Engineering profession self-limiting?

March 8, 2007
When it comes to money, few professions are as naive as engineering.

James Finkel
Engineering Manager
B.E. Wallace Products
Frazer, Pa.

For example, would a lawyer or an accountant willingly agree to limit how much money they could earn? Working more hours in either profession usually means more money. On the other hand, engineers — unless they are consultants — receive a fixed salary. As with a burger joint, selling 50 or 5,000 nets the same pay.

Consider a recent Wall Street Journal article about a vendor of high-speed-network equipment, since bought and resold at least once. The article details the long hours put in by engineers and staff to ship the company's next generation of products. We discover the engineers were working 80-hr weeks for about $75,000 annual salary. Do the math: The techies did not have a $75,000/yr job; they had two $37,500/yr jobs, and only one that paid benefits. With the luster of stock options fading, working the traditionally crazy hours was never fun and is now rarely rewarded.

The biggest threat to a lucrative engineering career, however, happens before the first minute of work. Firms may demand new hires sign away any intellectual-property rights, almost guaranteeing they will never see an extra dime for their inventions. Lucky engineers, or unlucky as the case may be, will simply keep their jobs.

The legal pain for engineers often continues after they leave a company, this time in the form of noncompete agreements. Such agreements may prevent employees from taking a higher-paying job with a competitor.

And the bad news gets worse. The same skill set that once landed a good job may not be transferable. Though the design task may closely resemble that of another industry, try convincing HR that you have the right skill set but the wrong buzzwords. Prospects will likely take a big pay cut and may not even get the job.

Like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, engineers constantly hurry just to stay behind. The Moore's Law/Parkinson's Law treadmill guarantees continuous job excitement, but little job security.

Before joining industrial-crane maker B.E. Wallace, Mr. Finkel worked for Ansys, Ansoft, Bentley Systems, Structural Research and Analysis, and Marconi (formerly FORE Systems).

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