Authored by:
Jessica Shapiro
Associate Editor
jessica.shapiro@penton.com
Key points:
• In 2011, engineers’ salaries increased slightly after a zero-increase year between 2009 and 2010.
• Engineers saw both layoffs and hiring at their locations in the last year, but are more optimistic about the future.
• Good networking and work-life balance skills help engineers stay sane as workloads grow.

The past year was a good one for Lemuel Bell, Jr., a project design engineer at ITW Signode Engineered Products, Glenview, Ill. He got a raise and, despite some layoffs, sees his company recovering from the recession. His experience was typical of the 1,126 engineers we surveyed about their outlook, layoffs, and salaries.

From their vantage pint, engineers are optimistic about economic recovery: 73% expect economic conditions to improve this year. Compare that with last year’s more-cautious optimism at 60%.

Furthermore, 52% of engineers believe their company specifically is recovering from the recession. Another 13% are optimistic that an upturn is right around the corner. Seventeen percent are on the fence, while 11% see no light at the end of the economic tunnel. Interestingly, 5% say their company was never slow or has continued to grow throughout the recession.

However, optimism on the economic front didn’t translate into more in job security. Fifty-five percent of respondents rated themselves unsure about their job’s stability this year, just slightly below last year’s 58% (MD, April 22, 2010) and 2009’s 60% (MD, April 21, 2009).

That’s not surprising given that 56% said their companies had laid off at least some workers in the last year, and almost a sixth of those said 20% or more of the workers at their location were let go. Companies also furloughed workers, forced vacation, and cut bonuses, pay, and benefits.

On the other hand, 38% of survey respondents said their company had hired engineers, 32% saw manufacturing personnel hired, and 26% reported support personnel had come on board.

And more reason for optimism comes from numbers printed on paystubs. After pay was flat between 2009 and 2010, respondents this year reported salaries averaging $83,767. That’s a nearly 4% bump from last year’s $80,760.

Salaries rose for 56% of respondents with the vast majority of those seeing 1 to 5% raises. Those whose salaries held steady accounted for 38% of the total, and only 6% saw salaries drop.

Consulting engineers, presidents, owners, and CEOs tended to report stagnant compensation. Hardware, software, and test engineers, group leaders, project managers, and chief or principal engineers were most likely to report higher salaries. And 20% of manufacturing or production managers said their pay dropped.

Balancing benefits
Even with salaries and staffing on the rise, engineers are still doing more with less. Experiences like that of James D. Morris, engineering supervisor at Caterpillar Inc., Peoria, Ill., are common. “We reduced our staff about 20% compared to 2008, and the workload has not been any less,” he says. “I am working about 2 hours a day more than I was back then.”

So how is an engineer supposed to carry on a normal life under these conditions? Survey respondents had some suggestions for keeping a healthy balance between life and work.

Don Leonard, senior applications engineer, Koyo Corp. of USA, Westlake, Ohio, recommends engineers, “learn to say ‘no,’ reasonably” to overwork. He also says fewer opportunities in the marketplace can cause companies to chase contracts that are not a good fit for them.

Mechanical Engineer Frank Hunt, agrees. “Companies should make sure they don’t drive people too hard. But how hard is too hard? That’s up to employees, and they have to let their companies know.”

Good work-life balance is in a company’s best interest too, argues Richard Lemak, general manager, Electronic Materials for Minteq International Inc., Bethlehem, Pa. “The company has invested in the individual, and if the individual fails to balance life and work it may result in a similar issue in the workplace. Companies should encourage employalees to remember it is not what you do but how you do what you do that is most important.”

Craig Laughlin, mechanical engineer at Gerdau Ameristeel Corp., Tampa, Fla., has seen people who retired or were laid off get depressed because their lives were too wrapped up in their work. “Employees need to have relationships and interests that give meaning to their lives outside of their workplaces. Without these things, they find unemployment much more difficult.” His company encourages community service and grants time off for volunteering, within reason.

Other companies have some form of flex time that helps engineers balance life and work. Several respondents noted that flexible start times that let engineers avoid rush-hour traffic are a good perk. Morris suggests flex time does indeed boost productivity as it helps take pressure off employees who need to get children off to school or have a long trip to their hometown for the weekend.

Design engineer Mike Elvidge points to one drawback of flex time: “It assumes someone is always spanning everyone else’s work hours to provide overlap and continuity, but that doesn’t happen and project deadlines suffer.” Other respondents agreed that flex time can erode productivity and creativity that come from face-to-face interaction.

The best way to find an engineering job is …
LinkedIn and Monster.com have been around for years now. Has the job search gone completely digital? It turns out that only 12% of salary-survey respondents got their last job as a result of Internet job-board searches. Three percent went directly to corporate Web sites, and 14% responded to newspaper or trade-publication classified ads. Thirty-nine percent got their jobs through personal networks — family, friends, current and former coworkers, former clients, and professional contacts.

That was the experience of Richard Lemak, now a general manager at Minteq International Inc. “A recruiter called a network contact who thought I would be a better candidate for a position than he was. I contacted the recruiter and we hit it off.” Lemak says the key is “building and expanding a social and professional network backed by a lot of patience.”

Mechanical engineer Frank Hunt took a more direct route. “When looking for a new job, I called old bosses and asked if they had any openings. One said ‘not yet, but call in a couple of months if you’re still looking.’ A couple of months later he brought me in for an interview. It was a very rainy day, and I dropped all my material in a puddle while getting out of my car, so I had no examples of my work to show. But they hired me as a contractor and made me permanent about 6 months later.”

But what can midcareer engineers looking for jobs do to convert networking and interviews into job offers? Hunt says, “Be flexible about where you work and what you do. Keep up to date with technology and on tools like CAD systems. Diversify as much as you can.”

Craig Laughlin, mechanical engineer at Gerdau Ameristeel Corp., Tampa, Fla. recommends PE review courses and exams. The PE licensing process “was a very good review of my engineering training from college and enabled me to keep my technical skills sharp. Recruiters are interested in my experience and my PE license.”

And how about recent engineering graduates with no experience? Bill Wurst, senior project engineer at Q-Lab Corp., Westlake, Ohio, advises young engineers to “look for positions that will expose you to a variety of technologies, industries, and experiences. Broaden your background rather than overspecialize.”

Similar advice comes from Stuart Smith, principal design engineer at Intersil, Milpitas, Calif. “Start with the big companies who have time and resources to train you. College wasn’t enough.”

Resources:
Caterpillar,
Gerdau Ameristeel Corp.
ITW Signode Engineered Products
Intersil Koyo Corp. of USA
Minteq International Inc.
Q-Lab Corp.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.