Lack of Skill or Lack of Respect?

Engineers Say Pay Us What We're Worth

By Aaron Hand

One of the topics du jour is the lamentable fact that manufacturers cannot find the skilled labor they need. Vacancies stand open, eventually outsourced or left untaken, because of the dearth of available high-tech brains in our midst.

But is there really a lack of skilled hands, or is there simply disagreement about what those skilled hands are worth? I've been wondering about this potential disconnect in pay expectations, but can't seem to get a satisfactory answer on the topic. Company execs won't back off of the company message, and employees are afraid to speak up, fearful of losing what little job stability they have.

Although they want to remain anonymous for this very reason, two readers — both engineers with decades of education and experience behind them — responded recently to our coverage of a panel discussion at Rockwell Automation's latest Manufacturing Perspectives, a forum for the industrial press corps that preceded the Automation Fair in November. The article "How to Build a Skilled Workforce" explains how company executives would like to fill at least some of those ~600,000 STEM-related vacancies in the U.S., but they can't find the skilled workers.

(Send Us Your Feedback on the Manufacturing Skills Gap)

Now for a different perspective:

"Your article is just another in a long line of articles bemoaning the lack of technical expertise in the U.S.," writes a licensed PE who provides engineering services (automation and control systems) to the process and manufacturing industries. "What none of these articles, including yours, ever addresses is remuneration of the technical professional. Economics works. If U.S. corporations would see fit to properly compensate engineers and other technical people, then you would witness a sea change in undergraduate study towards technical education. One of the prevailing attitudes that I encounter goes something like this: 'Why bother with calculus and all that hard stuff; it ain't going to pay no better. I can sell new Lexuses at the dealership and make that kind of money just on commissions with a high school education.' Problem is, it's true."

This reader has a B.S. in electrical engineering and a master's in manufacturing engineering. Although he counts himself among those that knew at an early age what career he would be passionate about, he says the majority of people in the U.S. have no passion for a particular vocation, so are drawn instead to the careers that can give them an economic advantage; give them the money that can support their families and hobbies.

"Corporations stack the deck against American folks who truly want to go into a technical field by keeping technical wages low, and then compound the problem by bringing in lower-priced immigrants from Asia under the H-1B program. These same corporations have the gall to complain about there not being enough engineers."

A lot of industry folks are pointing at the country's education system as one reason there are so few engineers available for hire. But this reader disagrees. "As a 30+ year engineer who is rapidly approaching retirement, I cannot justify to younger people why they should go into a technical field when it doesn't pay a competitive wage," he says. "If there is an actual demand, then economics dictates that the cost of that resource should increase, but this is just not happening."

Another reader, who has spent his career in the controls industry (mostly design), agrees that the 600,000 STEM-related vacancies remain not because there is no one to fill them, but because the companies won't pay for the positions. "They seem to prefer to overpay the accountants and paper pushers," he writes. "Once those who actually produce the products, solve the problems, and get the job done are paid and respected as much as 'management,' the lack of skilled workers will disappear.

"Compare the starting salary for a manager with an engineer. Compare who gets the better office, the most benefits, etc. I have been in the engineering field for about 30 years, and have watched this profession's salary go down, influence decline, and respect vanish. It is now more important to offer a good bottom line at the end of the quarter than to solve a problem or provide a good product."

Follow and join in this and other job- and education-related discussions at Control Design's new blog, STEM to the Core.

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