01 June 2003
Maneuvering in changing currents
By Ellen Fussell
Globalization blows focused engineering out of the water.
The horizon is a different hue, the wind's kicking up, and engineering has changed its course. Changing business needs, coupled with new graduates' attitudes and seasoned engineers' increasing value, are forcing a renewed definition of engineering itself. Ten years ago, an engineer could depend on a stable environment, good benefits, and a healthy salary. He could sleep soundly at night, secure in the knowledge that his technical proficiency was enough to keep the sails taut in a healthy economic breeze. Then in blew globalization, forcing businesses to rethink the role of engineers and realign their businesses accordingly.
The growing prevalence of multinational companies brings the need for multifaceted engineering—and finding highly skilled engineers at a low cost is nearly impossible. Over the past decade, changes in the industry have led to downsizing in many industries. And unfortunately, "in the process industries, the discipline targeted the most is engineering," said Peter Martin, vice president and general manager of performance management for Invensys in Foxboro, Mass.
Why engineering? The chief financial officers (CFOs) seemed to decide that "for us to survive in the marketplace, we need to produce results, and we can't downsize resources helping us produce, only those that appear to be a cost—with no tangible economic value associated," Martin said. "They're looking for resources in their organization that appear to be a high cost and that don't appear to add economic value." They perceive engineers as disposable, "and that's a shame," he said.
With B.A. and M.S. degrees in Mathematics, an M.A. degree in Administration and Management, and a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering, Martin should know about what companies need to succeed. In fact, the reverse is true, he said. Engineering has the potential to add the most value. But managers are downsizing this valuable resource because the engineer's value is not immediately apparent to them.
WHAT'S THE ANSWER?
If an engineer believes he's generated $100,000 for the company, and neither the chief financial officer nor the finance department can see it—no matter what the truth is, the perception is the engineer hasn't generated that revenue. So the first thing companies have to do is correct the finance systems to make the engineers' generated value visible to management, Martin said. And to help this happen, engineers must become more business savvy.
"I can't tell you how many CFOs I've interviewed who've said, 'If one more engineer walks into my office who's created their own metrics to create value for the company and they don't match my metrics . . . .' We have not brought the disciplines of engineering and business together," Martin said. "And that's the death knell to engineers."
One fix, Martin said, is to alter accounting systems—to make business metrics visible to engineers—giving them solid information about how much money they're actually making for the corporation. "If you say the economic value-add for our corporation is X, that doesn't provide an engineer working at a subsection any information about whether he's adding value," Martin said. Fix the accounting systems to show the engineer his true value, "then you'll find more business savvy within."
The training process should start in engineering schools, Martin said. "I think some of the schools are teaching better business skills, but some of them do our engineers a disservice." Brilliant students might make great engineers, but they don't automatically have the business knowledge they need to succeed in the real world, he said. They need to learn the reason they exist is to help a business succeed commercially, he said.
Schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., are offering courses to help students prepare for the business world—and students are taking a proactive role in getting that extra education. "Students are doing what's necessary to make themselves more marketable—taking advanced classes in their discipline, taking classes in management, selecting internships that directly relate to their discipline, and working on outside projects that build their technical expertise," said Deborah Liverman, MIT's assistant director of career services.
MIT's typical graduates have at least "two to three internship positions under their belts," she said. "They've taken interdisciplinary classes exposing them to other areas of engineering or business. They have experience working on teams for engineering projects, and strong analytical and technical skills," she said.
New graduates are coming into the workplace with a different attitude and more independence. And seasoned engineers are changing their attitudes about business savvy, battening down the hatches to learn more and secure their engineering futures in a global marketplace.
Martin sees in new engineers a willingness to view business learning as a part of the engineering territory. It's not so much a difference in the way newer engineers think versus the way seasoned engineers think, but it's more of a new demand that's forcing the mindset, Martin said.
And sometimes the discipline itself forces a new mindset. Disciplines such as control engineering, industrial engineering, and operations research are more aligned with business objectives—because the basic concept is a business concept, he said. "Control engineers realize they are there to make the base assets perform better," Martin said. "They're more open to realize the objective of performance is a business objective, not a technology objective."
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
Most employers today are looking for analytical, technical, and communication skills—and of course, the ability to work on a team and lead a group, Liverman said.
"If they have interaction with the company's clients, then communication and management skills are very important." And of course, new graduates that have technical, communication, and management skills may have more job opportunities than those with just technical skills, she said.
Businesses that require all that communicating and teamwork are really saying, you're not just an engineer—you're a business leader. But requiring those skills doesn't come without its cost. With today's changing technology—new products and business techniques, employers need expensive skills to match, according to Vern Johnson in an IEEE Today's Engineer (www.todaysengineer.org ) article, "Engineering careers come in four varieties," (April 03). Among those skills are the ability to work in teams, communicate, and understand the business requirements and strategies," Johnson said.
"Salaries have spiraled and companies are offering what appears to be more permanent employment for those who possess the right skills," he said. Yet "skyrocketing salaries bring with them the expectation that employees deliver exactly what employers need, and they provide justification for laying off employees who don't produce at appropriate levels, or don't have the skills to match the next generation of products," he said.
As a process-plant veteran, Martin said laying off an engineer might be a quick fix, but business will pay in the long run, and not even realize where the degradation in performance originated. The mistake "won't become apparent for the first six months," he said. Perfor-mance degradation happens slowly over time. And by the time management realizes the plant isn't running right, the causal relationship between the degradation and the missing engineer is not clear, Martin said.
Yet with all the business, communication, and leadership needs, engineering is still a single intense discipline. What should you think about if you're a graduating engineer in today's economy? It's still important to look for companies that offer engaging and challenging opportunities, Liverman said. "Our graduates stay motivated by working on projects where they can continue to learn more about their field," she said. "Most of our students have plans to go on for advanced degrees so their first jobs out of college are key in determining if they will continue in the field of engineering." And those students are choosing from top employers. Some from last year included: Oracle, Raytheon, Microsoft, Siebel Systems, Texas Instruments, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sacs, Merrill Lynch, and IBM.
"Pick the discipline that intrigues you," Martin said. Yet with their huge load, double majoring isn't an option for engineering graduates, so "as soon as you get out, consider getting trained in business. Then go after an MBA or Engineering Management degree," he said. "Industrial Engineering mixes the engineering and business disciplines. Look into some type of business training over and above your engineering training," he said. That's a combination that's hard to find.
Independence is key according to Today's Engineer. "To succeed, engineers need to be independent learning professionals who can determine gaps in their learning, plan career and education activities, and proceed independently," Johnson said.
"Internships are always important because they give you experience," said Ted Schnaare, engineering manager at Rosemount, Inc. in Chanhassen, Minn. "They help you understand your strengths and weaknesses and where you need to shore up and prepare for the workforce—things like being aware and able to use the latest engineering tools or computerized tools that are out there," he said. "Of course, now if you're looking for a job, you have to have a network built up." You get that through internships.
And what about those seasoned engineers who've been in the industry for years? "You're never too old to learn more," Martin said. And he admits he's one of those engineers. "Most companies I see are willing to invest in education. If you put the energy into learning engineering, you can learn business. We have to realize we're in a business world—not working for engineering's sake," he said. "If we do that, the CFOs will be more inclined to invest in us." IT
ENGINEERING GAME TEACHES NEW RESPONSIBILITIES
It's no secret that today's engineer has more overall responsibility than those from ten years ago. And a chemical engineering student from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., made the point cleverly clear in an Internet term-project game. H. Bungay's 1997 New Engineer Simulation (www.rti.edu) takes players through a typical engineer's day, offering choices that could have catastrophic results if not played astutely. The game begins:
The early morning sun gleams off the hood of your newly purchased, nitric oxide belching, sport utility vehicle as you drive to a new job as associate engineer at a chemical plant. A doughnut shop presents itself on the next corner. Do you want to stop in?
If you choose, Yes I need my coffee, you'll see this screen:
You anxiously await your turn at the counter, then order a jumbo Colombian blend and a glazed with fudge and sprinkles. . . . After your pastry, and a good portion of the morning paper, you continue your drive, pausing only for a couple police cars and several ambulances that are headed, annoyingly, in the same direction.
On the horizon, you notice a plume of mustard-colored smoke rising into the air. As you get closer, you realize that it's coming from your plant! Emergency vehicles swarm about you; sirens wail. You're forced to stop outside the gate where people, extricated from the smoldering rubble, are being removed on stretchers. You recognize a victim as one of the people you manage.
"Bill!" you shout, "What happened?"
He turns toward you feebly and gasps "You weren't around . . . thought I'd start without you . . . must of forgot to . . . ." He trails off and a blank expression spreads over his face. In a gut-wrenching instant you realize that Bill's life, and your career, are over. . . .
Yet players get another chance to prove their worth to the company. In another scenario, if you deny yourself the doughnut and choose the option, No thanks, on your second try, you'll see this screen:
You crawl the rest of the way to work, grinning menacingly. . . . You push the thick rimmed, Coke-bottle glasses onto your face, arrange the pencils in your bulging pocket protector, and holster the calculators on your hip. Do you think you're prepared for your first test of the day?
A red-faced technician comes running in "Thank God you're here! The anaerobic digester is going sour! The pH is 5.5 instead of 7.2! How much Hydrated Lime (Ca(OH)2) do we need to add to get the 150 gallons back to normal?"
Coolly, you draw your calculator and, after a minute of furious typing, you calmly reply:
A. "Let's wait and see what happens, Bill."
B. "Put in 20.5 lbs."
C. "Put in 4.4*10-6 lbs."
D. Excuse yourself and climb out the bathroom window.
If you do not choose the correct option, you'll see this screen:
A couple days later you're asked to investigate some strange thumping noises coming from the digester. You would have sent your assistant, Bill, but he seems to have disappeared.
Looking the reactor over, you notice a rip in the top of the structure, as if something had burst out with great force. You climb the ladder to get a better look, unaware of the slimy green tentacles slithering out of the hole. You are suddenly plucked off the ladder and dragged screaming into the gaping jaws of the digester monster . . . seems like your little experiment worked.
The game continues—taking the player through twists and turns and possible disasters that the novice engineer might fall for—but that the new business-savvy engineer might adroitly avoid. Good luck!