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Job shop til you drop
August 16, 1999
14 Min Read
Like Kelly Girls of old, engineers are temping in today's fast-paced, full-employment economy, helping overworked, in-house staffers get the job done. What is the allure of contract engineering or "job shopping?"
"I was a permanent employee once," says Pete Gisslen, now a job shopper with Northrop Grumman's F/A-18 E/F aft structures design group, "but after a few years experience, I found out about contracting. Our role is the same as any in-house design engineer, we are just compensated differently."
"This is my fourth time at Northrop," adds contract engineer Rick Jones, "twice shopping and twice direct. For me, the treatment has been identical, the only difference is the money and you don't have to play politics."
Gisslen and Jones work with fellow contractors Phil Guttierez and Dan Paul, using Unigraphics software to modify aircraft structures and develop assembly drawings for a new E/F version of the F/A-18 Strike Fighter known as the Super Hornet.
'The F-18 is versatile, cost-competitive, and easy to maintain, which is why the Navy likes it," says Paul, who has worked as a contractor on the program since 1994. "Right now we're gearing up to make certain full-rate production, scheduled for the year 2000, runs as smoothly as possible."
Catapult earnings. According to these four aerospace design engineers, temp technical work provides the chance to catapult earnings, hone high-tech skills, and build a portfolio of design experience.
"Any time that new design bell rings, everyone runs, that's where all the fun is," says Paul, who started out working on the Douglas MD-80 and 90 programs modifying aircraft door and floor structures. Paul went on to a job at Space Station before he got in the door as a shopper at F-18.
"It's not for everyone since it does not come with the security blanket of direct employment," says Chris Hoff, partner with Two-Roads Professional, a Huntington Beach, California-based technical staffing agency. "It's more risky, but the pay is higher."
Higher salaries make contract engineering appealing, with an entry-level designer starting at $26 per hour and a seasoned design engineer, with 10 to 15 years experience and 5,000 hours in a specialty CAD program, earning up to $60 per hour.
In fact, money was the biggest lure for engineering contractors Gisslen, Guttierez, Paul, and Jones, who now earn roughly $45 per hour, but so was independence and the ability to experience different, cutting-edge design programs.
"Placements are experience and skill-set driven with Pro/E, CATIA, and Unigraphics expertise in high demand," says James L. Beckley, vice president of Butler Service Group in San Jose, CA. Assignments typically last from 6 to 8 months, but can last as long as two years or more.
"There's an old saying the only difference between a shopper and a direct is two weeks," says Gisslen. "We're a disposable commodity. But we're also indispensable, since it costs less to get rid of us than a chunk of the direct workforce when a design program goes into a sustaining mode."
In-house engineers are often salaried and ineligible for overtime, but contractors can obtain 10 to 20 extra hours a week at time and a half. "On big programs, especially aerospace, heavy overtime is not unusual," says Beckley. This can turn the average $70,000-a-year design job into a hefty six-figure proposition.
Most contracting service firms offer major medical, dental, and 401K plans and limited paid holidays. When an engineer is recruited from his home to work in another state on a demanding new design program, a per diem of $100 to $150 may be paid to cover living expenses.
Another reason to contract would seem to be the chance to take time off. But most of today's job shoppers are looking to stay reasonably consistently employed. "If you take a vacation, you could miss out on a $120,000 job," says Bill Zedonis, a seven-year contract veteran, now an account executive with Butler Technical Group in Huntington Beach, CA. "It's a high stakes game, and you have to stay in it to compete."
Employers once cast a doubtful eye on workers who flit company to company, but that stigma is gone. With low unemployment and a lack of strong engineering talent, companies operating leaner than everare looking to contractors to fix problems, meet schedule crunches, and mend skills shortages. More companies are maintaining a small core design staff and a big plan for supplementary staffing.
"I'm a broker in what is increasingly becoming a free agent nation," says Chris Hoff with Two Roads Professional staffing.
Technology temps allow companies to cut overhead and be cost competitive. The trend toward overall contract staffing is expected to increase. In 1999, 54% of 100 companies canvassed by placement firm TAC Worldwide increased contract headcount; 66% expect contract staff to grow over 5 years. A survey of Design News readers echoes these findings, with a full 61% of the respondents saying that they believe design engineers will work on a contract or project basis as opposed to full-time, permanent employment.
According to Salvatore Balsamo, chairman of TAC Worldwide Companies, "Contracting gives you the flexibility to work when and where you want, provides opportunities to acquire leading-edge skills, and allows you to earn higher income than a permanent worker."
Whether they select a nationwide placement firm or a local boutique shop, contract engineers network first, calling colleagues and former managers, to secure temp jobs. "I haven't interviewed since I was first out of college," says F-18 contractor Paul. "Word of mouth is so strong."
Hot Skills. CAD skills are key to temp design engineering jobs with Pro/E, CATIA, Unigraphics, AutoCAD, and I-DEAS experience in great demand.
"As a contractor working for different companies, you can fine tune your CAD skills," says Paul. "All of us have Unigraphics expertise, but some of us know CATIA and Pro/E."
"CAD skills, especially the ability to work with smart solids and parametrics, are critical," says colleague Gutierrez. "Once you get locked into one, whether it be Pro/E, UG, or CATIA, it is hard to stay current since the software goes through one or two revisions a year. But we can make the transition quickly."
Beginning his career at Douglas in 1981, Gutierrez has witnessed the transition from design drafting to parametric CAD, while working on the C-17, MD-80, F-20, T-45, Space Station, and MD-90 programs. At 43, he has job shopped for 12 years.
"We can pick up a CAD program in a few weeks and become experts in six months," says F-18 contract design engineer Gisslen. "But, unfortunately, if it's not on the resume, many employers won't give you a chance."
"After the learning curve is met, the real question is can you design, fix, or create something from scratch? An engineer with strong design experience will save the company money down the road," adds Guttierez.
"Shoppers have to hit the ground running," says Rick Jones, also of the F-18 design program, "so they want that CAD experience right away."
Jim Beckley, v.p. of Butler Technical in San Jose, CA, confirms that client companies emphasize CAD experience over design expertise, and often demand 5,000 hours on a particular system. "I've seen people switch industries, but only if that industry can't find enough help. Right now Pro/E and CATIA skills are hot, so aerospace design engineers can work in automotive."
A changing landscape. These days new aircraft programs are few, design modification work is standard, and contract job pickings are slim. For Pete Gisslen, Dan Paul, Rick Jones, and Phil Gutierrez, it is time to target other industries or find direct employment to remain in Southern California.
In fact, they do not have a choice. Northrop Grumman has recently implemented a "waiting period" for anyone who has contracted continuously for over two years. Contractors must sit out for six months or roll onto the permanent staff, if the opportunity arises.
"The two-year contracting policy has been on the books for some time," says Northrop Grumman spokesperson Mike Greywitt, "but it is now being enforced since five divisions have been consolidated into three business sectors. Additionally, the B-2 program is winding down and F-18E/F will soon go into full-rate production."
Of the contract engineers interviewed for this article, Rick Jones worked his last day on Friday, May 7th. Dan Paul and Phil Gutierrez also left in May, with Pete Gisslen following at the end of June.
Some say that a suit brought on by contract labor at Microsoft, who demanded a similar salary structure and benefits package as the direct workforce, may change the face of job shop employment forever. But unlike temp tech workers who are well paid and choose to remain autonomous Microsoft contractors were eager to obtain permanent status. Fearful of similar suits, some companies are stepping up temp-to-perm positionsor like Northrup, requiring contract employees to leave or take time out after a specified time period.
"I hear rumblings from subscribers trying to figure out how the Microsoft suit will impact their jobs," says Jerry Erickson, publisher of the 31-year-old Contract Employment Weekly. "Bottom line, I think that contractors are going to work in more places in a year," says Erickson, "but we'll have to see how it comes out."
Says contractor Paul: "Aerospace is shrinking. The contract rates have come back down to where they were in the 1980s, and they are basically 'take it or leave it.' We really have to rethink ourselves and look to other industries for career growth."
"Or be prepared to move," adds Gutierrez. "But with family it's tough."
"Airbus Industries is recruiting in Europe right now for two new programs," says Paul, "if you have the CATIA skills."
Top 5 reasons to job shop
High hourly rates with ample overtime
Experience different design programs
Exposure to different management styles
You'll thrive as a contract engineer if you...
Are confident that you are good at what you do
Are flexible, adventurous, and not risk adverse
Can hit the ground running with little or no training
Do not need a high level of job security
Established and connected enough in your engineering discipline to obtain new jobs quickly
Like to learn new skills and management styles
Are willing to pick up and go to work in another part of the country or world
Are able to save consistently while you work so that you can live without any income at times
Do not place high importance on a full benefits package
If you've never heard of the Mechanical Design and Development Co., that's probably because it only has a single employee, and it isn't listed in the phone book.
President David Fadness is an independent engineering contractor who runs his own one-man firm out of his home. He gets all of his business from word-of-mouth recommendations.
With four to six active clients at any given time and each job lasting about a year, Fadness says he has been consistently busy for 20 years. One reason is the diversity of design work and industries, including medical and materials handling, that he works with. One of his latest projects was a portable radiotherapy machine involving electron beam technology, radiation shielding, and classic structural design.
"Even though I have felt some pressure to develop a specialty, I've tried desperately not to stick with one area," says Fadness. "It's crucial to my financial welfare."
To survive as an independent contractor, Fadness says an engineer must bill about 2 3 the normal hourly rate of a nine-to-fiver. Though that may sound like a lot of money, Fadness points out that independent contractors have to take care of their own social security taxes, disability, insurance, and medical benefits.
However, he doesn't bill for every hour he works, something he says promotes a good relationship with his clients. "I don't think a customer should get a big bill every time I do the least bit of work, so I'm willing, for example, to do research off-the clock. It's a different mindset than when you work for a corporation full-time."
For Fadness, eight-hour days constitute a light work load. A more rigorous schedule is 12- to 15-hour days. And that's seven days a week. But he wouldn't have it any different. "Being a contractor allows me to do what I love to do, which is design machines," says Fadness.
With job security low these days, Fadness says that being out on his own isn't that much different than working for someone else. Sure, not being under a corporate umbrella might mean you occasionally get wet. On the other hand, says Fadness: "The people who take chances are the people who make the money."
Up close with:
Pete Gisslen, Mechanical Design Engineer,BSME, Ohio State University
After graduation, I worked as a design engineer for a plastic consumer goods company. But in 1987 I came out to California to work for McDonnell Douglas on the C-17 program.
After a year, I transferred to the MD-11, where I developed the forward barrel floor structure to accommodate different interiors for American and Swiss Air. While on MD-11, I supervised five contractors and realized they were making twice my salary. In November 1989, I got an opportunity to job shop with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. I packed my stuff up and drove out there.
While I was en route to St. Louis, there was a big budget scare and an immediate hiring freeze. When I got there, I had no job. That was my introduction to job shopping.
Fortunately, my parents lived in Cincinnati, and I quickly found another contracting job as a structures engineer with Airborne Express in Ohio, who was modifying Douglas planes as freighters. I analyzed and designed structural repairs. It was very challenging and interesting stuff.
When I got laid off, I heard of a spot in Florida where they were designing a fuel tank simulator for the C-17, which I worked on at McDonnell Douglas, so naturally I got that job. I designed structural and mechanical components for a fuel tank simulator used by the Air Force to train service mechanics. I was there from January through September of 1991, when I got a hankering to come back out to California.
I came to California and went back into Douglas on the MD-11 program where I was a couple years before. I stayed there briefly, then went to Marquardt Mfg. in the San Fernando Valley, as an engineering consultant on the development, design and, production of a corporate jet fuselage. The company had proposals out to build a small fuselage for a business jet, but did not secure a contract.
I went back to Douglas again on the C-17 program, analyzing and providing final disposition on rejection tags for C-17 wing airframe components. While at Douglas, I got word that the F-18E/F was opening up. It was the best job shop position I've had, since it was a new program and I was doing preliminary design work. I stayed for three years. I went to Europe for six months in 1995.
When I came back, I moved to Chicago as a manager of an engineering department at a consumer products packaging plant. I was direct at that time and developed a plan to get the backlog down, hiring in contractors to reduce it, which we did in eight months. I moved back to California again working for F-18 as a shopper in December 1996, developing and designing metallic and composite parts and assemblies for the F-18E/F. I was involved in preliminary design review presentations, helped analyze and solve manufacturing problems, and selected to help with continued implementation of Unigraphics CAD/CAM software.
When I started shopping, I did it for the money. But now with 10-plus years experience, I want to settle down. I plan to look for a permanent position in consumer product development.
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