I always say that, in Internet time, every week seems like a month and every month a year. Work my hours and you'll know what I'm talking about. Of course, if you're reading this, you already do. Design engineers know as well as anyone that tough times mean that only the toughest and most capable technical folks survive and thrive.
I didn't intend to begin this column on what seems like a less than optimistic note. However, to be honest, this tilt stems from the answers received when I posed this month's question to our Systems & Product Design Engineer group on LinkedIn. We asked participants what they thought were the biggest issues of 2011.
Our first two respondents said what's still on the mind of many. Dennis Ulp, a consultant in Harrisburg, Penn., said his top concern is unemployment of seasoned engineers. Ed Smyth, an engineering manager in Chicago, was more quantitative, pointing to "unemployment of 40+ year olds."
Maybe there's a silver lining to note that reemployment tends to take a while to kick in once the economy beings to improve. We saw signs of that in the positive news out of our August salary survey. We found that engineers received their first increase in base salary in two years -- a 4.3 percent rise which took their average earnings up to $93,465.
On the other hand, one can't help but believe that older engineers have a tougher time than most. It's a sad state of affairs, and everyone's the poorer for it, not the least being companies who could benefit from their maturity and real-world expertise.
The global dynamics apparently vary. Richard Marques, a manufacturing intelligence analyst at a brewery in Johannesburg, South Africa, told our LinkedIn group that unemployment is not an issue where he is. "We have almost the converse: a struggle to find good engineers and retain them even with attractive packages," he reported.
The other major meme in our admittedly anecdotal survey of impact of the past year is that of compressed development cycles. That's another issue we've frequently written about, and it's connected to the employment issue via smaller engineering being charged with doing more work with less.
Rich Merritt, a public relations professional who's worked with automation vendors, sees a continued trend toward engineering functions being outsourced. "In process control, big chemical and processing companies are turning over design, installation, configuration, and maintenance of their control systems to vendors and systems integrators," he writes. "If a chemical plant has a control engineer on staff, his or her job primarily is to supervise contractors and push paper."
One should note that the contractors to which Merritt refers must nevertheless be engineers. Thus we should take comfort in the fact that the swoon of the past several years does indeed appear to be slowly reversing. What's probably happening is a structural shift, in which newer job descriptions and modes of employment are replacing older ones, but replacing them they are. Be comforted by that as you have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy Kwanzaa.