How little is a test engineer valued?

Feb. 21, 2019
I received an unsolicited email the other day from a recruiter who found my qualifications online (possibly on LinkedIn) and offered me a consulting position for a 1-year assignment in a small/medium size city in New York state. I don’t know if the recruiter knew that I am near Los Angeles, about 2,200 miles from the job site. 

I should emphasize that this article is not a promotion or recruiting for a test engineer, but rather it is intended for a discussion having to do with the title of this article.

I looked at the qualification requirements and found the following:

Job Title: Test Engineer - Labview/Test Stand

Duration: 12+ Months Contract (Possibility of Extension)

Pay Rate:


Bachelors degree required in Engineering field.

Responsible for the development and implementation of test methods for new and existing products utilizing Labview/Teststand. Interfaces globally with Design Engineering, Operations and Contractors to ensure timely and effective release of new products by providing input on design for manufacturability and test. May mentor or supervise Test Engineers or Techs.

Work Experience:

• Minimum 3 years related experience

• NI Labview – Demonstrated knowledge of development and implementation into a test environment

• Certified NI TestStand Developer

• Must be familiar with electronics and RF circuit design and testing technologies.

• Requires a good working knowledge and application of engineering and design principles, implementation techniques and relative implementation costs.

• Must be able to communicate well both in technical and business termsMulti-lingual skills a plus.”

I am emphasizing some of the requirements in underlined italics, because I want to make it clear that they are not looking for a want-to-be rookie but a fully experienced engineer with knowledge, skills, and experience.

Many of you reading this have some of these experiences and some of you may have all of them. I should tell you that the company offering this position is a Fortune 100 electronics company, and I also left blank another important consideration, namely the Pay Rate.

Before I give you that information, you have to recognize that this is not a permanent position and as such, you would not be receiving fringe benefits such as medical insurance, vacations, sick leave, etc. It also happens in such positions that you are asked not to work a full 40 hour week sometimes, while expected to work as much as 60-80 hours on other weeks. If, for example, you are waiting for an instrument to arrive and have nothing to do while it is on back order, you may well be asked to take the next few days off – without pay of course – because you are not an employee but a “contractor” as is the plumber you call out to fix your plumbing. 

So here comes the punch line. Guess what the hourly pay rate is?

If you guessed $100 an hour, I would call you reasonable. Here is why. In the 2,080 hours (12 months of 40 hour work/week), you would be paid $208,000 (less the hours you were asked not to show up). Considering that you would be creating a fully functioning test system that would also include perhaps $50,000 worth of instruments and software, the company would have a fully functioning test capability for about $260,000 including the automatic test equipment (ATE) and the test program. Not bad, because that should save them a great deal more in selling a verifiable quality product for many years to come. If they sell the product to someone like the military, they may also sell a copy of the fully programmed test system for a lot more than $260,000. So you should not feel like you are overcharging for your expertise—after all, you did have to earn a bachelors degree in engineering where you spent 4+ years in school during the day and doing complex homework during the evenings with a lot less free time than the social science majors had. You earned nothing during those years and, in fact, you may still be paying back your student loans. You did have to attend National Instruments LabView and TestStand courses and use that knowledge to gain 3 years of experience. You also have to pay for your own health insurance and vacation, etc. that full-time employees in the company also receive in compensation. They may also have the company contribute to their 401K plan, which you don't get. So $100 per hour would, in my view, be a fair (probably low) pay rate.

Here is what the offer in the email states:

Pay Rate: $30.00/hr on W2 (FYI: W2 means that taxes are taken out of your paycheck, just as it is for permanent employees of the company.)

At first, I was ready to trash the email and move on, but I felt a bit of personal insult, followed by a deeper insult for all of you in my profession. They not only insulted me, but all test engineers. For a test engineer with a university degree and 3+ years experience, whose job it is to verify the quality of millions of dollars’ worth of products to be paid a total sum of $62,400 before taxes (about $40,000 after taxes) is in my view a degradation of our profession's worth. To think that someone qualified (someone who can produce the analyses on the picture you see at the top of this article) will actually accept this position angers me even more, because it sends out the message that our profession is really not worth doing. 

I sent the recruiter a strongly worded email, which included the following:

"If you or your client think that someone with this expertise and this type of responsibility on a temporary job is only worth $30 an hour, you have no respect for the profession or the quality of the product your client produces..."

I didn't add, but probably should have, that they also do not respect their customers either. (I believe they make and sell avionics boxes that are used in airplanes.)

What do you think?

Louis Y. Ungar is the Test Engineering, DFT and Management Consultant/Instructor and President at A.T.E. Solutions Inc. and BestTest Group

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