Pay for Players: A Lack of Skill or a Lack of Respect?

One of the topics du jour is the lamentable fact that manufacturers cannot find the skilled labor they need. Thousands of vacancies remain open, jobs untaken or outsourced, 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 story 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. Read “Where Will Manufacturers Find Tomorrow’s Workers?” or “How to Build a Skilled Workforce” to get their perspectives.

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 (a self-proclaimed “engineering nerd”), the great 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. “Please do not blame the schools or the workforce for the short-sightedness of the managers,” he writes. “They seem to prefer to overpay the accountants and paper pushers. 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.”

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  • <p>“They seem to prefer to overpay the accountants and paper pushers..."</p> <p>You forgot to mention attorneys. They seem to have plenty of money at hand to pay attorneys for contract disputes, law suits, or liquidated damages disputes once the process goes wrong, but never enough money to pay the engineers that will get the process right the first time.</p> <p>I once had a client who had problems in one of his facilities because he allowed a mechanical contractor to do the "design" in the original project delivery process, and of course the "design" was wrong. He hired me to examine the problem, and I devised a simple solution for him that was relatively inexpensive, but he wouldn't implement it. I asked him why and he said, "Because I'm going to sue everything that moves."</p> <p>That's when I got the heck out, but this client spent well in excess of $75,000 on attorney's fees, while the solution that I proposed for him was about $15,000. Go figure...</p>


  • <p>The post secondary educators have brainwashed corporate management into thinking that formal education is way more valuable than work-related experience. This thinking has created generations of debt. College graduates and attendees hold "mortgages" without the house to show for it, just to be able to get a foot in the door of today's corporations.</p> <p>An A.S. degree and 25 years' experience in my chosen field, along with vendor certifications and outstanding references, was not enough to have some corporations even consider passing my resume beyond HR. Goodyear is wise in China. More corporations ought to adopt the training/mentoring mentality globally. Yes, in the U.S. as well.</p> <p>Whenever corporate management whines about the lack of talent in the STEM sector, point out how closed-minded they are. HR, update your checklist!</p>


  • <p>Outsourcing, why? The engineers coming out of school expect salaries that are far beyond their actual worth. After school, there needs to be an internship of at least four years or more in order to get these kids up to speed as to how the particular field of study actually works.</p> <p>If the US is going to compete globally, all salaries need to be evaluated. The US as a whole needs to work for less. It is what it is. Americans expect more and have a misled value of worth. Salaries are represented by cost of products, products go up to cover salaries, salaries go up to afford the products. It is a vicious upward spiral that needs to be capped somehow.</p> <p>I don’t have the answer, but I do know the problem. In my case, I have hired an intelligent young person without a degree to learn from me and to be my apprentice. He will have real world experience in engineering, PLC programming and process control. He will someday take my place. This is how America used to work; every engineer, draftsman, mechanic, machinist should mentor an apprentice degreed or not. Let’s face it, with information being readably accessible, you do not have to know the answer, but know where to find it. This does not require a degree or a high paid salary.</p>


  • <p>In the article, one additional factor not mentioned is the "career lifetime." I recently retired as an EE from a large aerospace company after a 43+ year career -- some years in aerospace, some in commercial companies, and some in an industrial controls manufacturer, all as a product design engineer.</p> <p>Over my career, I've noticed a trend to continuously reduce the age at which an engineer is considered "out-of-date," and to push engineers beyond that age out of the company. Why is experience valued in medical, legal and business professionals, and discounted in technical professionals?</p> <p>Certainly, the technologies prevalent when I graduated from college (vacuum tubes, for example) are rarely used today. The skills I learned allowed me to analyze, adopt and apply the new technologies as they became available. Technologies and design techniques important to the aerospace and industrial control markets were not taught in college then, and are not taught in college today, judging by the abilities of the new grads. Just as I learned the new technologies and design techniques (by working with/under engineers who had gained this experience on the job), the new grads are able to learn them as well, over a period of time. By discounting any "senior engineers" and driving them from the company, the companies are driving a lot of the experience and "tribal knowledge" of the company, its products, and its industry out of the company.</p> <p>Any student with the ability to master the STEM disciplines is also bright enough to see this short career aspect of engineering as a profession. These same students are also bright enough to see that business, finance and law provide a career that is longer and more valued by corporate management.</p>


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