Electronic Design

Global Warming Strikes The Cubes And Benches

Engineers who experienced chilly conditions recently are starting to feel a thaw in the air, though worries about your careers remain.

Engineering has been a tough profession over the past few years. Averse to market risk in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the market constrained its investment in R&D. Offshore outsourcing and an influx of lower-priced labor exerted a downward pressure on salaries and other compensation. And, uncertainty about the future had a chilling effect on engineers' hopes and dreams.

But things seem to be warming up. According to our 2007 Reader Survey, nearly 70% of engineers saw an increase in their paychecks this year, while only 8% saw their incomes dip. Also, 63% of engineers feel adequately compensated for the work they do - up somewhat from 58% two years ago - and nearly 60% believe their pay package is equal to or more competitive than what's being offered by other employers. In addition, nearly four out of five engineers are still willing to promote their chosen profession to students considering an engineering career.

"Engineering affords a young person who has the drive and motivation to explore many avenues through out all technologies and industries," said one engineer. "This diversity can create many opportunities that continually expand the boundaries of one's career. As an example I have been involved in solar physics, space science, alternative fuels and energy, medical products, SCADA, RF, aviation, and industrial controls. Each of these allowed me to grow and learn and reinvent myself as an engineer."

But that doesn't mean engineering is a bed of roses. Nearly a third of engineers say they were saddled with increased workloads due to staff cuts and budget cuts in 2007, and one in four had to deal with canceled projects and/or permanent staff layoffs. So why such high grades for a profession that's challenged on so many fronts?

One engineer put it this way: "For those people who have the innate desire to solve problems and take great satisfaction in seeing their solutions in action coupled with a natural propensity for logical thinking and abstracting physical systems mathematically, there is no better vocational fit. Anyone looking to get into engineering simply because the starting salaries are attractive should consider a different career. If you can't continually live for the challenge, in the long term the stress of solving hard problems and keeping up with the latest technology will drive you into management, marketing, or burnout."

How Safe is Your Job?

The fact remains that engineering continues to offer a fairly high degree of job security, even if individual engineers may not always feel personally secure in their jobs. The good news is that only about 10% of survey respondents reported that their company planned to scale back engineering staff this year. On the flip side, the percentage of those who said their company planned to increase the number of engineering jobs in the coming year dropped to 35% from 40% last year. That may explain why 60% of those surveyed said they felt some degree of uncertainty about their job security.

"There are engineers in India and China willing to work for a fraction of what it costs to live comfortably in the U.S.," said one survey respondent. "As long as U.S. trade policy is willing to shift those jobs overseas, then job security will be an issue."

Another put it this way: "There is a constant fear of unemployment. I've been an engineer for 43 years and for at least 40 of them I was unsure if I would have a job the next year. Other fields offer more job security, better pay, and less chance of being obsoleted or outsourced."

On a more positive note, more than half of engineers say their company plans to maintain its current number of engineering jobs, which suggests that, at least for some engineers, the outlook is stable. But one engineer noted: "There is no shortage of engineering jobs, but companies such as mine have a policy of hiring an H1 visa holder over a domestic worker. We currently have a shortage of design people, but the department managers are not allowed to post the jobs outside the company. But they can post them to our division in India."

Other warning signs came out of this year's survey, too. For example, the number of engineers who believe their company was more focused on employee retention this year than a year ago dropped from 40% to 35%. Also, most respondents still feel that the opportunity for advancement isn't as strong as it used to be. Today's typical engineers have 24 years of engineering experience, including 11 years with their present company, and have been promoted twice by their current employer.

Generally speaking, engineers are content with those employers. Fewer than 7% said they were actively seeking a new job, down from nearly 10% a year ago, though 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. But the number of engineers who said they couldn't envision changing jobs in the foreseeable future rose slightly in 2007 - from 25% to 28%.

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.

Stress on the Job

The job-related issues that cause engineers the most stress at work this year are similar to those they've cited in the past. Topping 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.

"While engineering is fun, challenging, and typically benefits society, the pressure of market windows and unrealistic schedules outweighs the benefits," said one reader. "There are other, less stressful professions where one can earn just as much money and have similar benefits."

After seeing the average workweek grow year over year since we began doing our surveys four years ago, this year's survey was the first to indicate that engineers are working less - down about one hour per week in 2007 than last year. Of course, with an average workweek of 53 hours (accounting for time in the office, working at home, at other work locations, and on call), no one can say today's engineers are slacking. But it's still a pretty significant reversal of a multiyear trend.

Engineers aren't losing as much sleep as they used to worrying about professional issues, either; 23% said that no work-related issues at all keep them up at night, compared to 19% a year ago. 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.

There was also a slight uptick in the number of engineers who worry about the general health of the economy and outsourcing issues. But as one engineer noted: "The engineering profession certainly has its downsides - the extra hours and pressures. But there is nothing like the feeling of getting something to work. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from seeing products in the field using technology that I worked on."

Despite hints of a turnaround, engineers remain evenly divided over whether engineering and the potential for salary advancement are more promising today than was the case five years ago.

"Five years ago, the industry was in a huge slump," stated another reader. "Supply of engineers was high and demand was low, with fewer engineering companies existing and those companies hiring fewer people. It was about the low point following the tech-bubble burst. Things have recovered somewhat, although supply is still relatively high and demand is still relatively low."

But as another observed, "Five years ago was a very hard time for engineers. Many fellow graduates could not find jobs in the field. Currently, my company has engineering positions open that are hard to fill."

Is Outsourcing Still In?

Regardless of which way the industry as a whole is moving, concerns over outsourcing continue to loom large as 58% of engineers say their company currently outsources engineering work - a number that is actually up slightly from last year. More than half the engineers surveyed believe that this continued growth in outsourcing lowers employee morale and makes fewer jobs available, while four in 10 think it curbs opportunities for advancement and allows companies to hire engineers at reduced salaries.

One reader said: "With increased pressure to develop products faster and cheaper than the competition, many big corporations have been forced to become globalized, which has essentially made EE careers in the U.S. much less lucrative and much more competitive than in the recent past - and things will probably continue on in this direction for years to come."

Defenders of outsourcing, of course, have maintained the position that it creates opportunities for in-house engineers to do more innovative work as lower-level tasks get moved out - but engineers aren't buying it. "I think it is a huge hoax that is being played on America," said one engineer. "It is not a productive way to operate. It causes great miscommunication problems, slows down schedules, reduces quality to a new low, and is just generally bad for the country and all the people in it. I don't buy any of the hype that the financial wizards like to spread around."

Another reader concurred: "Companies have an unrealistic expectation of what benefits outsourcing will bring them. They see dollar signs, but don't recognize the significant overhead involved in managing outsourced R&D, the inefficiencies, and the risks that the contracting organization has high turnover and won't get the job done on time. Although I am not concerned in the near future about my job, in the long run - 10 years or so - global competition for engineering design will make U.S. engineering careers less attractive, unfortunately."

Not everyone agrees: "I think it is a necessary business strategy," said one engineering manager. "The bottom line in any business comes down to making a healthy enough profit to stay in business and hopefully grow. I think there are times when outsourcing is healthy and efficient for the business and there are some circumstances where it is less efficient. I think one must consider whether or not the outsourcing really helps or hurts the bottom line of the company or hinders it."

One reader summed up the thoughts and concerns of many survey respondents when he said, "From a global economy view, it seems that it would be a good thing to increase the welfare of struggling nations that have qualified people to do the work. From a more local view, it looks more like companies are undercutting the American workforce to save money."

Accepting the Challenges

Issues of job security and compensation aside, engineers continue to eagerly embrace the opportunities their jobs give them to take on the challenges associated with the design of new products and the ephemeral rewards that come with the exploration and discovery of new solutions.

"I have a different perspective because I worked directly on the testing of devices that were selected to be part of an instrument system that would be launched on a mission to collect data from another planet of our solar system," beamed one engineer. "There is a special satisfaction in realizing that the products I produced during the mid-nineties have only recently arrived on orbit at the designated planet (Saturn) and are working and sending back useful data."

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.

"The opportunity exists to effectively change the world," stated one engineer. "Where else can you come to work every day with the potential to drastically change the way people live? The work has the potential to be very challenging as well as mundane. Opportunities are here for advancement in the pure technical arena or growth into management of both personnel and project. What you learn in an engineering position in terms of problem-solving skills and management skills are skills that you can take with you to other fields if you decide you need a change."

Another engineer put it this way: "A number of challenges will be facing the world's population in the coming years, such as energy shortages, climate change, environmental concerns, and food production shortages. Engineers are needed to bring about the technological advances required to address those challenges. That means that there will be many opportunities for young engineers to solve important problemsâ?¦ and the importance to society of solving those problems means that the engineers' contributions will be highly valued."

It is, of course, too soon to tell whether any of the trends detected in this year's survey will continue to play out in the future. Nonetheless, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the engineering profession. Momentum for outsourcing has peaked for many companies, and few still see it as a panacea. Upper management has learned that a risk-averse approach to R&D investment can itself be risky. And, the global marketplace's appetite for technology of all kinds shows no signs of abating.

Given these conditions, and the new challenges the world faces as it deals with issues such as rising energy costs and climate change, engineering probably isn't the worst profession a person could choose. In fact, under the right conditions, it may be one of the most rewarding, both materially and personally.

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