Security Trumps Salary for Today’s Engineers

Considering the current unprecedented economic conditions, it is no surprise that respondents to the 2009 EE—Evaluation Engineering Salary Survey ranked job security as the number-one career issue, up from third place last year. Though most survey takers said they feel somewhat secure in their jobs, the rising tide of unemployment and fiscal uncertainty seems to be washing over them.

More than 1,100 readers took part in this year’s salary survey. The median age of the respondents was 50 years, and the median salary was $85,000, an increase of $4,000 from last year.

Survey takers living in the Pacific Region of the United States had a median salary of $97,000, considerably higher than other parts of the country. The second spot was the Mountain Region at $89,000, with the Southeast at $83,650, the Northeast at $82,000, and Central at $80,000 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Median Salary by Geographic Region

As usual, corporate and general managers brought home the highest median pay of $110,000, with design/development engineers right behind at $92,000 and R&D/scientific at $91,400. Ten types of job functions in the electronics industry were represented in the survey (Figure 2). The median salary was $80,500 for production test, $80,000 for QC/QA/reliability/product assurance, and $79,000 for component/evaluation engineering. The largest group who responded to the survey, 37%, worked in design/development engineering.

Figure 2. Median Salary by Job Function

Job Security at the Forefront

The salary survey asked respondents to select their three most important career issues from a list of eight categories including continuing education, job security, outsourcing, pension, professional ethics, salary, technical obsolescence, and work/life balance. Job security was the choice of 69% of the respondents. Salary ranked the second highest, 66%; and work/life balance came in third with 60% of the votes.

“Since I was caught in a mass layoff from a company that has been around for more than a century, job security comes first for me,” said Jim Horn, now a senior electrical engineer for InSitu, located in Bingen, WA. “It was a rude shock.” His new company designs and makes small, unmanned aircraft used by military and nonmilitary customers.

Roger Landon also chose job security as his number-one concern. “I have been working in this industry for a long time, and I do not want to look for a new job again,” he said. “This is my second job in 10 years, and I had to move to a high-cost-of-living area to get it.” Mr. Landon is a component engineer for DRS Technologies in Gaithersburg, MD, a company that makes high-precision radio receivers.

Job security is definitely on the mind of Miguel Arroyo-Colomer of Tampa, FL. He recently was laid off from his job and currently is looking for a new one. “Job positions seem to be eliminated by outsourcing or promoting technicians and other employees without formal engineering training,” he said.

Mr. Arroyo-Colomer is an engineer with 15 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree. He feels his layoff was an easy way for the company to cut budgets because he was a highly paid employee, a senior production engineer for a company that assembled PCBs for the military and aerospace industries.

According to the 2009 salary survey, 76% of the respondents revealed they do not feel more secure in their job this year than last year. However, 34% said they were very secure in their present job, and 53% responded they were somewhat secure. Only 13% felt not secure.

The survey also showed that 24% of those who participated indicated their company downsized the number of engineers in 2008, yet 30% said they hired more. Of the survey takers, 45% said their employer maintained the same number of engineers last year. A total of 25% said they anticipate the number of engineers will decrease in 2009, and 52% predicted the number would remain the same.

“There is very little that can make a person feel secure in this economy,” said Gene Archambault, an applications specialist for Texas Instruments in Manchester, NH. “Short of a legal contract guarantying employment as long as the company is operating, there is very little that can be done to ease the fear of being laid off,” he said. Mr. Archambault works on a team that develops evaluation modules that mimic real-world applications.

“In my opinion, job security is more important than salary,” said Cedric Welch, an electronics engineer for the Naval Research Laboratory in La Plata, MD. “A company must continually seek new funding sources and create new ideas for funding to assure job security for its workforce,” he said. Primary duties for Mr. Welch include RF and signal analysis, system development, and design.

Edward Weber, a senior engineer at Titan Tool in Fairview, PA, agreed with Mr. Welch. “Security trumps salary every time,” he said. “Management needs to cut salaries and perks, invest in the future, and keep the work environment positive and forward moving.” Mr. Weber works in R&D and product design.

Experience Can Bring Job Security…and Salary

Mr. Landon said his company is having difficulty hiring experienced workers. Management, he said, often does not consider the technological drain it can bring to a workforce when employees are laid off simply because they are paid a high salary. “Some retirees I know now are on contract working for their old company, at much higher salaries, because the company can’t find the right people,” the DRS Technologies engineer said.

The survey revealed that years of experience do favorably influence salary. Workers who have been in the electronics industry for 25 to 29 years had a median salary of $94,000, and those with 30 or more years received $92,000. Respondents who have been employed for 20 to 24 years in the field saw a median pay of $90,000 and those who worked 15 to 19 years were compensated at $85,500 (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Median Salary by Years in Industry

The level of education also dictates the amount of money a worker can make in the electronics industry, according the survey. Respondents with a Ph.D. had a median salary of $115,000, and those with a master’s degree in business administration saw median pay of $104,000. A master’s of electrical engineering ranked third with $100,000, and survey takers with other master’s degrees were at $98,000. Respondents with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering brought home a median salary of $91,400 while workers with other B.S. degrees were paid $80,000 (Figure 4). The largest category by education of the people who responded to the EE survey, 27%, had a B.S.E.E.

Figure 4. Median Salary by Education

Most respondents to the salary survey, 61%, said they participate in Webinars or other Web-based training programs. And, 44% anticipated their level of participation will increase in 2009. “Webinars can be great,” said Mr. Horn. “They don’t have the overhead of travel or high admission fees. There also is a wide variety of solid information available to augment standard datasheets and other technical literature.”

“Webinars are a very important source of training to stay current,” said Bob Gauger, an Irvine, CA, engineer who provides consulting in reliability and availability engineering for companies that design and build data centers as well as government and military facilities. “I participate in many, but I do miss the networking that you get in face-to-face seminars.”

Jeff O’Dell, a senior RFID and systems engineer for Anyware Solutions in Atlanta, said he selects Webinars based on both general interests and immediate needs. “Online training not directly related but beneficial to my job is a good way to improve skills, such as sales and project management training,” he said. Mr. O’Dell’s company is a systems integration firm involved in automatic data acquisition, process control, custom software development, network design, and fabrication.

William Gahagan, a test development engineer with GE Aviation Systems in Grand Rapids, MI, said his company is trying to reduce travel expenditures, and Webinars are a good solution. “Webinars also afford me the ability to spend more time with my family,” he said. Mr. Gahagan’s company is an aerospace avionics systems manufacturer.

“I think work/life balance, job security, education, outsourcing, and cost cutting all contribute to the boost in Webinars,” said Mr. Archambault. “Because of outsourcing, we no longer have a direct link to the start-to-finish of a product’s life. If the products are designed in the United States, built in Asia, tested in Mexico, packaged in Canada, and shipped to Europe for sale, then how do we know what happens at each step?,” he asked. Mr. Archambault attends Webinars to see how all these processes affect the design of a product and to reduce dropout rates in production.

Is There Job Satisfaction in Troubled Times?

Despite the current state of the economy, most respondents to the survey said they were satisfied with their current job. A total of 32% indicated they were very satisfied, 57% claimed they were satisfied, and only 11% reported they were not satisfied. Overall, 34% said they were very satisfied with their career, 55% satisfied, and 11% not satisfied.

However, job satisfaction numbers dropped when survey takers were asked to compare their current job satisfaction level with one year ago. A total of 18% said they were more satisfied, 61% reported the same or no change in the satisfaction level, but 21% felt they were less satisfied with their jobs this year compared to last year.

“I feel there is a minimum salary level that is needed for job effectiveness and happiness,” said Eric Bennett, an electronics engineer for National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD. “I need to make enough to provide a comfortable home for my family and not have to worry about meeting our needs. Having a salary well above this would be nice but would not necessarily make me happier or more effective.

“I find that having a sense of accomplishment and doing meaningful work bring me the most satisfaction in my work,” he added. Mr. Bennett works in the R&D lab developing new or improved medical imaging methods and prototype devices for use in MRI scanners for medical research.

“I would rate salary as important as the quality of work I perform,” said Bruce Marvin, an engineer for Technology & Services. “I look at my work as an art. Sometimes when I receive my paycheck, I feel that I am a starving artist. My job satisfaction is in doing things that few others are capable of.”

David Rountree, a manager of public address communications technologies for New Jersey Transit in Maplewood, NJ, said salary is very important, particularly with the cost of living increasing and salaries failing to keep up. “While the average manager makes more, they effectively take home less pay,” he said. “This has an impact on job effectiveness and productivity. Over the last year, we have seen both benefits and salaries fall while profits increased.

“Salary has a lot to do with job satisfaction, but it also entails liking what you do, having good working conditions, and having some control over your work,” he noted. Mr. Rountree designs public address systems and data distribution systems to disseminate passenger information to customers.

With the number of survey respondents anticipating that their company will hire new engineers this year down to 25% from 35% last year, the working atmosphere for the electronics industry appears to be one of sitting tight and weathering the storm. “We have had layoffs, and there is no expectation of hiring back,” said GE’s Mr. Gahagan. “We will be riding out this economic wave as a team.”

“I predict we will lay off more this year unless funding improves,” said Mr. Rountree. “Engineers now are project managers, construction managers, program managers, and system mangers. Engineers will be fewer and wearing more hats.”

April 2009

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