Beyond the Wallet

According to our annual survey, money isn't everything. Keeping up with the latest technological innovations can be what financially separates machine control professionals in mid-career.

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To view charts of the 2007 Salary Survey Findings, click here.

By Mike Bacidore, managing editor

Credit cards. Driver’s license. Membership cards. Photos of loved ones. Debit card. Business cards. Your identity is in your wallet.

Sure, cash is in there, too. You have what you need, but the number of dead presidents in your billfold isn’t necessarily indicative of who you are.

Our 2007 Salary and State-of-Mind Survey results indicate that your job is a lot like your wallet. A machine control professional’s identity is not defined by a $77,325 average salary as much as it is by challenging work and appreciation for a job well done.

The pat on the back, whether it came from a supervisor or from the customer, continued its four-year climb in our survey as a motivator. In fact, almost a quarter of respondents (22%) said it was the factor they respond to best. Salary/benefits (16%) failed to rebound from its steady decline in importance over the past five years and may soon fall behind job security (12%), which made the biggest jump in standing this year. Topping the list once again though was challenging work (42%), which is why so many control designers became engineers in the first place.

“My job allows me to invent,” says Chris Mitchell, mechanical design engineer at Merrick Machine Co. in Alda, Neb. “I design machines for the door industry. I recently designed a machine that does all the machining of the door and kicks it out pre-hung in about 42 seconds. It’s a machine that does its task pretty well. We make a lot of custom equipment for the building industry. Nothing’s the same, but you need the same results.”

Differentiate Your Work, Differentiate Yourself

Custom work is at the top of many designers’ wish lists, primarily because it allows them to try out new technologies in real applications. And while the project is inherently more challenging, it also can have a positive impact on salary and job security.

“As an engineer, you grow in stature and pay within your organization by virtue of your experience,” says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago outplacement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. “That makes you more valuable. One thing that is occurring now is that knowledge is growing so quickly that you might very well have middle-career engineers who have been working on projects that didn’t use the latest technology and they become less valuable. Because of the speed of the technology, that gap can widen very quickly.”

Keeping up with the latest technological innovations can be what financially separates machine control professionals in mid-career. Our survey results indicate that respondents with 11-20 years of industry experience earn roughly the same salary ($80,989) as those with 10 additional years of experience ($80,635). That plateau might be the outcome of younger engineers who keep up with the technology and older ones who don’t. Familiarity with new innovations is never more apparent than it is in rookies who have just earned their diplomas.

“It can be challenging to keep up with the younger engineers fresh out of college,” says Charlie Ramsey, electrical/controls engineer at Harris & Bruno Machine Tool Co. in Haltom City, Texas. “But experience counts. At my previous job, we’d hired two engineers out of the University of Texas at Arlington. They were nice young fellows and when it came to theory, they were sharp. But they had no actual experience. There’s a difference between theory and how it actually works. But you have to constantly keep up with the technology, like protocols for PLCs, because it’s always changing.”

Double-Sided Cutting Edge

That willingness to continue learning cutting-edge technologies has its financial rewards, but it can have a downside, too.

“The speed and breadth of the technology are why you see more people who become specialists in a particular area of technology,” says Challenger. “While specializing in a particular area might make you more valuable, the risk is that if the project ends or you lose your job, then you might have to move to where the jobs are for your area of expertise.”

Such is the lot of Machine Builder Nation in an age of outsourcing. More than half of survey respondents (54%) said their companies outsource some automation/engineering services.  Yet the majority (55%) are not concerned about job security and an overwhelming number (94%) indicated they are satisfied with their jobs.

“I have a good group of people I work with,” says Fred Pisto, senior applications engineer/projects at GL&V USA Inc.’s office in Lawrenceville, Ga. “I love my job. I can’t say enough about that. We’ve lost some people, and some of the remaining people don’t have the same knowledge of the equipment that we had. But we’re training them and getting them on board.”

Getting on board certainly is no easy task, when the technology changes so quickly, but according to Trade in the Cyberstates 2007, a report released by AeA, a trade association for the technology industry, the engineering and tech services industry added 66,300 jobs in 2006.

“We’re in a fairly low unemployment environment at this particular time,” says Challenger. “Demand for skilled engineers is so high that there isn’t much of a pool who are unable to find work. Some of the lowest unemployment in the country is for skilled engineers.”

To view charts of the 2007 Salary Survey Findings, click here.

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