Science Careers Blog

Americas: June 2010

Raytheon Corporation, a defense and security contractor with $25 billion in sales in 2009, is looking for engineers -- a lot of them. William Swanson, Raytheon's CEO, told the Boston Chamber of Commerce this week that the company plans to hire 4,500 engineers this year, and it's having a tough time finding them.

Why? Swanson claims there aren't enough engineering candidates in the American workforce. He notes that the number of American students interested in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) shrinks the further you go in the educational system. Of the 4 million American ninth-graders in 2001, says Swanson, 167,000 will earn a scientific or technical degree by 2011, and of those just 64,000 will become engineers. He expects this to continue for some time.

Raytheon is making efforts to encourage more education in science and technology. Swanson says the company devotes 60% of its charitable giving to math and science education, including development of a simulation and modeling tool to help businesses, educators, and policy makers better understand the dynamics of the STEM labor market.

Understanding the STEM labor market can be a matter of debate, as Beryl Benderly pointed out in Science Careers two years ago. In particular, the experience of shortages by one company may not be reflective of the market as a whole. Benderly talked to experts who study labor market dynamics, who find that a shortage in one discipline or area of the country can go on while other fields or regions are experiencing gluts.

Our editor Jim Austin often discusses dynamics of the scientific workforce on this blog. In February 2009, he described the discrepancies between perceptions and realities of labor shortages and gluts by employers and job-seekers.

Hat tip: Experience blog

Since we're between flu seasons, concerns about encountering ill colleagues in the workplace have abated for now. But there's reason to be concerned, even without an epidemic in the headlines: A large percentage of American workers apparently go to work while sick, including more than half of those without paid sick leave, according to a new survey for the Public Welfare Foundation. The survey also shows that workers without paid sick leave are more likely to use hospital emergency rooms -- one of the least efficient and most expensive forms -- for primary care.

More than one-third (37%) of workers eligible for sick leave said they had gone to work while sick with a contagious illness, while more than half of those who are not eligible for sick leave -- 55% -- said they go to work while sick. Nearly a quarter (24%) of those without sick leave say they send their sick children to day care or school. And about two in 10 (18 to 20%) of workers without sick leave took themselves or family members to hospital emergency rooms for non-emergencies.These numbers are about double what workers with paid sick leave report.

Depending on how it's structured, the availability of sick leave may not keep people away from work, apparently. While more than six 10 (64%) are eligible for paid sick leave, less than half (47%) of workers took advantage. In many cases, paid sick leave is combined with vacation and family leave into a single pool called Paid Time Off (PTO). More than half (58%) of those with PTO get just 10 days or less of paid leave for all of these purposes. If they get sick after using up their PTO, they cannot get paid if they stay home while sick.

For researchers in government or larger industrial labs, sick leave usually comes as part of the compensation package. (In academia, leave is often handled less formally, but it's usually available.) The report cites the 2009 National Compensation Survey compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which shows that nearly nine in 10 (88%) of government workers get sick leave, as well as eight in 10 staff (81%) of companies with 500 or more employees. As companies get smaller, the percentage of workers with paid sick leave drops; about four in 10 (42%) of workers at companies with 15 or fewer employees get paid sick leave.

Part-time and lower-paid workers, the new new survey says, are less likely to be eligible for sick leave than full-time and better-paid employees. Only about a quarter (24%) of part-time workers get sick leave, compared to nearly three-quarters (73%) of full time workers. And only three in 10 of those making less than $20,000 a year get sick leave, compared to eight in 10 workers making $80,000 a year or more.

Survey data were collected by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, via 1,461 telephone interviews.

In his February 2008 Tooling Up column, Dave Jensen offers tips for adding muscle to your marketing materials, particularly your résumé and cover letter. One of those tips is to describe your accomplishments and contributions with "action words" -- terms that convey action and results.

Action words may help your materials stand out from the mass of others and improve your chances of getting an interview. Many résumés today, unfortunately, still give lists of duties rather than tell about applicants' results or contributions.

In his 2008 piece, Jensen links to a document with list of action terms offered by the law school at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). The CareerRocketeer blog recently posted its own list of 30 more résumé action terms, many of which are not on the UDC list. Some of these lend themselves to scientific or technical work. Here are a few ...


and my favorite ...

The importance of a good mentor for early-career scientists has been well documented on the pages of Science Careers and even by the National Academies. But finding a mentor who can open doors for you, and not just offer advice, takes special effort. In an entry posted yesterday on the Wall Street Journal's Hire Education blog, Steve Walters offers a few tips on how to make that special effort.

Walters calls this super-mentor a "whale": "somebody who is a recognized voice, widely admired or otherwise well-accomplished -- in other words, a high-achiever." Once you have identified an industry or profession in which you want to work, Walters suggests looking for executives, entrepreneurs, consultants, and other recognized experts with at least 10 years experience in that industry or profession. They likely will have networks including plenty of contacts in the field.

Whales can be people you know -- a current or former professor, for example. Or if none of your acquaintances fit that description, you can search online for authors of articles or blogs, or executives of industry associations. Walters then suggests making contact at near-by events, such as conferences or workshops, where the whales are likely to appear.

Walters describes a process for approaching a whale, including a straightforward way demonstrate your abilities: volunteer your services for one of  the extra projects whales tend to accumulate, like barnacles. In an article for Science Careers this past March, Brooke Allen mentioned the abundance of opportunities for volunteer work that are related to professional development. "There's plenty of work to do, even if there's no money to pay you to do it," Allen says.

Walters offers ideas on maintaining a relationship with a mentor and even for developing a network of mentors, since there's no rule that says you should have only one. "Once started, fostering these relationships should be one of your top career priorities," Walters says, "since you don't know where they may lead."

Woody Allen famously said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up," and new research suggests he may be on to something. This new research suggests that your physical presence on the job, while maybe not 80% of your success, can add a few percentage points to your perceived value.

The findings are published in a paper in the June issue of the journal Human Relations. Kimberly Elsbach and Jeffrey Sherman of University of California at Davis, and Dan Cable of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill talked in-depth with 39 first-line or mid-level managers about the implications of workers being present in the workplace. The findings from these open-ended interviews suggest that employees seen at work during normal business hours are considered dependable, reliable, conscientious, and trustworthy. As one respondent remarked, "So if I see you there all the time, okay, good. You're hard working, a hard working, dependable individual."

Showing up was particularly important for workers doing work that was not easily quantified, such as creative or specialized tasks. Being physically on the job assured the managers the workers were working diligently, even if they weren't completely knowledgeable about their output.

And if staff were seen on the job outside of normal working hours, they more often were considered committed and dedicated, and thus even more valuable. Speaking of staff who put in the extra hours, one respondent told the authors, "I think it's seen as a higher level of commitment, and you get thought of as an overachiever because you're seen after hours." This extra effort, according to another respondent, is "definitely one of the tests of management material."

The researchers followed the interviews with more of a controlled experiment that suggests this attribution of positive traits to those who show up could be a spontaneous or unconscious process. The team gave 60 professional-level employees a written scenario describing the activities of an office worker who was on the scene and observed by others. The participants were then asked to identify traits of the person described in the scenario from a list of test words, in what was presented to the subjects as a test of memory. Four of the test terms -- Dependable, Committed, Dedicated, and Responsible -- were NOT used in scenario. Nonetheless these terms were identified by far more respondents than other non-occurring terms such as Creative, Friendly, Unproductive, and Lazy.

An interesting angle on this research is that the authors focused solely on fellow workers' or managers' impressions of employees based on the extent to which they were physically present in the workplace, what they call "passive face-time." They did not get into other factors, such as substantive interactions with employees or even the nature of the work they performed.

Thus, just showing up could make a difference in how managers and fellow workers think about your value to the organization. Telecommuting and virtual organizations can cut costs, save energy, and allow for more time with your family, but you need to be breathing the same air if you really want your colleagues to recognize the good that you do.

Anyone who has been on the job market for any length of time knows the anguish experienced when a potential employer asks for a salary history as well as a C.V.  Author and career blogger Eve Tahmincioglu offers advice for dealing with this vexing requirement, and while there's no easy answer, there are ways of handling it productively.

When an employer asks for salary history, it can cut two ways. For job hunters making less than they feel they deserve, the salary history is seen as a way for employers to offer another low salary. For those lucky enough to be paid well, it is seen as a way for employers to arbitrarily remove their names from consideration in favor of lower-paid candidates.

A reader of Tahmincioglu's Career Diva blog falls into the first category, finding what she considers a dream job but with a requirement for salary history. The reader worked for a not-for-profit unit of a university that had faced one budget crisis after another, and as a result had only one pay raise in 5 years. Many readers of Science Careers, working at universities and not-for-profit organizations that have been particularly hard-pressed lately, can probably sympathize.

Tahmincioglu spells out three common options when faced with a salary-history requirement, none of which are fool-proof:

- Lie about your current salary, which can come back to haunt you if employers check your salary -- and they will.

- Put down your desired salary, but with an asterisk indicating "market rate"

- Don't answer, and put off the discussion until the employer makes an offer. This may work, but it's a crap shoot.

Tahmincioglu quotes a fellow careers consultant who lays out an interesting strategy: answer honestly but also spell out your circumstances, explaining why you deserve a higher salary. Then investigate prevailing rates of pay and the employer's financial situation in advance of  salary negotiations.  

In 2006 Dave Jensen devoted two of his Tooling Up columns to salary negotiations. The June 2006 column advises job hunters how to approach salary negotiations (Hint: You got more power in these negotiations than you think) and in July 2006 offers tools and tips for salary negotiations. And in another Tooling Up column coming up later this week, Jensen points out that some potential hires are more likely to encounter such difficult questions than others.

Canada's Université de Montréal is recruiting businesses to supplement traditional government grants for cancer research on its campus. The university's Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC) models this program on a similar partnership that funded Canadian athletes for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The new program, called B2Discovery, hopes to enlist the for-profit private sector to fund research into cancer causes, diagnostics, drugs for prevention, and therapies for cures. According to Dr. Guy Sauvageau, CEO and Scientific Director of IRIC, the private funding will supplement traditional government funding, which Sauvageau says in a news release today "meets only part of the needs of our researchers." 

The model for B2Discovery is the B2Ten program, which supplements athletes' main sources of funding, providing access to the extra training and services athlete's need to excel internationally.  B2Ten's private-sector funds supported some 20 athletes that competed for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. Like the B2Ten program, enterprises make charitable contributions to B2Discovery and take no ownership of the research findings.

B2Discovery is attracting interest from companies beyond biomedical industries. One of the early backers is Pomerleau, a construction company based in Saint-Georges, Quebec. Pierre Pomerleau, the company's president, says they signed on to B2Discovery because of its important mission and the role business can play. "Cancer is the leading cause of mortality in the country," Pomerleau says. "To conquer this devastating disease, we must be innovative."

Suzanne Lucas, a blogger and former human resources manager, answers a question from a reader today on the management Web site BNet about the wisdom of telling a potential employer about health problems. Lucas's short answer is "don't do it," at least not right away.

Lucas's reader is applying for jobs that require a college transcript, and in this case, the transcript shows the reader got less than stellar grades in some classes. The reason: medical problems. Also in this case, the reader's most recent grades were high and the mediocre grades received during the medical problems were in subjects unrelated to the work being applied for. A hiring manager, Lucas says, probably would not care about those mediocre grades, so the reader would be better off not mentioning them.

Lucas also addresses the broader question of leveling with a potential employer about chronic medical problems, noting that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination in hiring because of disabilities, and that employers must make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. However, a study published in 2000 by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, reported that the hiring of people with disabilities actually decreased after the passage of ADA. Lucas says some observers attribute that decline partly to the cost of meeting those reasonable-accommodations requirements.

Lucas says applicants with chronic health issues should concentrate first on getting the job. Given the continuing tough job market, you don't want to give a potential employer any reason not to hire you. Once on the job for a while, you can disclose the health problems to the human-resources department, who can advise your supervisors on any accommodations you may need. By that time, says Lucas, it will probably be too late for management to fret much about the hiring decision.

Science Careers devoted a June 2004 feature to health issues in the scientific workplace, including a Mind Matters column by Irene S. Levine on disclosure of health problems. Levine, like Lucas, notes that the issue is not always clear cut, but offers a series of steps people with chronic health problems can take, including consultations with the employer's human resources department.