Leland Teschler's Editorial: The wrong message for Engineering Week

March 20, 2008
Last month’s Engineering Week was supposed to be a grand attempt at encouraging students to pursue careers in technical fields.

No surprise that there were a lot of E Week booster speeches about the engineering profession. The director of IBM’s worldwide research laboratories, writing in Business Week, summed up the tone of most remarks when he said, “We need greater cooperation between academia, private industry, and government to …. foster enthusiasm and skills for the sciences.”

Unfortunately there were other events taking place in February that weren’t likely to engender much enthusiasm for technical work. Perhaps the most newsworthy was when GM handed out a list of job categories in its factories which will receive 50% pay cuts under a new national labor contract. Only people directly connected to the assembly line will still get the top rate of $28 an hour. Those handling jobs such as engine dress, cockpit build and subassembly in body shops, paint mixing, and material movement will now get $14 an hour.

And despite the words of its research director, IBM did its part in putting a damper on the prospects of technical workers when on Feb. 1 it reduced the regular pay of 6% of its U.S. workforce. Roughly 7,600 workers were reclassified as nonexempt employees as a result of a legal settlement in which IBM admitted no wrong doing but agreed to pay $65 million to a group of employees who felt they were wrongly denied overtime pay. “Those jobs were already being competitively compensated based on skills and industry competition,” says an IBM spokesperson. “If we had added overtime to what we regard as competitive compensation, the compensation would have gone outside competitive rates. So we did a remix and took down the base salary.”

The salary adjustment showed up in paychecks issued in mid- February, coincidentally, just in time for the kickoff of Engineering Week on Feb. 17.

Of course, the IBM employees affected are generally not engineers. “They are mostly IT specialists,” says Lee Conrad, national coordinator for Alliance@IBM, an IBM employee organization. “They run and build networks and are IT architects. They make anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 a year and their educational background includes some college along with technical experience.”

IBM says it has no plans to do anything similar for other job categories. “This was specifically an outgrowth of the legal case,” says the IBM spokesperson. Nevertheless, “The rumor mill within IBM is that they will extend this action to other kinds of employees,” says Conrad.

The fact that pay cuts at GM and IBM don’t directly affect engineers is of little consolation when it comes to convincing young people that technical careers are worthwhile. To youngsters, the distinction between an engineer, an IT specialist, and a factory worker is fuzzy at best. After all, these people all seem to work in similar places.

Let’s hope next year’s Engineering Week activities aren’t trumped by pay cuts and labor strife among technical workers. Otherwise E Week will be just another ineffective PR stunt with little impact on the career choices of young people.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

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