Salary Survey 2003: At the Limit

Our 2003 Salary Survey reveals alarming levels of frustration and job insecurity

By At the Limit

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August 2003, cover imageUncertainty and pessimism seem to permeate our third annual salary and benefits survey. Despite a faltering economy in 2001 and the year-long downturn,and a salary decrease,in 2002, control system designers in the machine-building industries remained hopeful in past surveys.

"Even though the company is vulnerable, I do not feel concerned because I believe I could go elsewhere and do at least as well," wrote one respondent in 2001. "We didn't lay anybody off, but we had to make work," said one in 2002.

Now they say: "I'm tired of hearing that we have no money. And it's never a good time for a vacation." Or: "We're promised advancement and salary increases, but neither is available." And: "Salaried employees are being forced to take time off without pay, verbally promised management positions are not happening, and I've had three managers in the past three months."


Do we sense a little frustration out there? "My boss tells me monthly that I am a commodity, yet insists that I work evenings and weekends to show my loyalty. How dumb do I look?"

Sure the above 37-45-year-old New York man making textile machinery talks a tough game, but he's still working evenings and weekends. Maybe that's because perhaps the biggest change from previous surveys was the response to a question about job security. While about 60% felt secure in their jobs in both 2001 and 2002, only 46% responded positively this year. More than half are worried.

A similar message emerges from a question on job satisfaction. The two more positive answers, "very satisfied" and "fairly satisfied," continue downward trends--22% and 42% respectively this year, versus 24% and 45% in 2001. The melancholy "somewhat satisfied" and "disappointed" responses scored 24% and 13% respectively, both higher than the 2001 figures.

This year's report is full of contradictions. Since we have no control over who returns our survey each year, this year's group reported only a 2% raise, yet the average (mean) salary compared to last year's group moved up 9.5%, to $72,441. It might be better to compare medians: This year's midpoint was $67,444, just 4.8% above last year's median. Seems this year we had significantly more respondents with incomes above $100,000,22 versus 10 in 2002.

Raises in the past year were skimpy and rare. About 68% got some kind of increase (compared to 70% last year and 86% in 2001), but more than half of those were in the minimal 1-3% range. The higher raise categories all had fewer responses than in past years.

Education definitely pays off. This year's response had a perfectly linear ascension through the levels of education, with more than half of our readers having bachelor's degrees and earning $75,182. A high school education only pays $49,364, but a doctorate gets you $86,000.

All of our readers are involved in the design of control systems for machine builders and other segments in the industrial original equipment manufacturing sector. While that job does not require an engineering degree, most of our readers apparently are engineers. In fact, 67% of our respondents reported having engineering degrees, 6% are degreed in or math and physics, and just two come from computer science; 13% have other college degrees. But 23% do not even have two-year college degrees.

Electrical engineers comprise the biggest group (47% of those respondents with college degrees), and they make just slightly above the average: $73,311. The scant ChemEs make the most ($87,000) followed closely by math and physics majors ($86,818), and less closely by industrial engineers ($81,667) and mechanical engineers ($80,606). Although only 20% of our respondents are licensed professional engineers, they command an average of $83,743, $14K more than everyone else.

But that's where the nice, linear progressions end. Cross-tabulating salary with age gives youngsters (age 27 and under) just $40,500 on average, but that quickly jumps to $62,540 for the next age group. There's a slight dip for those 46-53 ($70,700 average), a jump to $85,810 for the next group, then a smaller dip for those 61 and older ($82,583).

When comparing salary with years at your present company, things jump around until you hit 21 years of seniority. For the second year in a row, those with 6-10 years of seniority actually were at the low end of the salary spectrum, earning $66,308. Check-off categories of 0-2 and 2-5 years were earning $4,000 and $6,000 more, respectively, suggesting there may have been some job-jumping and maybe even a little talent shortage in the recent past. Those with 11-20 years earned $71,618, still less than the average, although there was a big jump to nearly $91,000 for the next group.

Which brings up another observation: The "number of years with your present employer" has gone down through the brief history of this survey, from an average of 11.5 years in the 2001 poll to 11.3 last year to 10.1 years this year.

On the other hand, hours worked per week continues a slow climb, from 45.3 hours in 2001 to 45.6 last year to 45.9 this year. All that work does seem to pay off, however. Those working under 40 hours earn $58,654, compared to $71,967 for those in the 41-50 hours category, $86,286 in the 51-60 hours group, and $94,000 for those clocking more than 61 hours a week.

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