A profession in need of change
Results from the 2016 salary survey
By Rick Zabel
The results of this year’s salary survey are in, and while salaries did increase a little, the increase was not the step change that I, and we collectively, desired. Like previous years, the average salary of automation professionals increased slightly (2.5%) over 2015. In an economy where growth is a struggle, maybe that is the best we can hope for.
Over the years, I have preached that automation professionals are underpaid, especially considering the value they bring (or could potentially bring) to a company. Many of you work in facilities that operate on old technology and therefore do not reap the true benefits of a fully integrated automation and business enterprise. You are faced with either drastic “rip and replace” scenarios or complex system migration options.
Technology is not the problem. With the developments related to the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0, we have the technology to implement modern, flexible automation systems. The problem is, and has always been, the mindset. However, I finally sense change is coming.
Collaboration for modernization
Earlier this year, ExxonMobil announced its initiative to build a next-generation, multivendor automation platform. Since that announcement, ExxonMobil has worked with The Open Group organization to facilitate a collaboration between users, systems integrators, suppliers, and standards organizations, like ISA. Their collective goal is to define a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture. A major driver for this effort has been the widespread call for accelerative automation technology, along with an ecosystem of suppliers that can leverage the latest technology, similar to what has been seen in the computer, telecommunications, and more recently defense and avionics industries. Sources tell us that a number of other high-profile users have joined the cause. If you have not been following this story, I encourage you to do so. Visit Automation.com and search for “ExxonMobil” to read the articles. This initiative is a cry for technology modernization.
As I have written previously, it is time for companies to make investments in new technology. It is time to enable your automation engineering staff to add more value to the entire enterprise with these investments. If you do not make the efforts, your competitors will. The growth and survival of your business depends on this.
Furthermore, that new technology will attract new talent into our profession. Our seasoned professionals are retiring, and we have been struggling to attract enough new graduates into the automation field. This year’s salary survey, however, did uncover a silver lining. The salary of those with fewer than two years of experience increased more than 12% over last year, indicating that employers are willing to pay more to attract younger talent. That is one step in the right direction!
I firmly believe that the demand for automation professionals will remain high for the long term. As a result, salaries should increase, hopefully more quickly.
A historical look at salaries
Because year-to-year changes are so slim, I took a look back at historical data. We have been conducting a salary survey fairly consistently over the past twelve years (although not in 2006 or 2009, hence the gap in the data for those years). You can see the trend line for the average U.S. salary of an automation professional in the bar chart.
Between 2005 and 2010–2011, there was a relatively significant increase in the average salary. Over a five-year period, the average salary increased by more than $22,400. That is a 29% increase, and certainly something to get excited about! Unfortunately, more recently over a similar length of time, 2011–2016, the average salary only increased by about $10,542, a mere 10.6% rise.
Since one specific job function, automation/control engineering, represents a third of our responses this year, I decided to look at that specific average salary trend also. It is no surprise that the specific trend matches the overall average salary trend very closely.
Salary determining factors
Through our years of conducting this salary survey, we have identified the five major factors that determine salary:
- geographic region
- job function
- level of education
- industry segment
- years of experience
Let’s dig into data. Our survey collected 2,285 responses from automation professionals around the world, with 72.4% from the U.S. Because salaries around the world vary greatly, we separated the U.S. responses to avoid skewing results. All of the results quoted in this article, other than average salary by region of the world, represent U.S. responses only.
Snapshot of typical respondents
The job function of the typical survey respondent was an automation/control engineer, accounting for 32.1% of total responses. Our respondents tend to be quite experienced, indicated by the 31% of respondents with more than 31 years of experience. More than half (50.3%) of the respondents were college graduates with a bachelor’s degree, and 17.3% received an advanced degree.
Of the respondents, 77.7% reported salary increases this year, with the largest percentage (32.5%) seeing about a 3–4% increase. About a quarter of respondents (25.4%) reported a salary in the $100,000–$124,999 pay range. The second largest percentage (13.1%) reported a pay range of $125,000–$149,999.
Salary facts by region
The average salary in the U.S. is $110,082, up almost $3,000 from the previous year. Canada reported the next highest average salary of $106,119, which was up about $400 from 2015.
Within the U.S., the highest paid region is the West South Central (South), with an average salary of $127,554—a $5,000 increase over last year. The lowest paid region this year is the East North Central (Midwest), with an average salary of $99,623. (*Regions are defined on Wikipedia.)
It all depends on what you do
Your job function within the automation profession can come with a salary swing of more than $49,000. On the low end, those in maintenance and operations are earning $92,346 per year. On the high end are the engineering management professionals, commanding an average $141,365 salary. The average salary of our large automation/control engineering contingent of respondents was $109,184. The top five highest-paid job functions are:
- Engineering management: $141,365 (9.6% of respondents)
- Consulting engineering: $126,756 (4.7% of respondents)
- Sales – business development: $122,078 (6.0% of respondents)
- General or operations management: $120,518 (5.2% of respondents)
- Project management: $117,031 (4.0% of respondents)
A degree of higher learning can pay off
Of respondents, 67.6% possessed a college degree or higher. The average salary of college graduates (without further graduate school) was $114,295. Those respondents who either attended some graduate school, or completed an advanced degree, reported an average salary of $126,961—that is a $12,666 increase over college graduates. If you factor in that increase over your career, it certainly pays to get an advanced degree.
Industry segment dictates pay
Not surprisingly, the biggest payer was the oil and gas industry segment at $128,868. The largest number of responses came from the engineering consulting or systems integration segment (20.9%), where the average salary was $118,613. The following table shows salaries by all industry segments.
With experience, comes more money
As you would expect, the average salary varies greatly by years of professional work experience. Based on the data, over the course of your career, you can expect to nearly double your salary. Yet, the salary of those with fewer than two years of experience is $67,625, which is a $7,400 increase over last year. This significant increase indicates that employers are willing to pay more to get young technical talent into their organizations. Those
respondents who put in 31 or more years are bringing home $119,673 per year.
What determines job satisfaction?
Over the years, the job satisfaction results have never really changed. So we stopped asking. Job satisfaction within the automation profession is high. Just to refresh your memory, the feeling of accomplishment typically rated the highest. Technical challenge, benefits, salary, pleasant work environment, good relationships with work colleagues, and job security are also contributing factors. The top four most important benefits are health insurance, pension plan/401K, flexible working hours, and paid time off.
Again this year, we asked respondents to tell us if they are seeking other opportunities. Those who are actively seeking new opportunities made up 8.8% of respondents and had an average annual salary of $98,039—nearly $12,000 less than the average. Passive job seekers made up 39.2% of respondents, whose average salary was $107,101—nearly $3,000 less than average. Those not seeking new opportunities (52%) were making $114,365—more than $4,200 above the average salary.
Licenses and certifications
We compared the salary of those with a professional engineering license to those without a license. It is no surprise that those with the license (15.1%) earn an average of $27,938 more each year, or an average salary of $134,131 versus $106,193 for those without the license (81%).
What about those professional certifications? This year, we asked respondents to tell us if they possess any association certifications: 30.4% of respondents had some kind of certification, while 67.8% did not. The salary did not fluctuate much at all between the “haves” and “have nots.” Those professionals with a certification made $110,223, while those without made $110,594.
Maximize your salary
As in previous years, I conclude the salary data with a recipe for how to maximize your salary. Like any great recipe*, the ingredients have not changed much over the years.
- Get your bachelor of science degree (any engineering will do). An advanced degree will improve results.
- Move to the West South Central region of the U.S. (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, or Texas).
- Work in the oil and gas industry segment. If that does not work out, try engineering consulting or systems integration.
- Get your professional engineering (PE) license.
- Exercise your leadership attributes and become an engineering manager.
- Continue to show your value to your managers and company. Convince them to make more investments in technology and business integration.
- Stick with your profession—you can almost double your salary throughout your career.
*Editor’s note: results may vary depending on attitude.