• A majority of engineers believe further education can boost their value to current and future employers.
• Although Webcasts and online training can be useful, many engineers still prefer in-person and hands-on education.
When we got the results back from our annual Machine Design salary survey, we were almost afraid to look. A cursory scan of newspaper headlines reveals manufacturing jobs continued their slide during 2009. Every week still seemed to bring more layoffs and furloughs.
Big surprise: Engineers who managed to keep a job last year grew more confident as the year progressed. The 1,080 engineers who responded to the survey were less likely to say they were worried about job security than the year before. In 2009’s salary survey (MD, April 21, 2009), 68% said they were worried about job stability. Only 58% responded the same way this year, and 60% believe economic conditions will improve during 2010.
One theory: Respondents felt their companies’ trimming had run its course. Half of them had seen colleagues laid off, although most said layoffs affected less than 10% of their company’s workforce.
Those who survived the layoffs are enduring flat salaries and eroding bonuses. Fifty-three percent said their salaries had remained the same. Only 33% saw an increase, most between 1 and 5%. That’s a flip-flop from 2009, when 53% of respondents got a 1 to 5% salary bump and only 30% held steady.
Salaries dropped by up to 5% for 13% of engineers, keeping this year’s average salary of $80,760 pretty much the same as the $81,200 we reported last year. Fifty-six percent of engineers receive bonuses, down from 65% in 2009.
The vast majority of those bonuses, 71%, accounted for less than 5% of the engineer’s compensation, not surprising given that over half the bonuses depend on company profits.
Good news on the compensation front was that companies didn’t cut perks like health care. Fewer firms are matching 401(k) contributions, but the majority of engineers still get that benefit. Five percent fewer engineers are getting tuition reimbursement and training than in 2009.
Despite the cutback in education benefits, 19% of engineers are continuing their education to shore up current job security or improve the odds in an ongoing job search.
Over half of those surveyed believe additional training and continuing education are rewarded by salary increases and job security. But should employers direct training to ensure a well-educated and stable workforce? Or should employees be looking out for their own development? Some engineers told us the employer and the employee are equally responsible for making sure the employee gets the right training opportunities.
“A company not educating its people is a company falling behind,” says James Schmitz, an engineering manager at Markland Ind., Santa Ana, Calif. “However, companies can only motivate people so much. I have seen many attendees try to sleep through presentations because they are not interested in the subject matter. On the other hand, if an employee asks to attend a training program that is advantageous for both the company and the employee, companies rarely turn them down.”
Nathan Taylor, an engineer at Peterson Manufacturing Co., Grandview, Mo., agrees. “The employer should be looking for educational options that align with their long-term goals and opportunities for group training. And employees should seek out ways to improve their abilities and address their weaknesses.”
But R&D engineer Jim Clark has a different view. “The employer best knows what training will be best for the employee. If employers want workers to use a specific computer program, they should train people in groups and videotape the training for the one or two workers that will need it down the road,” he says. “An engineer may not realize he is deficient in one area and just continue along the status quo.”
One thing an employer may not take into account when developing a training plan is engineers’ different learning styles. Some prefer hands-on training or a mix of classroom and real-world instruction. Others like being able to learn at their own pace using computer tutorials or traditional textbooks and technical papers.
Bill Wurst, senior project engineer at Q-Lab Corp., Westlake, Ohio, says, “Online self-paced computer courses could be effective, but rarely are, because they do not have hands-on practice with the material being presented. The computer-based training needs complementary hands-on time, and pure hands-on training needs computer or classroom time so the student can learn the reasons and background of the material.”
According to Wurst the best courses teach “the theory followed by practical application. For example, a physics lecture followed by a relevant lab session, or a classroom explanation of PLC programming followed by hands-on practice.”
A good example of such training comes from Don Urig, an engineer at Nordson Corp., Amherst, Ohio, who cites an online Microsoft Excel course as one of the most-effective training experiences he’s had. “The course walked you through the function of the program as you did the mouse clicks at the same time. You heard the words, saw the examples, and then performed the steps.”
“These types of course allow students to learn at different rates without the pressure of holding back or rushing others,” he says.
Jerry Carrens, senior engineer at Safety Training Systems Inc., Tulsa, cautions, “Technology sometimes gets in the way of learning. There is always something you have to learn about the technology itself before you can learn the course’s substance. Even one glitch that takes several clicks to fix makes you forget the original learning process.”
Other engineers we spoke with complained that slow connection speeds on work or home computers can mean wasting 10 min to download text or graphics the engineer can read and understand in seconds.
The ephemeral nature of online education drives some engineers to stick with tried-and-true methods. David Rawls, senior engineer at Eastman Chemical Co., Kingsport, Tenn., prefers learning at home with self-study pamphlets from professional societies. “I study at my own pace and earn professional development hours. Plus, I can refer to the study booklet if I forget a detail about the material.”
In-person training still has its proponents as well. Engineer Rob Robinson says one of his best educational experiences was taught by an in-house expert. “I learn better in a group and find computer-based courses are a poor substitute for live interaction.”
Michael McClain, PE, senior R&D engineer at Albany Engineered Composites Inc., Rochester, N.H., agrees. “Some of my best training experiences have been in-person courses where engineers come from various industries and share tricks of the trade during downtime. This interaction is not possible in a strictly Web-based platform.”
Taylor mentioned another benefit he gets from in-person education. “A change of venue, even just away from my desk, allows me to better focus on the training. In-person training isolates the employee from distractions and lets the educator evaluate students’ progress more effectively,” he says.
Regardless of how engineers continue their education, relevant, time-efficient resources can be hard to find. Many engineers we talked to see their professional societies and trade organizations as key sources of up-to-date information.
The self-study pamphlets Rawls uses to rack up professional development hours come from the American Society of Materials (ASM). Respondents also mentioned the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), International Society of Automation (ISA), Motor and Motion Association (SMMA), Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), and Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as good resources for in-person and self-paced training as well as technical articles. These organizations make much of their material available to members on the Web, either for a fee or as part of their membership.
Most engineers are comfortable searching the Web for the training or information they need. “I prefer to get educational materials online,” says Brad Coale, senior engineer at Biomet Spine, Parsippany, N.J. “Digital documents are much easier to search to find what you are looking for.”
Rawls agrees, but cautions: “Many topics are published by pay-for-download Web sites. The abstracts they offer don’t always say enough about the material for me to determine if it is worth getting.”
Traditional educational institutions are an often-overlooked resource. Many engineers attend classes at local universities or community colleges, either at their employer’s expense or on their own dime. In addition, some institutions, like MIT, put course notes and resources online.
“The notes help me understand a topic,” says McClain. “To learn more, I purchase the textbook, too.”
Of course, libraries are another way engineers can expand their knowledge. “Larger companies often have a library or a training group that can provide education materials. The city library is also a good source,” says Clark.
Note to suppliers: Give more technical info
Better access to technical information was on the top of engineers’ wish lists. Twenty-nine percent of those who commented said suppliers need to make detailed product information more readily accessible.
This includes Web sites that are easier to navigate and that provide access to technical data sheets, application case studies, complete product catalogs, and pricing. Several commenters noted that hard-copy catalogs and tech guides collect dust on their shelves now that more work is done on the computer.
Twelve percent specifically wanted the ability to download detailed 2D or 3D CAD files of components in neutral file formats like STEP or IGES instead of estimating whether a given part would fit into their design.
Along with the wish for more online information, 20% wanted their suppliers to be more knowledgeable in general. Many commenters wanted to interact with supplier reps who knew the technical ins-and-outs of their products and the customer’s industry. A representative that actively worked with them to determine the best design solution and raised red flags if part of a design seemed out of whack was on the wish list of 7% of commenters.
Over a quarter of respondents wanted better communication and responsiveness in all areas of interaction with their suppliers, from being quick to respond with a quote, to being available for technical and ordering questions, to delivering product in a timely manner and when promised.
Even in a down economy, only 9% asked for lower prices, and improved quality was only a concern for 3%. Nine percent were interested in supplier-provided training on their products and technologies. While some suppliers have niche products that require specific training, some commenters would be more inclined to work with a supplier who gave engineers basic technology training their employers no longer offer.