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Survey: Engineers brave job, economic panic

Posted: 17 Dec 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:engineer survey? economic downturn? job cut?

Engineers weren't supposed to be this fearful of the future but the increasing panic in once-stellar sectors like financing and investment banking, real estate and retail is reminding even the best minds in the world of communication, electronics, information technology and manufacturing that they, too, are mere mortals.

The 2008 Annual EE Times Salary Survey revealed engineers have become as jittery as their counterparts in other economic segments as they brushed aside their still relatively high compensation packages to worry about turmoil on the global equity markets and the potentially negative impact on their retirement planning, career goals and even the future of any of their children who might desire to follow their professional footsteps.

The EE Times survey confirmed engineers all over the world regardless of location or national origin share many of these concerns. It also revealed engineers are no longer certain about many of the positive things that initially drew them to the profession and which they thought were more or less guaranteed by their career choice.

Six-figure salaries (for a majority of those in North America), comfortable retirement, even societal respect, for instance, might no longer be within reach of many engineers within a few years, at least based on the worries expressed by respondents to the survey.

Those fears present a paradox. A cursory glance at many of the charts accompanying these reports would seem to indicate a preponderance of respondents were clearly glad they chose to pursue a career in engineering. More than two-thirds were satisfied not only with their career but also with their employers and close to 90 percent were either "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with the engineering profession.

Globalization, outsourcing
So, what exactly has engineers tied up with worry aside from their inability to predict the future, a phenomenon common to mankind as a whole? The answer can be summed up in two words: globalization and outsourcing.

In Japan, Europe and North America, the three geographical regions polled by EE Times, engineers overwhelmingly expressed fear about globalization, outsourcing, staffing levels, compensation packages and job security. The future, they concluded, is cloudy and forces they have limited control over are shaping their role in it.

A mere 8 percent of respondents in North America, for instance, agree that globalization of the electronics industry over the past 20 years has improved opportunities for U.S. engineers. An even smaller percentage6.2believe "engineering is as stable a profession" today as it was 20 years ago.

The mystery deepens, though. Engineers, it seems, are not likely to sink into a depression because of globalization or outsourcing. Neither are they likely to abandon the engineering profession in droves. Consistently, 70 percent and above of the EE Times survey respondents say they "are satisfied with my career," believe "my situation is as good as or better than other professionals" and that "my company gives us a good place to work."

Even though they grumble that society does not appear to respect engineers like it once did, engineers are generally not looking to relocate from their home countries in search of opportunities elsewhere.

Money down
Engineers would relocate, primarily for a lot more money, though, rather than the vague career advancement and opportunities that employers might want to dangle in front of them. Sixty percent of respondents said they would consider moving for a pay increase, followed by new job opportunities and new technology.

It drops off from there. Only 9 percent would move for the cultural experience/location, while 8 percent would relocate for the "quality of life." Job security was selected by only 1.2 percent of respondents.

That may be because things are relatively good for many respondents despite the fears of what the future holds. Annual compensation packages are rising across the profession with a majority of respondents to the EE Times survey admitting to receiving higher salaries and bonuses in the last year.

The salaries of North American engineers are clearly higher than those of their counterparts in Europe and Japan. About 65 percent of the North American engineers who took the EE Times survey said they earned $100,000 or more in the last year while 23 percent reported total compensation package of $70,000 to $99,999 per year.

Slightly more than 18 percent of the North American respondents reported income of less than $35,000 to $69,999 per annum.

The North American figures diverged sharply from those reported by engineers in Europe and Japan. European engineers generally made less than their North American counterparts. Only about 16 percent of the European engineers, for instance, reported total compensation packages over the last year that were above $100,000.

Fifty-three percent of the European engineers said their total annual compensation packages were between $43,500 and $99,500. A huge chunk25 percent of the European respondentsmade less than $32,000 per year.

Similarly, 61 percent of the Japanese respondents said they earned between $35,000 and $79,999 in the last year with only 18 percent saying they made more than $100,000.

In North America, almost three quarters of respondents said their base salary moved higher in 2008 while salaries stayed unchanged for 23 percent and decreased for 2.4 percent. More than 61 percent of the North American respondents said they received bonus compensation in the last year while approximately 39 percent said they didn't.

Over 33 percent of this group said their bonuses were $10,000 or more while 22 percent said the bonus they received ranged from $5,000 to just under $10,000.

Why worry?
If engineering has proven satisfactory to the majority of the EE Times respondents, why then are they so disinclined to recommend the profession to their children? Less than one-third of North American and European respondents, for instance, indicate they would do so.

The answer lies in their concerns about changes taking place in the global manufacturing economy that are directly impacting the high-tech field. Issues such as manufacturing globalization, outsourcing/offshoring, job security and retirement security are major sore points for engineers as a whole, no matter their location.

Forty-four percent of European engineers, for example, are concerned about their salaries and pension, with an additional 30 percent worried about globalization and outsourcing. A hefty 15 percent of this group were concerned about the image of engineers while another 17 percent indicated they were worried about age discrimination.

High-tech meltdown
The fear gripping engineers has its roots in the response of high-tech companies to the weakening sales environment.

If the global economic crisis was a high-tech design challenge, executives at high-tech giants like Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco System, Dell, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nortel, Yahoo and even Sun Microsystems would be headhunting, beefing up their R&D teams and scouring the globe for the brightest engineering minds.

Instead, many of these companies, are frantically downsizing, discarding unprofitable business units, selling non-core operations, instituting a hiring freeze and eliminating thousands of skilled and experienced engineering jobs in a desperate bid to reduce costs and remain profitable in the midst of a horrid sales downturn.

The result is a mind-freeze. Design and manufacturing teams are still collaborating over the Internet and in face-to-face contacts from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley, Bangalore to Shanghai, Munich to Zurich and Dublin, but barriers are also forming across the profession along national lines.

Executives who deny the existence of these engineers' concerns do so at their own peril. Western engineers are indeed deeply troubled about what they see as triple, even quadruple assaults on their ability to fend for their families.

Unwittingly, many high-tech employers are encouraging that perception. Job cuts in Western regions are often followed by announcements of continued hiring in lower-cost centers. Seemingly, one set of employees is being swapped for another at a time of economic weakness, hence the rising tide of fear.

- Bolaji Ojo
EE Times





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