Engineers truly are a conflicted bunch. Only 40% of the respondents to our 2006 survey feel strongly secure in their job, and fewer than half (47%) believe that a career path in engineering and the potential for salary advancement are as promising as they were five years ago. Yet 80% would recommend engineering as a career path to a young person looking to choose a profession.
Similarly, most respondents say their company outsources engineering work. A majority also believes that outsourcing results in fewer engineering job opportunities. But three out of four have little or no concerns over losing their own jobs to outsourcing. Is this any way to make a living?
"Engineering allows you to get creative and have fun while doing it," said one engineer who responded to the survey. "Plus, there's the satisfaction you get from applying scientific and engineering principles and seeing them come to fruition before your very eyes. What better ways can there be to spend the majority of your time than to use your talents for their best possible use?"
According to our 2006 Reader Profile Survey, 61% of you feel adequately compensated for the work you do—up slightly from last year's earnings satisfaction figure. What's more, four out of five engineers are still willing to trumpet the profession to students considering an engineering career. "Engineering can provide a more rich and varied career path than almost any other profession I can think of," beamed one engineer.
Why are there such high grades for a profession that's clearly being challenged on so many fronts? Another engineer put it this way: "It's very rewarding to create new things. Salaries have consistently been in the upper-middle-class range for 50 years, and there is no sign of that changing."
In reality, the engineering profession offers a fairly high degree of job security these days—although individual engineers may not always feel secure in their jobs. The good news is that only 9% of survey respondents said their company planned to scale back engineering staff this year, and nearly 40% said their companies planned to increase the number of engineering jobs in the coming year. "Engineers will always have jobs," noted one reader. "Changing technologies might require retraining, but that's true of most disciplines."
Yet despite the seemingly rosy outlook, 60% of those surveyed said they felt some degree of uncertainty about their own job security. As one engineer put it: "Compared to other fields such as medical, business, or service professions, job security in engineering is unstable and rewards pπare much less given the hours expended."
Nearly 78% of engineers saw their paychecks go up in 2006, and 40% believed their company was more focused on employee retention this year than a year ago. According to one survey respondent, "Our company is concentrating on keeping employees in long-term relationships. Now we have a good medical plan, 401(k), pension, tuition reimbursement, and more competitive compensation."
But the majority of respondents still felt that the opportunity for advancement isn't as strong as it used to be. "I feel that our senior management is constantly looking to cut personnel and costs, but for the time being they can't cut more engineers without cutting programs," said one engineer.
The typical engineer has 21 years of engineering experience— including 10 years with his present company—and has been promoted twice by his current employer.
Fewer than 10% of our survey respondents this year said they were actively seeking a new job, although nearly a third said they'd follow up a lead if the right opportunity came along. Another third said they would consider another job if they were personally approached. The remaining 25% said they couldn't envision changing jobs in the foreseeable future.
What situations are most likely to motivate engineers to accept another job? Not surprisingly, higher compensation tops the list of incentives, followed by more interesting work, the opportunity to seek more personal fulfillment, better job stability, and the chance to work for a more dynamic company.
The job-related issues that cause engineers the most stress at work this year are similar to the ones they've experienced in the past. Heading the list are insufficient human resources to get the job done, difficulties finding the right components for their designs, time-to-market pressures, being required to compromise their design approaches, and the inability to adequately test their product designs.
"Lately, the pressures are higher than the rewards," complained one engineer. "It seems as though engineers are the scapegoats for everything that goes wrong, and their opinions are ignored when management thinks things are going well."
While engineers may be working longer hours these days—and working harder to earn their performance bonuses—they're not losing as much sleep worrying about professional issues as they have in the past. In fact, one in five said that no work-related issues at all keep them up at night.
However, those who do find themselves tossing and turning are worrying most about trying to stay current with new and emerging technologies, looming project deadlines, product reliability issues, worries over job security, and price performance issues. But as one engineer noted: "If you go into the profession with eyes wide open, not expecting job security, the technical challenges and rewards that accompany product development are worth it."
Engineers are evenly split over whether engineering and the potential for salary advancement is as promising today as it was five years ago. "Five years ago was a low point, with major layoffs and little hiring," opined one engineer. "Today, while there is outsourcing and offshoring, there's still lots of room for sharp, motivated engineers in the states."
But as another observed, "Five years ago, salaries were increasing substantially. Engineers looked like they were finally going to be adequately compensated. Then the economy tanked, and so did our value to these companies."
Another engineer summed up the current salary situation this way: "I was looking for a job that would allow me to comfortably support my family, and this has been possible. I believe that salary advancement comes to those who choose to work to increase the profits of the company. For those who show up looking for a handout, salary increases will stay rather mundane. I don't believe that huge salaries are an entitlement for the degree."
Outsourcing is in
Concerns over outsourcing have been moving up the worry chart of engineers for quite some time, but at this point engineers accept it as a fact of life. "Outsourcing is a short-term solution for profit-seeking companies. It is destroying the long-term ability of the U.S. to compete in the technology marketplace," declared one engineer.
"Companies complain that there aren't enough quality engineering graduates from U.S. colleges, yet why would any top-talent university student seek an engineering degree when they know that their job can be sent overseas at the drop of a hat?" one respondent asked. "Fortunately my company got badly burned by an outsourcing episode and is now hesitant to do it again. I have no illusions, though, and expect that within a couple of years there'll be more outsourcing done here."
While outsourcing is a divisive issue, many managers point to its benefits—even as they acknowledge concerns. "Outsourcing is a valuable resource in managing business and maximizing profitability," said one. "However, great care is required in communicating how outsourcing benefits employees. How does it help secure their jobs? How does it free them to do the specialized work the company can't outsource? When a company outsources core technology, the internal staff justifiably perceives they are not needed."
One reader summed up the concerns of many survey respondents when he said, "From a global perspective, it is beneficial to raise the standard of living in poorer countries. From a company perspective, it is also beneficial to reduce costs and to gain better insight into global markets. From a personal perspective, it is a clear threat to my livelihood."
Yet the satisfaction of problem-solving and overcoming challenges remain deeply compelling. One engineer said: "In spite of the disappointment in salary potential (my two promotions brought me up to the 'average starting salary' for new engineers), engineers take the applications of science and math and create useful products, services, and systems. I can't help but feel a sense of fulfillment from that."
And beyond the joy of testing one's individual mettle, engineering provides a strong sense of doing something concrete and positive for the greater good. "Engineering projects are usually a tangible contribution to human progress," stated one engineer.
"The development and practice of the mental skills required to be an effective engineer is an immensely rewarding pursuit," the respondent continued. "Colleagues are usually interesting and creative people. The financial rewards for most engineers, while not as great as they once were, are usually adequate. It is still possible for a great idea from an individual or small team to generate big benefits to society."
Yet many engineers aren't satisfied with their work. This may be because they're being asked to refine existing products to reduce costs or add what they perceive as trivial features. Or it may be because they disagree with the requirements they've gotten from their managers—and therefore feel that their talents are being less than optimally utilized.
But in spite of those frustrations, engineers as a whole know their lot in life could be much worse. "When I'm finally sitting in my rocking chair on the veranda of the old-folks home," mused one engineer, "I want to be able to look back and say to myself 'That was a worth-while life. I used my skills to their fullest.'"