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Great Recession's Impact on Process Automation Professionals

May 25, 2010
Feeling It: The Effects of the 2008-9 Economic Implosion Ripple Through Our Latest Salary Survey

By Nancy Bartels

This year's salary survey tells the tale of the Great Recession's impact on process automation professionals. If last year's story (2009 Salary Survey) was one of rising anxiety in the light of bad news on the horizon, this year's reflects the reality that had yet to become completely apparent in early 2009. While not an unmitigated disaster, 2009 was a tough year for folks in process automation, according to the 1500 readers who responded to our salary survey this year.

Payday: Not Bad, But Not as Good as It Was

Figure 1. Process automation still pays well. More than 70% of those surveyed make more than $60,000 a year, up from 50% last year. Twenty-seven percent make more than $100,000, but that number is down from 36% a year ago.

Figure 2. Raises have taken a real hit. This year, 54% of respondents report a raise in the zero to $1000 range, a mirror image of last year's percentage, when that same number got raises between $2000 and $4000. Only 34% got those kinds of raises this year. Last year, 16% reported raises in the $5000 to $7000 range. This year, that number is down to 7%, down 9%.

Figure 3. Bonuses are down too, from 68% last year to 57% this year—and a quarter of those reporting say their bonus was between 0% and 2%. Forty-nine percent of the bonuses were between 2% and 10%. But a surprising 16% got more than a 15% bonus. 

The Numbers Don't Tell All—Stretched to the Limits and Not Liking It

In our surveys, we provide a place for respondents to add additional comments about their work. The same themes usually appear: bad bosses, stingy employers, long hours, office politics, cuts in salary and benefits, and, on the other hand, the contented souls who love their work and companies.

However, this year, two themes took center stage, probably because of the cutbacks caused by the shaky economy and the rolling demographic bomb of retirements—too much to do and not enough resources to do it, and concern over who is going to step up to fill the jobs that are being vacated by the seniors.

  • "There's more work to be done by fewer people."
  • "Workers are not being replaced, forcing us to run short-handed. Everyone must work harder, smarter and cover areas outside their expertise."
  • "I feel driven/pushed/pressured to deliver more and faster innovations and new products, while not being given any new resources."
  • "We made some cuts 12 to 18 months ago, and combined with near-term retirements, we're getting stretched to the breaking point. We're going to need time to hire, but without sufficient turnover time from retirees to the new hires."
  • "Too much knowledge is walking out the door due to retirement, layoffs and open positions not being filled, thus forcing the ones left to carry more burden without added financial gain. Most new help is naïve and inexperienced."
  • "Like all companies, we all do more and more work with less and less people."
  • "No one in upper management seems to be planning for training the next generation of engineers. The gap is getting huge."
  • "No trained people coming up through the ranks.
  • "[We have] issues with finding personnel with the background needed and the lack of apprenticeships for people coming into the market."
  • "I'm always worried about too much outsourcing and not enough new engineers being hired by the refinery."
  • "We have a noticeably aging work force for which no replacement bench strength is being developed."
  • "Training is very often seen as ‘pure costs/good times for employees' by most employers, rather than as good investment in employees."
  • "A lack of training is a serious problem for me. I work in a shrinking company that serves a shrinking industry. I do not have the time to get training, and my employer doesn't have the money. At the same time, my lack of training slows me down. It's an infuriating Catch-22. Operators at my customer's factories never have time for training either, so I have to create systems that one can operate without training."

Job Insecurity

Figure 4.  Job anxiety is up a little this year, with 53% saying they're worried about it, up only 1% from last year, surprising in light of 35% who say their companies are laying people off, and only 19% are hiring. Last year, these two numbers were nearly equal at 37% laying people off and 38% hiring. Eighteen percent say raises and promotions have been affected by the economic downturn, down from 25% last year, although that drop may indicate that some companies took action early in the crisis instead of waiting until this year.

Why They Do It

Figure  5. In spite of anxiety over job and frustration about what cutbacks have meant, most process automation specialists aren't in it just for the money. One chart that remains remarkably unchanged is the one that ranks what gives our respondents the most job satisfaction. What they want, more than job security (12%), a chance for advancement (13%), appreciation (14%) or a decent salary and benefits (19%), is challenging work (42%). And in response to a question in our Basic Skills Survey, in spite of all the difficulties, 73% of respondents said they are happy in the automation profession, and another 25% said they were happy at least some of the time. That same 73% said they'd encourage their children to enter the profession. 

Profile of a Process Engineer

The people who answered our survey

  • Earn more than $60,000 a year (72%)
  • Work 40 to 60 hours a week (72%)
  • Do not get overtime pay (75%)
  • Get three weeks a year or more vacation time (82%)
  • Are over 45 (53%)
  • Are male (95%)
  • Live in U.S. (60%), Asia (15%), Europe, (13%), Canada (6%), Latin America (5%)
  • Are Caucasian (72%), Asian (15%), Hispanic (5%), Black (3%), other (5%)
  • Are married (81%), with children (78%)
  • Have a college degree (72%), have an  advanced degree (23%)
  • Have degrees in everything from electrical engineering (37%) to such diverse fields as accounting, marketing, food science and psychology.
  • Work in engineering, design and construction (40%), plant maintenance (17%) or production and plant operations (14.5%)
  • Have worked for no more than three companies during their career (66%)
  • Have been in process control longer than 10 years (67%)
  • Works in the oil and gas (19%), chemical (12%), food and beverage (8%) or other industries.

Perks and Bennies Down Too

Benefits also are not what they were. This year 90% of respondents reported having medical benefits, down from 98% last year, and 71% said they had dental coverage, down from 89% last year—an 18% drop. Life insurance coverage is down 13% from last year at 75%, and disability insurance is down 19% from 77% in 2009 to 58% this year, although these numbers may reflect, in part, a larger group of respondents from outside North America.

Only 44% say their companies offer pension plans, down from 48% last year, and only 55% say they have a 401k plan, down from 90% last year.

As for other perks, a few folks report everything from company cars (13%), flex time (27%) and tuition reimbursement (40%) to overseas housing allowances, an on-site gym, and the intriguing entry "meat." 

One unexplaned anomaly is the 12% who say they can telecommute, while only two respondents report having a company-supplied cell phone and laptop.

The Demographic Bomb

Figure 6. Hidden in plain site in our profile of a process engineer is the demographic bomb. Nearly 53% of the respondents to our survey are over 45, and 20% are over 55. At the other end of the scale, only about 2.5% are under 25 and another 18.5% under 35.

The Skills Gap

Figure  7.  Our basic skills survey reflects that anxiety about skills. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they were either unhappy with the level of their basic skills (15%) or only "sort of" happy, believing that their basic skill level could be better (39%).

The complete Salary and Basic Skills surveys are available online at www.controlglobal.com/1006_salarysurvey.html and  www.controlglobal.com/skills2010.html

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