Electronic Design

Innovation, Problem Solving... And Compensation Keep EEs In The Game

Are you crazy? Many EEs might say yes. After all, what sane person would want to take on the pressures associated with having to solve complex problems every day? Who would want to contend with an influx of foreign workers with an outflow of jobs?

Add to that the impact of such issues as the economy and national security, and it would be reasonable to expect engineers to be more than a little sour about their lot in life. Yet 61% of this year's survey respondents feel adequately compensated for their work. Remarkably, this percentage exceeds last year's salary satisfaction levels of 53%. Plus, over three-quarters still have a positive outlook toward engineering as a calling.

Why so much optimism in the face of industry-wide challenges? One engineer put it this way: "After 41 years, I can look back with pride on the things I have worked on and consider that my life has been worthwhile and enjoyable in engineering. Also, engineering prepares you to deal with problems, and life is full of problems."

Despite perceptions to the contrary, engineering still seems to offer a relatively fair amount of job security. Only 10% of this year's survey respondents said that their company was looking to scale back engineering staff in the coming year. Moreover, more than a third said their companies plan to increase the number of engineering positions moving forward. Those figures can be somewhat comforting at a time when other professionals are becoming downsized.

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In fact, only 9% said they were actively seeking a new position right now—although nearly two-thirds admitted being tempted to jump ship if the right opportunity came along. Of those who told us they were out there pounding the pavement, 61% said they were concerned about job security (compared to 15% who said they couldn't envision changing jobs anytime soon), and nearly a third of those actively engaged in job hunting were doing so because companies plan to scale back engineering staff in the coming year.

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Issues creating the greatest concerns to engineers this year appeared in past surveys. These include: insufficient people resources to get the job done; difficulties finding the optimal components for designs; greater pressure to accelerate time-to-market; forced compromises to design quality because of other business factors; and the lack of adequate funding for projects.

According to one engineer, "The profession is no longer as creative. The business environment is demanding quicker design cycles, shorter payback times, and focus on products that can capture a big chunk of the market without significant effort."

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Another reader echoed similar sentiments. "The creative opportunity is still there, but it's diminishing. The reason for the decrease is that design cycles are becoming so short and pricing constraints so severe, off-the-shelf solutions must be employed. Ideas that might be an improvement, but require tooling or validation, are usually DOA."

Other top-of-mind issues also remained consistent. Staying current with new and emerging technologies is still a tough challenge. Looming project deadlines still keep you up at night. And product reliability is still of paramount importance.

"I spend too many hours trying to meet very insane project deadlines," stated one engineer. "This results in a lot of stress, not spending enough time with family, and no time to further education."

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Others shared similar feelings. For instance, "There is way too much stress in this profession, management expects too much, more than most people can do without being overloaded." Another said, "The compensation is way too low for the amount of work and responsibility we have to bear."

Job security moved from number six to the fourth slot on the "concerns" list. Outsourcing leaped even higher, from number twelve to the eighth spot. So when you're not worrying about getting the job done, you're worrying about keeping your job.

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"Too many jobs are going overseas," complained one reader. "This is unfortunate because technology is what gives the U.S. a big advantage in defense, homeland security, world economy, etc. Fewer bright, young engineers coming out of college in the U.S. will hurt the country in the long run."

With all of these sources of stress, why are you still in the game? Even more than money, your top sources of satisfaction revolve around the creation of new products and research into solutions to design problems. Compensation comes next on the priority list, followed by the opportunity to design products that benefit society and on-the-job recognition.

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As one engineer put it, "Engineering can be a very rewarding career. And the lifestyle it can provide is not too shabby. You can even get rich if you are talented and get a few lucky breaks along the way."

Another expressed similar beliefs. "It can be interesting and challenging and even fun for the right type of person. Also, the opportunity to design something that others will use in their daily lives can be rewarding."

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Like most people, engineers feel a greater sense of comfort at work when their company is growing rather than scaling back. In fact, only 6% of engineers who work at companies looking to increase the number of engineering jobs say they're actively seeking new employment. On the flip side, 23% who work at companies that plan to cut back engineering staff in the coming year are on the job hunt.

So who's doing the hiring these days? According to our survey, most companies that plan to expand engineering staff fall into the aerospace/military/government sector, followed closely by the IC and semiconductor houses. Companies that manufacture industrial-process controls plan to be the least active in hiring during the coming year, but also the most stable in terms of maintaining current staffing levels. Companies involved in contract manufacturing and test and measurement also plan to maintain a relatively high level of stability, while computer companies will most likely lead the pack in scaling back existing jobs and new hires.

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While today's engineers may feel that the rewards of the profession still outweigh its drawbacks as far as they're personally concerned, their long-term view clearly affects the advice they would give to young people seeking a career. (See "Are Engineers Curbing Their Enthusiasm For Their Profession?" p. 60.) But for now, engineers are gritting their teeth and making the most of these challenging times. By focusing on the difficult yet rewarding challenges of the moment, engineers seem to be finding what satisfaction they can from the work at hand.

"Where else do you get to solve puzzles and play with new toys every day?" mused one engineer.

If you were considering a new job, what are the most important issues that would factor into your decision? For now, your key motivation is the opportunity to grapple with a good technical challenge. After that comes factors directly related to your pocketbook—benefits packages, job security, overall compensation, and base salary.

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Here's how one engineer put it: "It still offers the challenges and the creativity which attracted me so many moons ago. Politics and grousing aside, there are few jobs that I feel I would gleefully go to each a.m., beat my head against, and at home reminisce about the great day I had. Engineering is one of those jobs."

How does the size of the company you work for feed into your level of job satisfaction? To find out, we compared what engineers at smaller-sized companies—those with fewer than 100 employees—had to say compared with those who worked at companies with 1000 or more employees. Included among the engineers at smaller companies are those who have left bigger organizations to form startups and spin-offs. In fact, one in four of the engineers in this group classified himself or herself as a company president or owner. Two-thirds of these were design and development engineers, while the balance primarily consisted of engineering managers.

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Engineers at larger companies are twice as likely to see their job titles change as a result of a promotion versus other internal factors (like reassignment due to layoffs or restructuring within the organization). Those working at big companies are also much more likely to work on globally distributed design teams. Such teams are becoming all the rage with companies looking to keep projects going 24/7. You've also got a better shot at full-time employment at a larger firm. If you love the work, though, you'll put in more hours at the smaller firm (although you'll spend more of those hours away from the office). "If you have the talent, it can be very rewarding in a small company," cited one engineer.

Project teams at small organizations are half the size of larger firms' teams, which means that engineers at such firms have their own kinds of worries. For example, because engineers at smaller companies work on smaller design teams, they shoulder more responsibility for designs. Therefore, they worry more about the things that can make or break a design, such as specifying the right products or vendors, price/performance issues, component reliability, and availability. Not surprisingly, these engineers also worry more about the financial health of their company. On the other hand, engineers at bigger outfits fret about bigger issues like reductions in staff, job security, and outsourcing.

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For obvious reasons, 71% of companies that are scaling back on engineering staff also outsource engineering work. By contrast, only 57% of the companies who say they're hiring indicated that they currently outsource. This is also reflected in the fact that nearly a third of the engineers at companies looking to scale back say they are "very concerned" about losing their job to outsourcing. Conversely, only 5% of the engineers at companies that are hiring have the same sentiment.

Clearly, many of these factors are interrelated. For instance, larger companies employ more engineers who make higher salaries. But, at the same time, these companies are outsourcing more engineering work.

"We need more independent small companies and fewer big corporations and conglomerates. It's the stupidity of large corporate America that does the outsourcing and makes engineering an assembly task," declared one engineer.

Another reader sees it differently: "The manufacturing in the U.S. is going the way that farming did at the turn of the last century. There will still be manufacturing, but only in large corporations. All of the small companies are closing up, being forced out by lower costs overseas."

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So why do so many of you choose to stay in the game? "Even though engineers are really getting the short end of the stick these days due to poor economic conditions, I feel that this situation will correct itself in the long term," concluded one engineer. "Yes, there will always be an upper-management structure that will want to outsource everything, do more with less, and make large sweeping decisions with absolutely no understanding of the underlining concepts or technologies, but this has always been the case. It's the age-old fight. Engineers have waged against ignorance from the very beginning, and I see no end to that in the near future. Bottom line is that engineering is fun. Even with all of the political mire that we tend to get bogged down in, it's fun and rewarding all the same."

But perhaps this reader comment sums it up best: "The rewards are broad and deep. The benefits and money are not the best, but you would be hard-pressed to find greater opportunities for learning and growth; recognition for your ideas through awards and patents; freedom, expanded responsibilities, and latitude in career direction; contributions to the betterment of our society and the world as a whole; and the possibility of leaving a positive lasting legacy for future generations. All due to something you designed. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?" Indeed.

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