in 2005 to 29.0% in 2006.


(Click image to enlarge) 

Besides improving their compensation, 2-4% more respondents in the 2006 survey reported receiving benefits than the year before in each category. These include medical and dental insurance coverage, life insurance, disability, pension and 401K plans, tuition reimbursement, stock options, profit sharing, company cars, flex time, and telecommuting. And, while three weeks of vacation remains the norm, those receiving four weeks increased from 24.4% in 2005 to 28.2% in 2006.   

Demographically speaking, process control engineers remain overwhelmingly white, male, U.S. residents, who are married with children (See Figure 2 below). Interestingly, a more than five-percentage-point jump occurred among respondents identifying themselves as married from 84.6% in 2005 to 90.5% in 2006. Another close to five-point increase was reported by respondents with four-year undergraduate degrees; 48.9% had four years of college in 2005, while 53.2% had four years in 2006. In addition, those possessing electrical engineering degrees increased from 34.4% in 2005 to 38.3% in 2006.




Salary  $71-80K (17.3%) more than $100K (19.2%)
Hours per week  41-60 (78.9%)  41-60 (81.3%)
Bonus yes (61.7%)  yes (63.4%)
Paid overtime no (73.5%) no (73.4%)
Vacation three weeks (33.2%) three weeks (32.4%)
Job description  engineering, design,
construction (33.1%) 
engineering, design,
construction (38.1%)
Primary Industry  chemical (16.2%) food and beverage (13.8%)
Years at
present firm
11-20; more than 20 (24.1%) 11-20 (25.5%)
Number of jobs
in career
two (25%) two (27.2%)
Years in
process control
11-20 (30.2%)  11-20 (34.8%)
Education four-year undergraduate (48.9%) four-year undergraduate (53.2%)
Degree  other, mostly mechanical
engineering (36.3%) 
electrical engineering
Residency  U.S. (98.3%)  U.S. (97.4%)
Gender  male (94.6%)  male (94.9%)
Ethnicity white (86%) white (88.9%)
Marital status  married (84.6%)  married (90.5%)
Children  yes (83.6%) 

yes (84.1%)

No doubt the most startling finding in the 2006 salary survey is that the  respondents are getting collectively younger, though the majority remain middle-aged (See Figure 3 below). In fact, those aged 36-45 years increased to 36.6% in 2006 from 30.7% in 2005, while those aged 46-55 years decreased to 33.1% in 2006 from 37.6% in 2005. Respondents 26-35 years old and those over 55 years remained constant at just over 11% and 18%, respectively.

In addition, this youth movement occurred even though respondents with 11-20 years in process control increased to 34.8% in 2006 from 30.3% in 2005, and those in the “engineering, design, and construction” category increased to 38.1% in 2006 from 33.1% in 2005. As might be expected, however, respondents with two to five years of supervisory experience decreased to 21.8% in 2006 from 25.3% in 2005.

Larger Forces
The reason for many respondents’ recent pay raises can be traced to several likely factors. Certainly, many of those in oil, gas, and other petrochemical-related applications are likely benefiting from recent financial gains in those industries. Likewise, increasing use of process control technologies in pharmaceutical and food and beverage applications is stoking demand for process engineers in those fields.

However, perhaps the most significant factor is the accelerating retirement of many older process control engineers, who aren’t being replaced quickly enough. The usual lament is that too few young people are choosing process control and engineering in general as a career, but there are other forces at work too.

FIGURE 3: FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH?(% of respondents in each age range)

In recent years, control and automation engineers and other technical professionals moving through their careers have been challenged by a unique, overlapping, and shifting combination of technical, corporate, and economic influences. These changes have generated headaches and indigestion, at best, and disillusionment and despair, at worst, and too often make it harder to work and survive in process control and the many end-user industries it serves.

Besides the usual improvements in traditional technologies, this generation’s control and automation engineers have coped with continually emerging software and increasingly PC-based solutions, multiplying fieldbuses and Ethernet implementations, plant-floor to enterprise connectivity, and wireless devices and networks. These galloping and often-overlapping technical advances have fueled frequent shifts and expansions in many engineers’ job descriptions.

These events have, in turn, forced both veteran engineers and those just out of college to seek more continuing education to keep pace with new technologies. In short, one of the main reasons why there aren’t enough process control engineers is because training is having a hard time keeping up with accelerating technology changes. Bottom line: there may be increasing more financial incentive to train, but new technology and what you need to know keeps springing ahead anyway.

“I think we have about a five to 10-year gap in our engineering staff and their process control skills and experience,” says Rob Stott, controls engineer in the APC Group at ConocoPhillips’ LC Refinery in Westlake, La. “Most of us have 18 years of experience in process control, and are anywhere from seven to 17 years from retirement. We’ve always felt that we were somewhat behind in hiring, and so we made a concerted effort to recruit more control engineers, and then give new hires the two or three years of process control experience they need. However, we recently did a projection of the engineering staffing we’re going to requires over the next 10 years, and we’re going to have to do some even more significant recruiting and training to find the several dozen engineers we’ll need. I don’t know if we’ll be able to find them.”

Less Layoffs, More Outsourcing
The accelerating technology upheaval in recent years was compounded by a seemingly endless series of mergers and acquisitions, which were accompanied by rounds of layoffs that have only slowed recently. When Conoco and Phillips merged four years ago, for example, Stott says there was naturally a lot of organizational shifting and some insecurity, but he believes things are calmer now. “We initially had a push away from centralized technical resources, but now there’s some rebound back to it,” says Stott. “Cost cutting now isn’t focused on reducing headcounts. There’s more concentration now on generating savings in operating funds.” 

The old merger-layoffs scenario apparently has been replaced by increasing efforts to outsource many engineering and other professional services. While the proportion of companies doing outsourcing remains constant at just over 65%, respondents reporting increased volumes of outsourcing shot up to 38% in 2006 from 28.5% in 2005 (See Figure 4 below).


Conversely, some of the best news in 2006’s salary survey may be the respondents reporting that hiring has increased at their companies from 38.8% in 2005 to 44.4% in 2006, while those reporting layoffs declined from 24.7% in 2005 to 20% in 2006 (See Figure 5 below). These results were accompanied by an increase in overtime to 34% in 2006 from 29.9% in 2005. Unfortunately, promotions have declined to 11.8% in 2006 from 19.5% in 2005.


Meanwhile, those identifying job security as important for job satisfaction have dropped to 6.6% in 2006 from 9.8% in 2005. In addition, three-percentage points more respondents (57.1%) report they aren’t worried about job security this year (See Figure 6 below).


In fact, the increasingly hot market for process control engineers undoubtedly has some thinking that instead of waiting for a pay hike, they may “layoff” their employer, and get a better job altogether, despite the stresses involved.

“Many engineers probably think they’re being underpaid by $15,000 per year, and that they could earn $30,000 extra by going to work for a systems integrator,” says Del Ackels, controls specialist at Frito Lay North America in Vancouver, Wash. “However, they come to realize that they’d have to travel six months out of the year and deal with all the pressure of doing more startups, and suddenly they come back to the thought that they’ve got it pretty good. For example, I’m stretched pretty thin, but it’s been that way since I began working as an engineer 32 years ago.”

Choice Comments

SOME RESPONDENTS to the 2006 Salary Survey added highly enlightening comments to their usual multiple-choice answers. Several of the most interesting included:

  • "The past two-plus years at our office have been brutal. A lot of people were laid off and many more were temporarily assigned to other offices for six to 18 months. Things are finally looking up, and we expect the next two-plus years to be good.” — control systems engineer at California technical services provider
  • "The engineering profession isn’t one I’d recommend to a young person now. The level pay provides a decent income, but it isn’t up to the effort required to get the degree and/or maintain the job. The turnover of executive leadership from engineering/manufacturing-based to financial-based has sapped most of the fun out of working in manufacturing in this country.” — senior engineer at South Carolina paper manufacturer
  • “The majority of our engineering and technical staff are between 40 and 60 years old. I don’t see any young people in the workforce.” — control engineering assistant at Texas electrical cooperative
  • “We’re running into issues with senior engineering personnel retiring. Much of their expertise hasn’t been transferred to others in the group. We’re dedicating resources to this area.” — process engineering supervisor at Arizona petrochemical producer
  • “Too many functions for everyone, and not enough time for core job responsibilities. I don’t appreciate the trend away from people to automating everything.” — senior instrumentation technician at Illinois oil and gas research facility
  • “Overall employee attitude is horrible in these days when profit is the true #1 objective, while upper management says safety and quality are #1.  Communication and honesty from upper management is non-existent. Tell us the truth and the “whys” of some of the odd decisions being made. This is not the Land of Oz, so come out from behind the curtain. We can handle the truth and maybe even help resolve some issues.” — senior process engineer at Wisconsin paper manufacturer
  • “Our parent company is limiting equipment maintenance based on available dollars. This creates added maintenance for field operations because equipment that should be overhauled is being held together with bandages. Trying to explain these issues to directors is difficult because many don’t understand operations or the impact of their decisions.” — senior engineer at Texas natural gas producer
  • “Outsourcing is used to to bridge the gap when we need another engineer, but just temporarily.” — senior electrical designer at California engineering design firm

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