Compensation mirrors economy


While Small Times’ latest compensation survey reveals lackluster growth, small-tech salaries are still on the upswing and employers indicate growing need for a broad range of talent.

By Elizabeth Gardner

Small-tech salary growth last year mirrored the lackluster economy as a whole, judging from responses to Small Times’ third-annual compensation survey. Most respondents reported flat or modestly growing compensation, and fewer than one-fifth said their 2007 raises were 5% or more. The survey data was gathered from visitors to in January and attracted 599 responses from 52 countries and 36 US states.

Undercover driver

The first flush of nano-fever may be over, but plenty of opportunities in small tech remain as the surviving companies start bringing their products to market, says Pam Bailey, president of, a job board for the small-tech fields. “Nano is taking longer than we thought it would to grow, and there are a lot of technical difficulties in commercializing products,” she says. “On the other hand, MEMS is starting to come into its own, and the focus on clean tech, fuel cell development, and battery storage is also helping the field.”

Moreover, a great deal of nanotechnology work is being done under the radar, Bailey says. “Virtually all large companies have nano initiatives, and they’re hiring, but they don’t post job descriptions that say nano-this, nano-that,” she says. “You’ll see more generic postings, maybe for an electrical engineer. That person might be needed to work on a nano project, but you don’t necessarily know it.”

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Where it’s concentrated, small tech can drive big economic gains, says Ed Cupoli, the world’s first “nanoeconomist.” Things are jumping in his home base of Albany, NY, the site of the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the State University of New York, where Cupoli heads a program studying the economics of nanotechnology and disruptive technologies in general.

The college and its facilities, founded in 2003, include a $4.2 billion, 450,000-sq ft complex that has attracted more than 1,800 researchers from both academe and industry, including IBM, AMD, and Sony. The complex will expand another 300,000 sq ft this year with an additional nanofabrication facility, and its complement of researchers will grow to more than 2,000.

“This is something different from a normal economic trajectory,” Cupoli says. “Real estate prices here look much more like New York City than like anywhere else in the state. People are moving here every day.” Average salaries in the area have jumped 25% a year since 2001—not because the same people are being paid more, but because the number of highly educated and highly paid professionals has grown so rapidly.

Survey analysis

The Small Times’ compensation survey asked 24 questions, covering job title, company size, location, level of education, experience, hours worked, salary, bonuses, and benefits. About 56% of respondents were from the US or Canada, with the balance spread across 52 other countries, from Australia to Uruguay.

Regionally, the largest contingent of North American respondents came from the Pacific states (27%), followed by the South (21%) and the Northeast (20%). About 10% came from Canada.Of international respondents, 5% were from India, 4% from Germany, and 2% each came from the UK, Mexico, and Singapore.

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About 48% said their jobs involve both micro- and nanotechnology, and 3:2 of the remainder focus on microtech vs. nano.

The respondents are highly educated: 38% hold doctorates, and 27% hold master’s degrees. Of those who specified a field of study, one-third are engineers, and about half of those are electrical engineers. Physicists are the next largest group, at 13%. Almost 8% reported studying law, accounting, communication, or another business-related discipline, instead of a scientific or technical one.

The group is weighted toward executives and researchers. About 42% are in management: 16% are C-level executives (CEOs, CFOs, CTOs, etc.), while about 5% are at the vice-president level and another 21% are managers. About 35% of respondents report their title as scientist, engineer, or researcher.

The respondent group was about 89% male. Of the female respondents, about half had earned their bachelor’s degree during the 1990s or 2000s, compared with 41% for the men.

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Survey respondents came from companies of all sizes. About one-third work for companies of 50 employees or fewer, and 27% work for employers with more than 2,500 employees. The remainder are split among companies of 500 to 2500 (15%), those of 101 to 500 (16%), and those of 51 to 100 (9%).

Private-sector workers predominated. About 70% of respondents are employed by manufacturers (16%), engineering or design firms (13%), corporate R&D (12%), materials or instrument suppliers (10%), micro/nano component integrators (6%), sales (4%), or some type of service firm, such as law, consulting, or marketing (9%). In the public sector, 16% of respondents work in education or university research, and 5% work in government labs.

Compensation trends, hours worked

Among C-level executives globally, two categories—chief technical/science officers and CFO/COO/chief marketing officers—reported higher average salaries than the president/CEO/managing director category. VPs of engineering, research, or technology also have base salaries on par with those of CEOs. The CEOs had relatively larger bonuses, averaging more than $100,000.

Small-tech salaries globally are not increasing dramatically. About 44% of those who answered the question said their salaries had increased less than 5% in 2007, and 46% are expecting the same for 2008. Almost one-third of respondents said their salaries remained static in 2007, but only 24% are expecting the same for 2008. About 2% reported pay cuts in 2007, and the same percentage is bracing for a cut in 2008. About 22% of survey respondents globally said their base salaries had increased at least 5% in 2007, and 28% are expecting such increases in 2008.

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Most US respondents also reported relatively flat base salaries: Almost half of those who answered the question said their salaries had increased less than 5% in 2007, and 31% said their salaries had stayed the same. Only 18% reported increases of 5% or more. For 2008, 52% of respondents expected an increase of 5% or less, and 26% expected their base salary to stay the same. But 21% are expecting raises of 5% or more this year.

Small-tech workers work hard. Almost 70% of US workers reported working more than 40 hours a week. Only 8% work less than 36 hours a week, while 21% work 50 to 65 hours a week, and 7% work more than 65 hours a week.

Not surprisingly, the people at the top put in the most grueling hours on average: Half the presidents and CEOs worked 56 or more hours a week. About 80% of engineers and scientists worked 36 to 50 hours per week.

Globally, the typical work week was similar to that of the US: 73% of all survey respondents said they work more than 40 hours per week. About 12% worked fewer than 36 hours, and about 7% worked more than 65 hours per week.

Employers, trends, practices

Next issue (and online at, we’ll examine hiring trends and practices among employers in the small-tech community, including producers and equipment-makers in various application sectors. Meanwhile, below, we’ll present anecdotal evidence that small-tech companies are expanding and hiring.

SWeNT: Expanding 100-fold

Over the next few months, SouthWest NanoTechnologies is planning to ramp up production to 100 times its current level while keeping its staff size the same—a feat perhaps possible only when the product is single-walled carbon nanotubes, so that “ramping up” means going from 10 grams a day to one kilo.

But with a price set at $50 per gram, that’s upwards of $13 million a year, possibly enough to make SWeNT profitable by year-end, says CEO Dave Arthur. He’s subsisting now on a $5 million infusion from angel investors, which went mostly to build a larger and easily expandable production plant, but he says he may never have to go back for more if his projections are correct. And if they are, he plans to more than double his staff, from 21 today to as many as 50, during 2009.

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Like many small-tech start-ups worldwide, SWeNT, in Norman, OK, is emerging from the R&D cocoon to test its commercial viability. Companies bringing real products to market may drive a measurable percentage of small-tech hiring in the next few years. And they’ll be looking for seasoned professionals.

SWeNT’s product and process came out of research done at the nearby University of Oklahoma. As a result, finding young tech talent isn’t a problem; the company gets first crack at the new grads and post-docs coming out of the research group of Daniel Resasco, a chaired professor at the School of Chemical, Biological and Materials Engineering and SWeNT’s CTO. Arthur also needs people in sales, marketing, and accounting, as well as those with industrial experience.

Altairnano: Looking for all skills

Altair Nanotechnologies, Reno, NV, manufactures ceramic nanomaterials for diverse applications, from biomedical coatings to paint pigments to air and water purification. The company is planning to ramp up its staff this year, adding 50 people to its current complement of 85. CEO Alan Gotcher says he’s looking for all types of skill sets: not just engineering and physics, but also marketing, finance, supply chain management, and other operational functions. “We’re hiring for growth, because our turnover is in single digits,” he says.

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Because people with experience in nanoceramics are scarce, Altairnano is prepared to grow its own. “We’re looking for individuals with a good skill set in their discipline, whether it’s hard sciences or marketing or sales,” Gotcher says. “We don’t require that they be trained in nanotech. We’ll put them through training classes because our processes and products are unique.”

Altairnano is a pay-for-performance environment, with all employees eligible for bonuses and stock options. “I’m a big advocate of stock options because they’re only worth something if you create value,” Gotcher says.

IMT: MEMS lovers wanted

Innovative Micro Technology (IMT), one of the few custom MEMS foundries in the world, is busily trying to fill up its cavernous production facility in Santa Barbara, CA. The company plans to add 20 to 40 positions this year to its current staff of 85, says CEO John Foster. In business since 2000, IMT works with companies in diverse fields, from drug delivery and biomedical devices to telecommunications and power management. The company prototypes, manufactures, and tests MEMS devices and has about 20 customers and $23 million in annual revenue.

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IMT does much recruiting by word of mouth, finding a steady pipeline from professors with whom it has relationships, or from friends of current employees. “It’s been relatively easy for us to find terrific people,” says Foster. “We’ve been able to attract the best and brightest from industry. We’re aided by being in Santa Barbara, which looks pretty good to most folks. And we have a leadership position in many areas of making high-performance MEMS.” Though IMT is privately held, stock options are still part of the benefit mix. “We want to make sure everyone shares in the same success,” says Foster. The company is financially self-sufficient and currently doesn’t need the cash infusion that a public stock offering could yield.

FEI: Scoping out imaging talent

The FEI Company, an instrument-maker based in Hillsboro, OR, boosted its complement by 300 last year to bring the total number of employees to 2,000 worldwide, says Jasmine Jeske, global staffing manager. The company’s biggest growth driver is its Titan transmission electronic microscope, which can examine things at a sub-nanometer level. Being on the cutting edge has its downside when it comes to hiring, Jeske says: Finding people with TEM experience is almost impossible.

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“The TEM is very sophisticated, and customers need a lot of support,” she says. “But we can’t just go out and find people who’ve been doing it, because the technology is brand new.” To fill those tech-support positions, the company searches out people with other types of instrument experience and spends substantial resources training them. On the plus side, the TEM’s very newness attracts potential employees and helps FEI find scientists for another vital role: developing new applications for the tool and doing cooperative research with FEI customers.

FEI just opened a “nanoport” R&D center in Shanghai to supplement two others in the US and Europe. Staffing up for China has brought some surprises, Jeske says. “We’re finding a lot of interest among Chinese nationals who are in the US doing post-docs or working on visas. They want to return to China, which was not the case two or three years ago.”

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