Are we seeing a pay plateau in automation?
Results from the 2017 salary survey
By Cory Fogg
The salary of the average automation professional continued to rise for a fourth consecutive year in 2017. The results of the 2017 salary survey show that the average salary increased globally, albeit not significantly (2.5% in the U.S., 1.5% globally). In an economy where money is the primary factor holding up innovation (see https://mapifoundation.org/economic/2016/6/10/automation-investment-in-us-manufacturing-an-empirical-picture), and many companies struggle to keep up with shifting consumer demands, automation professionals remain highly in demand, and in one of the higher paid engineering fields. Yet, as we move increasingly into the connected future, some legitimate concerns remain.
Industries, such as oil and gas, took a widely noted hit over the past year, and this was reflected in this year’s responses. This particular drop may have been expected, but the 2017 survey also revealed some red flags that businesses need to acknowledge and address and engineers need to consider if they want to be engaged automation professionals and help move their organizations forward. For example, even though overall average salaries rose:
- Average salaries for entry-level professionals in the U.S. (fewer than two years of experience) dropped 7.3%.
- Average salaries for less experienced professionals in the U.S. (three-to-five years) dropped 4.7%.
- The two largest raises, proportionally, went to engineering management (6.2%) and general/operations management (6.1%).
Although there are continued indicators of progress, the increasing demand for automation professionals has not yet led to the significant step-change that we have been expecting for years. However, with a new generation of professionals entering the fray, and technology continuing to advance by leaps and bounds, we continue to expect rising automation salaries in the years to come.
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
The data-happy among you are in for a treat. Our survey collected 2,261 responses from automation professionals located around the world, including more than 1,500 from the U.S. Because salaries around the world vary greatly, as you will see, we separated the U.S. responses in order to avoid skewing results. All of the results in this article, other than average salary by region of the world, represent U.S. responses only.
Who did we survey?
Our average respondent was a U.S.-based automation/control engineer, but the 2,261 respondents come from all over the world, with a variety of job functions. Our respondents tend to be quite experienced, indicated by the 50% with more than 21 years of experience. More than half (54.2%) of the respondents were college graduates with a bachelor’s degree, and 15.8% received an advanced degree. Of respondents, 79% reported salary increases this year, with the largest percentage (30.7%) seeing about a 3–4% increase.
Just over a fifth of respondents (21.6%) reported a salary in the $100,000–$124,999 pay range. The second largest percentage (12.7%) reported a pay range of $125,000–$149,999.
Note: Survey were not held in 2006 and 2009.
Disparate global climate
As the chart indicates, where you live in the world greatly determines what level of pay you can expect. Engineers in eastern Europe, for instance, should not expect to make much more than half of their western European brethren, while average salaries in the Middle East (down 11.7%) and South Asia (down 28.2%!) have tumbled significantly. Not coincidentally, both regions are heavily involved with the oil and gas industry, which may have some effect on the salary decreases. That said, for the more global of the economical engineers, Australia and New Zealand (up 16.4% in a small sample size) seems to be the ideal destination.
How does the American engineer fare?
For the American engineer, however (the U.S. version anyway, sorry Mexico and Canada), the average salary continues to rise. This is heartening for the country, or at least it seemed so until we dusted off our 12-year salary chart.
As last year’s article explained, between 2005 and 2011, there was a relatively significant increase in the average salary. Over that five-year period, the average salary increased by more than $22,400 (a 29% increase). Over a similar length of time (2011–2016), that rise was a mere $10,542 (a 10.6% increase). Well, one concern for automation is that this number has fallen again. From 2012–2017, the U.S. has seen these salaries rise by only $9,114 (8.8%). In an industry with so much demand, and supposedly dwindling supply, this number should be higher.
U.S. regions matter too
Like the world at large, where engineers live within the U.S. also affects pay. The West South Central region, especially Texas, has long held the title of best pay for engineers, and wins yet again in 2017. But it may not hold it for long.
The West South Central, while being the highest in terms of average salary, actually dropped this year. Average salaries in that region fell by $854 (0.7%), while its two top competing regions—New England (up $7,379, 6.5%) and the Pacific (up $6,296, 5.5%)—both saw a significant rise. (*Regions are defined on Wikipedia.)
An average automation engineer
As usual, more than a third of our survey respondents are from the automation/control job function, so we like to take an in-depth look at the statistics there as well. Yet again, the news is slightly less stellar than we would like to report.
Our automation and control engineer friends have seen just a $6,487 (6.3%) average raise over the past five years, and a miniscule $1,393 (1.2%) in the past year. Again, this raised a few eyebrows, because many industry giants are very concerned about a looming skills gap, due to a bevy of retiring engineers. Well, usually when the supply goes down and the demand goes up, the price for those in demand goes up too. At least, that is what I learned in high school economics. Assuming those lessons are still valid, we would expect to see these salaries significantly rise sooner rather than later.
It depends on what you do
Of course, there are plenty of other job functions for engineers too, and it would be very rude for us to ignore them. See the chart for the engineering jobs that are bringing home the most bacon.
While not evident from this 2017-specific chart, those who work in process/manufacturing engineering and design engineering should have a sit-down with their management. Those were the only two functions that saw decreases in average salary. Those decreases were not overly significant (2.0% and 2.9% drops, respectively), but every job function containing the word “management” had more than a 5% increase. This is not to say that companies are undervaluing their lower-level employees, but those numbers do not really tell a flattering story about today’s typical engineering management.
Engineering degrees do pay off
Although the average tuition price may be climbing, engineering is definitely one field where a degree can pay off handsomely. Of respondents, 70% were college graduates and made nearly $20,000 more on average than their less educated colleagues.
As the data indicates, graduate degrees do pay off as well, to a nearly $9,000 increase, but not as significantly as the bump after earning an undergraduate degree. That said, the 2016 survey saw professionals with advanced degrees earning $12,000 more than undergrads, so it is still entirely plausible that the engineering graduate degree can pay for itself over time.
Industry a significant differentiator
In the automation climate of the U.S., industry is the second biggest differentiator in average salary, behind only years of experience. Your industry of specialization, according to this year’s survey, can have a $44,500 impact on your salary.
Despite its sag over the last couple of years, oil and gas remains the most lucrative industry for American engineers. On the flip side, if you are really trying to make a six-figure engineering salary, you should probably avoid the water/wastewater industry. A major plus for U.S.-based engineers is that every single industry saw a rise in average salary in 2016, so in whichever field you operate, you were probably due a raise.
Experience is everything
By far the biggest salary differentiator remains experience. It stands to reason that a 30-year automation veteran would make far more than a rookie wrench turner, and the numbers bear that out.
Those hitting their fourth decade in the industry would likely have double the salary of a factory floor newbie, to the tune of over $60,000 more. Again, this is common sense, but this is also where we saw the most significant red flags in our survey.
As we mentioned earlier, automation professionals with fewer than five years of experience suffered significant drops in average salary. The biggest jump in salary was seen in those with 11–15 years of experience (up $10,509 from last year).
Does this mean that companies are paying entry-level employees less and less as they enter the field? Maybe or maybe not, but here is a crucial fact. In the 2016 survey, some 31% of respondents were 30+ year veterans. In the 2017 survey, that percentage dropped to 18.8%. When you consider that our response totals varied by only 24 responses between 2016 and 2017, that may indicate that the older generation of engineers is retiring, and the skills gap worry is a legitimate problem. If it is, then businesses should not continue the trend of underpaying new talent.
Overall job satisfaction high
Like every year, we asked respondents to tell us if they are seeking other opportunities, as a relative insight into job satisfaction. Positively, the number of those who are actively seeking new opportunities dropped from 8.8% of respondents in 2016 to 8.4% in 2017. Pay again seems to be a significant factor. Active job seekers had an average salary of $95,000—nearly $18,000 less than the average, and a $3,000 drop from 2016. Passive job seekers made up 38.5% of respondents, whose average salary was $111,099—less than $2,000 below average. Those not seeking new opportunities (53.1%, a 1% increase over 2016) were making $117,260—more than $4,100 above the average salary.
Recipe to maximize your salary
We always conclude the salary survey with a recipe* for maximizing your salary. Like any great recipe, we tinker a bit, but the main ingredients have not changed much over the years.
- Get your bachelor of science degree (any type of engineering will do). An advanced degree improves results.
- Move to the West South Central region of the U.S. (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, or Texas). If that is not your ideal locale, New England and the Pacific Coast pay almost as well.
- Work in the oil and gas industry segment (for pay, not for job security). Pharmaceuticals and consulting are also well-paying options.
- Show off your leadership attributes and get into management. Management gets paid.
- Become indispensable to your managers and company. Become an expert on useful, new technology, and show where automation and integration can cost effectively enhance operations.
- Stick with your profession—engineering is not the career to switch out of. You can potentially double your salary over your career, with significant six-figure earning potential.
- Advocate for yourself. Any profitable organization’s priority is the bottom line, which means the person who will best look out for your bottom line is you. Showing your boss another offer is still a classic tool to get your raise.
*Results may vary depending on attitude.