March/April 2011

Your Letters

Must reverse the trend

I think you are really on to something here [in the November/December "Talk to Me" column]. My father worked for a large utility company for 28 years before being let go right as I was finishing up my last quarter of college for my degree in Mechanical Engineering. The good news is, though, that now he has his own business and contracts a lot of his old job back from the same company, making more money with fewer headaches. However, I certainly didn't enter the workforce with the confidence I should have back then, and I wound up with two consecutive jobs over six years that I didn't really fit in. I was actually let go from the second one because they wanted to keep the guy with better "sales" skills, even though the job was about 90% technical. I was only 30 at the time, but I had imparted a lot of my knowledge onto this upstart, and the last I heard, he had moved up into management with the company. For the past five years, I have worked in Instrumentation and am beginning to do more Controls Engineering with a small A&E firm in Atlanta. Fortunately for me, I am the only one here who does what I do, as others have moved on for "greener" pastures. I'm 37 now, and am doing my best to impart a lot of the Instrumentation knowledge I've gained to our new young Junior Engineer. I was just talking with him about your article, and we both agree that this skills crisis is the major thing facing Engineering, especially in the U.S., that will probably last for the duration of our careers. I had a nice discussion with my best friend, also an Engineer, about 10 years ago about how globalization would not help the U.S. if we wanted to remain one of the world's leaders. As we've seen, Manufacturing, Customer Service, and even a lot of the craft trades, especially Insulation, is now being performed overseas or workers are brought in from outside the country. I don't know what it's going to take to reverse this trend, because Americans are so ingrained that cheaper is better, but it's not, especially when it comes to skilled Engineers, Scientists, and Manufacturing Executives.

Matt Blackburn, Senior I&C Engineer

Striking a balance

I have just read the "Talk to Me" column "Deepwater Horizon oil disaster lessons" in the July/August 2010 InTech.

I fully agree with your statement about separating the guts of a business and "business management."

At 47, I have some 26 years of extremely hands-on involvement in the nuts-and-bolts of instrumentation and control.

At least in my company, our generation is being replaced by new engineers, many of them with MBAs and management oriented.

What worries me is that, while they take care of management, KPIs, etc., nuts-and-bolts will be left to, er … well …  nobody, since we will retire, and they, who are supposed to replace us, appear more keen on management than in working-learning hard from the ground, doing the rounds, touching the hardware, feeling the plant heartbeat, etc. I am afraid this means difficult, as well as dangerous, times ahead.

Having said that, I do recognize the value of MBA education, KPI, etc. After all, money talks; but hey, maybe in the interest of attracting more people to our profession, we "misfocused" in the glamour rather than in the real thing and went to the other side. We urgently need to strike a balance again.

Jorge Ferreiro, ISA Senior Member

Job situation is tenuous

I had to comment on the InTech Nov/Dec 2010 "Talk to me" column.

Though I agree with the bulk of your article, I would say you have missed one of the major reasons why candidates are shying away from the Automation Profession.

The group you are trying to attract is college or university graduates. These folks will be entering salaried positions. Management views salaried people as an expense, not essential to running the plant. Their skills can be bought when and if needed, like going to the doctor. If there are few dollars planned for investment and the industry is "mature," why keep this high cost group?

Witness that many industries (chemical, refining, auto, steel, etc.) cleaned house regularly during my professional life.

The only people management paid attention to were the hourly paid and their direct supervisors. (Plants can't run without those folks). And those folks were and are to this day paid for every hour of overtime and callout. They are not expected to keep up with technology on their own and are paid while being trained at their hourly rate, generating overtime for their "brethren."

The job situation for the downsized automation professionals was and is still tenuous … contracting … part time, with large no pay gaps. Little chance of full-time employment and very exacting and demanding job ads-just look at ISAJobs.org. If you are over 40 and inexperienced in a specific platform/system, no reply. And look at the salary offered, which is often less than that of the hourly paid worker.

The above are all well-known facts pertaining to the automation profession. Industry treats it like a commodity.

When I reached Senior Manager level as a "Specialist," I was never involved or consulted on these issues; I was relegated to my Specialist role only and paid well. When the company decided that our industry was mature and few North American investments were planned, I was given a parachute and released to face finding employment, only to find that at middle age no one would even consider making an offer because of my previous salary history, fearing I would not accept a pay cut or that I would stay only a short term.

My son, an Engineering graduate, saw no attraction to the profession.

My story is not unique. I don't see anything that will change it on the horizon.

A former Engineering Associate (name withheld)

Response:

I appreciate your comments, and it made me think about this some more. When companies have this attitude and believe they can simply outsource, they are placing the fate of their competiveness in outsiders. Outside vendors will never have the company's interest at heart like an employee. If a competitor is better at improving and running automation, they can make more money and be more competitive.

Bill Lydon, InTech chief editor