In the greater scheme of things and for the time being, engineers--especially in North America--have it pretty good, at least according to their replies to the EE Times Annual Salary & Opinion Survey.
Among the findings revealed by the almost 1,600 respondents to this year's questionnaire is that engineers in the United States have median earnings, including benefits, of $108,800, slightly higher than last year's median of $104,300. That compares with European respondents' median of just over $61,000. Japanese engineers reported median earnings of $65,400.
The U.S. engineer's life isn't without its worries. There are deep concerns about job security and the outsourcing
of engineering work to lower-cost markets, mainly in Europe and South Asia. But American engineers, with annual compensation nearly 40 percent higher than their closest competitors, have reason to be satisfied. In fact, slightly more than two-thirds (67 percent) of respondents declared themselves content with both career and employer. Only 14 percent expressed the opposite sentiment.
One respondent, Paul Vincent of Cirque Corp., summed up the prevailing sentiment with exceptional eloquence (see his essay, page 20): "I am an engineer. Period," he wrote. "I have always loved the adventure and challenge of creative problem solving, of finding a way to make something work and persuading others to let me do it. . . . Most other careers provide only portions of what I love about engineering."
Among European engineers, 56.8 percent of those answering the questionnaire said their jobs satisfied them, but dissatisfaction was also high, at 27 percent. In Japan, 84.6 percent of engineers responded that they are "satisfied" (26.0 percent) or "somewhat satisfied" (58.6 percent).
The survey samples this year were just under 1,600 in North America, just over 1,900 in Japan, and 164 in Europe.
Salaries up, but not by much
As indicated by the change in total compensation, salary increases across the board in the North American sample were concentrated in the area of 4 percent, which roughly matches the increase in the cost of living. A plurality of respondents, 48.7 percent, got raises between 2 percent and 4 percent. Overall, four of five engineers in both North America and Europe received increases of 6 percent or less. In Europe, more than 65 percent of engineers failed to top 4 percent. Among Japanese respondents, only 37.8 percent reported receiving any increase at all, and 20.2 percent actually sustained pay cuts.
The relative stagnation of salaries for the predominantly U.S. sample in North America reflects a widespread economic anxiety and signals possible trouble. For several years, many engineers in the survey have expressed worry about having to compete with lower-wage engineers overseas, and fear that foreign engineers both in the United States and elsewhere threaten their standard of living--even their livelihood.
The two biggest concerns for American engineers center on foreign competition. The impact of offshore outsourcing was cited as the major concern by 35.4 percent. Combine that with the 16.3 percent who acknowledged their unease about H-1B visa employment levels (special visas for foreign engineers working temporarily in the States), and more than half (51.7 percent) of the respondents are worried about foreign competition.
One engineer, Roger Landon, 61, of DRS Technologies, summarized his frustrations: "We are told we need more H1-B visas because the corporations can't find engineers. [Engineers] are there. CEOs don't want to pay the salaries."
Even more bluntly, Joe Lauinger, 34, an IC design engineer in government service, said, "I think foreign engineers will saturate America's engineer-dependent companies, create their own spin-off companies and connections, saturate the managerial positions . . . and eventually control the industry. Engineer-rich countries will be puppeteers of our industries."
Gender, vacation, stress
The survey also found that electronics engineering remains one of the most male-dominant professions in the world. This year's respondent pool in North America included only 90 women, or 5.7 percent of the total. In Europe, the share was even lower, at 3.1 percent, and in Japan the question was not even asked.
Women today in all types of engineering make up 14 percent of the total, with most in chemical engineering. In comparison, more than 17 percent of partners in law firms are women, and, according to The Boston Globe, more than half of all medical students and 42 percent of hospital interns are women. Among the handful of occupations that underperform engineering in the percentage of female practitioners is truck driving, at 5 percent.
As for vacation time, the survey revealed that a longstanding disparity persists between U.S. and European EEs. Among American poll respondents, 78.3 percent of engineers earned more than three weeks' vacation, but only 53.9 percent took all the time they had earned. In Europe, 95.1 percent of engineers got at least three weeks' vacation, and 78.4 percent used it all.
How well do engineers fare against other professionals?
Bad news on the job?
The bad news from the engineering workplace slightly outpaced the good in this year's survey. When we asked respondents what's been happening on the job, the two most-cited categories were ''Fewer new hires,'' mentioned by 34.7 percent of our sample of almost 1,600 engineers, and ''Layoffs,'' listed by 34.2 percent.
These were the most frequently mentioned responses, in descending order.
For many respondents, stress is a subtext of engineers' limited time off. Respondent Shaun McMaster suggested burnout is an occupational hazard: "I simply don't see a lot of engineers in their 50s and 60s. Those I do see are looking for a way out. I still like engineering, but I'm 40 and am already anticipating an early exit from engineering to something less stressful."
Married, with children
One piece of good news is that engineers, compared with the general public, seem to live remarkably stable lives. They are better educated than the average. They tend to stay in the same job and with the same company (an average of seven years, our survey found). Most are married (81.2 percent), and their divorce rate is low (4.1 percent).
"Becoming an engineer and maintaining your technical edge
requires lots of work, dedication and time," noted Michael Burns, a field applications engineer at Avnet Inc. "After many years spent attaining an engineering education and career, it requires diligence and stability to maintain. Most of the engineers I know [apply] this same dedication, diligence and time to maintain stability in their daily lives."
In the same vein, respondent Kenneth Rousseau said, "Engineers seem like inherently conservative people in their personal lives, not particularly welcoming of change. Perhaps it has to do with our creating so much change on the professional side that we abhor change in our personal lives."
Forecasts and technologies
Peeking into the future, 28.3 percent of North American respondents predicted that the next best opportunity for engineers will be "green" or environmental science. At 35.1 percent, this consensus in Europe was substantially stronger.
One U.S. engineer, Michael Bandel, spoke passionately about the need for engineers to incorporate into their work not just a green awareness, but a more expansive vision for society as a whole, which he saw as having been "dumbed down" and far too swayed by superstition. "Engineers have a responsibility to understand and apply their scientific expertise. However, we all have a duty to understand basic civics, economics, history, art, biology, etc.," said Bandel. "This lifelong learning should culminate in ethical views and treatment of our environment, including all life contained therein."
For North Americans, the winner in the "most interesting technology" sweepstakes this year was embedded processors, at 52.2 percent. System-on-chip was close behind, at 46.9 percent. Topping 20 percent on the list were Linux, system-in-package, nanotechnologies and WiMax. In Europe, the big three were embedded processors, at 57.5 percent; system-on-chip, at 47.9 percent; and system-in-package, at 30.8 percent.
RFID, 3G wireless
and nanotechnologies were tied for fourth, at 28.1 percent.
Respondents also passed less than enthusiastic judgment on a range of relatively new technologies, among which--in both North America and Europe--streaming media (12.6 percent), XML
and other scripting languages
(11.4 percent), and 3-D packaging (9.8 percent) attracted the least interest.
Respondents agreed heavily with the suggestion that their companies are market-driven; 82.8 percent strongly or somewhat agree. And 83.4 percent feel free to talk back to the boss. Almost 85 percent are satisfied with their careers, but 46 percent said respect for engineers in their companies has dropped in the past five years. More than 57 percent said they feel that the society as a whole has lost respect for engineers.
One engineer, Kevin Cousineau, expressed this ambivalence. "I need to be ready when my American technical/engineering company gives up on America and moves my job overseas," he said. "I would do engineering for the next 30 years if I could. The creativity required to solve complex problems is quite exhilarating."
The bottom line? More than seven in 10 engineers, as measured by the survey, would still recommend engineering to their children.
As Vincent wrote in his essay: "Engineering is like a good song and dance. It requires a lot of coordination--and a lot of failure in practice before the final presentation. The quality of the final product is directly related to the combined talent of the company. It also requires good frequency control, noise reduction and contingency plans, and often improvises when things don't go as planned."
David Benjamin is a freelance writer based in New York.