The Generation Gap: Baby Boomer EEs Versus GenX EEs

Oct. 21, 2002
How do they view each other?

Andy Byers
Hardware engineer, Tektronix Inc. (

Martin Cooper
Chairman and CEO, ArrayComm Inc. (

Samuel J. Horowitz
Marketing manager, Electronic Materials, DuPont (

Vic Kulkarni
President and CEO, Sequence Design Inc. (

Paul Lanier
Product development engineer, Analog Devices Inc. (

Allen Rosenzweig
Vice president for business development, Broadband Wireless Group, Remec Inc. (

Larry Stratford
Product manager, Signal Analysis Product Generation Unit, Agilent Technologies (

In the early 1950s, young engineers reveled at movies like Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. They listened to Elvis and began to take an interest in a new, almost static-free radio called FM. Peter Goldmark, the head of CBS Labs, hated getting up to turn over 78-rpm records in the middle of his favorite piece of classical music, so he invented the LP. Plus, portable radios could now fit in your pocket because they were made with brand new components called transistors.

Fifty years later, engineers are taking in heavy-on-the-digital-special-effects action flicks like Spider-Man and xXx and listening to the Dave Matthews Band. Engineers expect to soon be able to catch the movie and music on their multimedia PCs, DVDs, HDTVs, and PDAs. The technology is headed that way now, but it has taken a long time to get here.

Things were pretty good for most engineers in the '50s. The work was challenging and the results were satisfying. But it was also a time when the IEEE and other industry groups were fighting industry companies on charges of age discrimination among EEs. Some EEs had stopped listing their advanced degrees on their resumes for fear of being overqualified for available jobs, as well as concern of losing those jobs once the economy picked up. Some defense/aerospace companies with fixed-price military contracts were hoping to improve their profitability with younger, less-costly engineering talent.

Age discrimination in engineering is still an issue, but it's different today. Now it's much subtler. "How do you fairly compensate engineers who have been around for a while, know a lot, and have been contributing, but are on about the same salary level as some new engineers?" asks Larry Stratford, who joined Hewlett-Packard (now Agilent Technologies) right out of school 36 years ago. Stratford now works as a product manager in the signal analysis product generation unit and has been involved in recruiting new engineering talent for the company.

Sometimes, you can't. Most engineers working in electrotechnologies today have been at it for 20 to 25 years. The worldwide average age of an IEEE member is 46.3 years, even older (49 years) on average for the IEEE's 235,000 U.S. members. Most of these guys (and most of them are still guys) had to learn how to use a PC on the job. They think a little differently and still do things differently than the new and emerging flock of EEs. "We're not as patient as some of the older guys," says Paul Lanier, less than two years out of North Carolina State and a product development engineer at Analog Devices.

But the biggest difference between the generations may be in the way that younger EEs more quickly take advantage of new tools. "Some of the younger engineers think they can do things faster and more efficiently if we look at what tools are available to us today versus doing things the same as always, especially with software tools," notes Lanier. "We're also more apt to write our own scripts."

Andy Byers, a hardware engineer at Tektronix, graduated with an MS EE from the University of Colorado about 18 months ago. Byers says that he feels nothing but respect for the older EEs he works with, and he eventually wants to move up the company ladder. "Gradually, I would like to take on more of a leadership role in this company. I see technical management in the long term," he says.

Allen Rosenzweig, vice president for business development of the Broadband Wireless Group at Remec, manufacturer of high-frequency wireless subsystems, isn't surprised. "The younger folks seem to want a hell of a lot more in a shorter time. They're less interested in what we used to call paying our dues. If they don't advance, or if the work isn't stimulating, they're out looking," he says. Yes, tools certainly make a difference. "The major difference is in the tools at the disposal of the engineers today. I see \[young\] engineers on the Web several times a day, whereas I may use it only a few times a day," Rosenzweig adds.

Mentoring isn't exactly a thing of the past, but it's not as formal as it used to be. Most companies' idea of mentoring today is to put young engineers alongside a more seasoned EE and then move them around so they're exposed to more things in the company. That seems to work at most companies.

"Some of the people I work with have more experience than years of my life," says Byers of Tektronix.

Agilent does have a formal intern program, a holdover from its Hewlett-Packard days. It offers two types of intern positions: summer and co-op. Summer internships generally last three months between May and September. A co-op internship employs students for three to 12 months during the school year, allowing the students to earn credits at their university. The same benefits and processes apply for both types of interns.

Agilent's intern strategy is to identify, cultivate, and train interns as potential professional hires. Another part of the program is to identify Latino, African American, American Indian, women, and other diverse candidates. It also wants to expose interns to the company's products, business, organizational style, environment, and culture.

One of the biggest changes for EEs today and a generation ago is how they're compensated. The nominal average earnings of IEEE members have grown from $19,200 in 1971, for example, to $104,720 today. But most of this growth is inflationary. In 2000 constant dollars, the 1971 earnings figure is equivalent to $80,443. The buying power of engineers (along with virtually everyone else) was especially curtailed during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when double-digit inflation was rampant. Since 1989, the purchasing power of most EEs has steadily improved.

The median primary income of the IEEE's U.S. members is now $93,100, a nice jump from the 1999 figure of $82,000. Today's EEs also have stock options. More than a third of the IEEE U.S. members received stock options in 2000, according to the IEEE Salary & Fringe Benefit Survey conducted by IEEE-USA, the IEEE's Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization.

Unfortunately, while the number of those receiving options has increased since 1997, with a median estimated value of $5000, fully one-third of all those receiving options assessed them as worthless by early 2001. Clearly, the dotcom investment mania has skewed the option compensation picture. According to Martin Cooper, now the chairman and CEO of ArrayComm, "A few years ago, people in my company were angry with me because we didn't think it was appropriate to go public. They were really mad. Jobs are harder to find, but no one reduced salaries when the dotcom crash occurred. Now, they're saying it's a lucky thing that we didn't go public." Cooper says that "now the engineers in our company want to know everything—our cash flow, our marketing approach. They want to be involved."

Samuel J. Horowitz joined DuPont 29 years ago. "While I expected to work for DuPont my whole career, I doubt that new hires have the same expectations," says Horowitz, the company's marketing manager for electronic materials. He has a similar take on the times. "A year-and-a-half ago, I think there were a large number of young engineers who fancied themselves as entrepreneurs and were looking to leave big companies. The end of the dotcom bubble and recession seems to have changed that. The last 18 months has been a rude awakening and a painful awakening."

IEEE members who have bothered to do the math should know. When you add the number of IEEE members whose options had no value to those who didn't receive any options, this accounts for more than two-thirds of the workforce. The bottom line is that, for typical U.S. members, the median value of stock options in 2000 was zero.

When it comes to compensation packages, management isn't all that it's cracked up to be. Management still pays very well, but not as well as EEs whose technical specialty is designing solid-state circuitry, where salary levels have typically climbed to $112,000 a year. Communications, broadcast technology, computer hardware, and Internet development and applications, as well as engineering in medicine and biology, aren't far behind.

Doing challenging and satisfying work is important to young engineers. According to the IEEE's recent member survey, EEs are reporting high levels of satisfaction with their jobs and the technical challenges of the work. Although it doesn't seem to be a big issue at this point, there's less enthusiasm with employers' support of "technical vitality," which the IEEE interprets as the ability to stay current, and with clear advancement opportunities. Admittedly, that's tough for older engineers who also are less likely to be looking for another job, even if they're dissatisfied with their current one.

The world view has also changed for some. "Everything used to be very U.S.-centric," says Vic Kulkarni, president and CEO of Sequence Design. "Now, there's the globalization of R&D and the Internet." Kulkarni, who spent time at National Semiconductor, Fairchild, CrossCheck, and Avant!, says he also sees more project flow management than he did not too many years ago.

Clear distinctions exist between the EEs of the Baby Boomer and GenX generations. They have different approaches to the work and different expectations of their employer. But more important is what they have in common—the creative fervor and dogged persistence to create exciting technology and find innovative solutions.

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