Although time management has always been a big issue for engineers and engineering managers, they're now working longer and harder. After many months of layoffs and hiring freezes, companies are doing the same amount of work, or more, with fewer employees. How does this affect engineers and their companies, and how well are they picking up the slack?
"They aren't," says Patricia Hutchings of Unique Perspectives, a time management specialist whose clients include several industry companies. "Or, they do for a while and then they burn out." Eventually, Hutchings explains, they end up in stress management courses, which they claim they don't have time for, and the class always starts late.
Demands placed on workers have resulted in increased workloads, longer workdays, and rarely a break from the routine of work. After months of layoffs, many organizations are attempting to do the same amount of work as last year, says CareerBuilder.com, an online recruitment service. However, the volume of work is taxing the capacities of an already compressed staff.
Dawn Haden, a senior career advisor at CareerBuilder.com, says that "Because of the impending threat of a layoff, actual or implied, workers are getting the job done and making themselves appear indispensable. This has resulted in longer hours and heavier workloads."
In a survey of 1200 engineers conducted by CareerBuilder in December 2002, 10% said they were working 51 to 60 hours a week compared with only 3% who said they were working the same number of hours in July 2002. In another survey, taken this March, 56% responded that they had a heavier workload. But in July 2002, only 35% said their workload had increased.
CareerBuilder's survey also found that the "lunch hour" has become a misnomer. Lunchtime is getting shorter, and fewer people are leaving the premises to eat.
MUM'S THE WORD
Companies and their engineers are reluctant to discuss these issues, especially for attribution. But the problem was put in perspective by a mid-level technical staff member of a large OEM who said, "There's an attitude \[in the industry\] now and it's not very healthy. As for myself, I can only do so much. I'm going to work very hard for eight hours. That's all I can do."
Jeff Davidson of BreathingSpace.com, another time-management expert, says he meets regularly with high-tech companies. According to Davidson, "It's a long-time phenomenon. It's not a blip on the horizon. People are being asked to do more with less—less resources, less budget, less staff. You continue to be stretched until you reach another level. Then, when you sort of get comfortable there, you get hit with more to do."
How long can this continue? While every industry trade group is aware of the problem, no one seems to have come up with any solutions, and it's reflected in the job market.
A study released in mid-March by the American Electronics Association (AEA), which represents more than 3000 member companies, shows a decline of 560,000 high-tech jobs in the U.S. over the two-year period from January 2001 to December 2002 (see the table). The study is based on monthly employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Another trade group, the American Engineering Association, consisting of about 1000 members, has been tracking manpower and related issues for years, but on a less formal basis. Group vice president Richard F. Tax says that little has changed since he wrote a position paper a few years ago called "Overtime Is No Free Lunch," in which he decried the spread of what he called "free overtime."
"It's not the few occasional hours of flexible overtime that are a primary concern," he wrote. "It is the abuses of managers that drive their engineers 50 to 60 hours of work for 40 hours of pay." Despite a number of attempts by the association to create a committee to "take action," Tax says that funds have not been available to follow up on this issue.
An often overlooked problem, Hutchings points out, is the loss of a support staff during a period of layoffs at high-tech companies. "Some companies just don't believe in secretaries," she says, estimating that some engineers may put in as much as 20 hours a week on administrative duties.
"The more overwhelmed people are, the more they do what's easy as opposed to what's important," says Hutchings. "They're overwhelmed and overloaded, and they don't know where to begin. They feel they have no control over their time because they're not exerting any." (A recent Gallup poll indicates that only 31% of corporate American employees are actively engaged in their work, while 50% are not engaged and 19% are actively disengaged.)
Vern R. Johnson, an associate dean of engineering at the University of Arizona in Tucson and IEEE-USA's career activities editor, says he is concerned about how engineers are coping, particularly in this period of huge layoffs. "Time management is never easy. Every responsibility has its own version of importance and urgency. I have to assume that every engineer has always had this problem and found a way to get through it, maybe by staying at work well into the night."
The loss of personnel makes things worse, notes Johnson. "I doubt the average engineer can do this, and I have no idea what he or she is doing about it. They all know how to find things to put on their desks. They just don't know how to remove them."
The longer workdays are also taking their toll on senior management. Dave Opton, CEO of ExecuNet.com, a specialist in career management services for senior-level managers who make over $100,000 a year, says, "It gets to the point of what I call malicious obedience, which is, 'I will do exactly what you tell me to do and not one thing more.'" Opton says that of the senior executives who have left their jobs, for whatever reason, and joined ExecuNet, 15% to 20% are considering a career change.
President and CEO William T. Archey of the American Electronics Association thinks that the government can help with the industry's employment picture and, therefore, the workload. "The data would strongly suggest a need for economic stimulus, including the president's package and specific proposals backed by the high-tech industry, such as the Homeland Investment Act, and others," he says.
But Jeff Davidson doesn't think anything will change anytime soon. "Certainly, global competition is a huge factor here. But we have to make changes. We have to prioritize. Instead of making 60 versions of some product, make 20 or 25," he says.
Need some advice? Engineers International, an organization that focuses on human resources issues ranging from job interviews and networking to company searches, has developed a white paper, "Effective Time Management." It details how you can better manage your time and makes several suggestions, but it says that the best time-management tool is simply organization.
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