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By Jack Ganssle

Salaries Hit Zero

Published 8/11/2003

Many EE students extend their college careers by working alternate semesters in a co-op program. Though co-ops add a year or more to their university careers, it gives these kids resume-enhancing on-the-job experience. And, the bucks are usually not bad, especially for folks generally without a lot of familial responsibility but struggling to manage spiraling college costs. $15 to $20 per hour doing real engineering work sure beats minimum-wage burger-flipping.

But that might be changing. A little article buried on page 91 of the June 16th EE Times reports a new trend in EE salaries: work hard for no money. And, no, this is not for altruistic pro bono projects.

Margaret Quan writes that than a few companies (unnamed, else I'd berate them in print) now expect their co-op students to work for free. That's right, zero bucks. These organizations prey on the naiveté of youth. They trick proto-EEs into thinking that a few semesters of unpaid work will create golden job opportunities upon graduation.

Attention all college students: work for free, and you'll get nothing. Vague promises of a future job are not worth months of your life and more debt. Legions of unemployed EEs testify to the scarcity of jobs in this industry. Waves of layoffs, chapter 11 filings, and corporate collapses show that even employment promises made in writing are just about worthless. If the company cannot, or will not, pay for work you do, then it is either fiscally or morally bankrupt.

In my opinion, this trend isn't a direct threat to our jobs. No sane outfit will replace their engineers with co-ops. A new grad needs years of seasoning before being really useful. But it's another indication that our comfortable existence of yore is under attack. Lifetime employment, per the IBM model of the 60s, is long gone. The times when we'd expect to work just a couple of jobs in a 40-year career are over. The huge salaries some earned and all lusted for in the dot-com bubble disappeared. H1-Bs and overseas contracting squeeze our employment opportunities. We no longer expect it to be easy to find a job, and accept lower salaries and tougher conditions to feed our families.

We attribute today's employment woes to the weak economy, but I'm convinced this recession signals much more than a temporary financial setback. Today's slim profits are teaching CEOs to minimize costs in a way never before possible. Ruthless managers and highly-optimized technology trim wages and all other costs to the bone. When the stock market and corporate profits return to health - which they will - cost cutting will remain. If it's cheaper to export jobs, or hire free co-ops, companies will continue to do so.

For better or worse, capitalism means maximizing profits and hence minimizing costs. Once this was tempered by inefficient communications and organizations, and a certain benign care for employees. No longer. It's perfectly understandable that a company struggling for its existence will use any (legal) means to survive and prosper. The price, though, will be our jobs.

So maybe co-oping for free is a good idea after all. It will teach prospective engineers to expect little and accept less.