Global Manufacturing Reality Check

More than anything else, the 1,575 responses to the 2008 Control Engineering Salary Survey illustrate a manufacturing industry that remains in the process of a decades-long transition to a more widely dispersed global model. From anger toward corporate management and its decisions to increased satisfaction with their careers and roles as engineers, survey respondents’ divergent opinions o...

By David Greenfield, Control Engineering May 1, 2008

More than anything else, the 1,575 responses to the 2008 Control Engineering Salary Survey illustrate a manufacturing industry that remains in the process of a decades-long transition to a more widely dispersed global model.

From anger toward corporate management and its decisions to increased satisfaction with their careers and roles as engineers, survey respondents’ divergent opinions on the manufacturing industry and the changes it is bringing to engineering underlies the ongoing evolution of the profession across the globe.

One result of all this change that is increasingly apparent from survey responses is that more engineers are actively and creatively adapting to the new, global realities of manufacturing and developing new niches for their careers and for those of the engineers to come.

How satisfied are you?

When it comes to overall job satisfaction, 84% of respondents claimed to be either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their current job.

Major factors behind this high level of satisfaction include a feeling of accomplishment, the technical challenge of the job, salary, advancement opportunities, and a relative sense of security with their current position.

Much of the satisfaction derived from a feeling of accomplishment and security is likely due to the significant increase in responsibilities indicated in the majority of responses. Advancement is clearly occurring, with 59% claiming to have experienced an increase in job responsibilities over the past year. Only 4% cited a decrease.

Though job options for engineers may not be as open as they have been in the past, the fact that 72% of respondents have not sought a job elsewhere in the past year is a clear indication that most are happy with their current jobs and are not so dissatisfied that they are actively pursuing other options.

Salary and benefits perceptions

The most significant area of dissatisfaction among respondents is in how well they believe they are being paid in comparison to their professional counterparts. Only 15% believe their salary is higher than other, similar professionals in the industry, while 51% feel their salary is lower.

Respondents claim the most important benefits are health insurance, 401k retirement plans, and paid vacation. More than half (53%) receive three to four weeks of vacation time, which is not a surprising number given that the average respondent’s tenure at their current job is 10+ years.

Acquisition affects

Although 79% claim not to have been dramatically affected by acquisition or consolidation in the last two years, those who have were quite vocal about the impact it has had on them — both good and bad.

Typical of the negative responses were comments such as: “Our ‘perfect’ company was purchased by a hell-hole larger company with crappy leadership”; “Three mergers in the last two-and-a-half years”; and “The recent acquisition has resulted in our manufacturing operations moving out of the U.S.”

Even when the company’s outlook for business is good as a result of a merger or acquisition, it can still mean difficulties for engineers. Said one respondent: “We are growing too big, too fast, which makes it easy to lose focus on the day-to-day work activities. As a result, management is not as involved with the department’s day-to-day activities and needs. We, in the engineering sector, feel as if we are being left out and ignored.”

Another respondent echoed those complaints, saying, “The plant changed owners six months ago and the new owners are looking to make large strides in productivity and quality. The project load is increasing, but the resources to manage the projects have not.”

On the positive side, however, it is clear that an equally high level of creativity is being applied to careers as it is to the mechanical and electrical engineering tasks at hand.

“I’ve found myself engineering, designing, writing software, installing equipment, servicing equipment, de-bugging new equipment, and even manufacturing the equipment,” claimed one respondent who has made it a point to keep up to date with technology changes and put his manufacturing and engineering skills to use in a variety of ways that have been valuable to his company and career.

Another respondent noted, “The plant where I used to work downsized its employee headcount, which allowed me to leave with a generous severance package and find a better work-life balance at a new company.”

Manufacturing in transition

Verbatim responses to the survey indicate the occurrence of two separate trends between which a balance may eventually form the future of engineering in the U.S.

One trend is that some manufacturing is returning to the U.S. after years of being handled by offshore sites. The reasons for this return are not cited in the responses, but often tend to center around inconsistent quality, late deliveries, and more recently, the higher cost of transporting goods from low-cost Asian manufacturing centers to the U.S. and other Western markets for sale.

The other trend noted in the survey responses is that engineering increasingly is becoming more of a management position in the U.S. Even though this observation is often tied to the export of hands-on engineering jobs to offshore manufacturing sites, it indicates an increasing realization of the importance of domestic engineering to overall corporate success. And, as some percentage of manufacturing returns to the U.S., the strategic role engineering management played during a time of massive outsourcing could help elevate the role of engineering — not only in plant and supply chain operations, but also in the business evaluation associated with mergers and acquisitions.

For those answering the survey, approximate annual incomes increased at the top and bottom of the scale.

An interesting side note gathered from survey responses related to geographic and cultural issues that affect engineering employment: 32% of respondents claim to be fluent in a language other than English, though only 23% work outside the U.S. Spanish is the most commonly spoken language other than English, followed by German, French, Hindi, and Chinese.

Wide agreement was expressed among respondents that desirable new control engineers are getting harder and harder to find. Responses indicate that the reasons for this range from the low appeal of a career in the manufacturing industries, due to the perception of poor working conditions and widely publicized economic downsides, to lackluster educational preparation.

“I have spent 75% of my time over the last three years training young engineers,” said one respondent. “Many are eager, but do not have practical skills and are kind of surprised at the concept of work, as opposed to school, when it comes to things like the amount of time spent on a project, the amount of information available, and the importance of consistent attendance.”

Workload vs. mentoring

Other respondents noted that the typical engineering workload makes it “very difficult to mentor younger/new employees because the amount of time it takes to develop them puts me further and further behind. Our current educational system does not prepare students well enough for the real world, so it falls on the shoulders of people like me to bring them up to speed.”

Not having enough viable engineers also contributes to increased engineering outsourcing to places where there are always plenty of engineers available, even if the quality of their work is considered questionable by some.

One respondent framed the issue well when he said, “The average age of employees at my facility is close to 50 and there is a significant gap in experience levels. We have many senior people with 25+ years of experience, and many entry-level people with less than 5 years of experience. There are not many people with 10-15 years of experience ready to take on senior roles when current senior people retire. As a consequence, work that was performed by plant staff is now outsourced due to the physical inability to perform the tasks.”

Respondents were clear in expressing their interest to have industry work more closely with engineering schools to address the needs of employers, specifically, and the manufacturing industry as a whole. But with such a gap in experience levels, one respondent asked: “How can we accelerate the learning of our younger employees in the instrumentation/control systems area? How do we give someone 20 years of experience in 10 years? And will we burn them out trying to do that?”

Author Information

David Greenfield is editorial director. Reach him at .