Industry has always provided engineers with an abundant and diverse range of career paths leading to personal and professional growth. However, in recent years, the employment landscape has changed dramatically because of
the globalization of the workplace and the automation/computerization of many processes. Nonetheless, industry remains a significant employer of entry-level engineers.
New engineers should be aware that, because of rapidly changing business demands, careers in industry will not follow the traditional paths of the past and that obtaining positions in industry will be increasingly competitive. Several factors are contributing to this new reality:
- Manufacturing is no longer old, dirty “smokestacks.”
- Today’s industry is influenced by globalization.
- Organizations have more flattened advancement structures.
- An increasing number of small and midsize companies serve major corporations.
First, today’s manufacturers are no longer dirty “smokestack” industries. Modern manufacturing facilities are highly automated, with many relying on robots to perform tasks formerly done by factory workers. It is now the responsibility of a few highly trained engineers to manage the production process and keep the robotic equipment at peak performance levels. In fact, many manufacturing facilities have taken on the appearance of high-tech centers
instead of the stereotypical twentieth-century factory. As a result of this modernization, manufacturing facilities now require cross-disciplinary teams and creative problem solving that only highly educated engineers can provide. The new manufacturing environment requires high levels of engineering expertise combined with the ability to work with and lead diverse groups of people (employees, suppliers, consultants) in different locations to meet a common goal. Today’s engineers must have communication skills that are as strong as their engineering skills.
Second, today’s industry is strongly influenced by globalization. In addition to seeking new markets for products around the world, business and industry seek global suppliers of raw goods and remote manufacturers of products in order to keep costs down and profits high for their shareholders. With global competition expected to expand, companies are seeking versatility in their workforce. This means that industry will draw from a global pool of talent, making the job market very competitive for engineers who do not have the skills required to function in a global environment. While high-level engineering skills will always be necessary, today’s job candidates will need to demonstrate strong oral and written communication skills as well. Cultural awareness, the ability to work well in a diverse environment, and even foreign language skills will be much sought after. Engineers who possess both high-level technical skills and these “softer” skills will be in high demand.
According to Steve Jahnke of Texas Instruments, some of the major challenges that companies face today are knowing what products to design for international markets and how to work with international engineering teams (be they in India, China, or elsewhere). The ability to work with both U.S. and offshore engineering and marketing teams is, and will be, highly valued by industry. Engineers with this type of experience and ability can put things in context for both management teams in ways that are more clearly understood. Steve sees this as one of the benefits of the “free trade and offshoring” debate. He suggests that ten years ago, he might not have been as highly valued as he is now. His years of experience living and working in another country, and his strong engineering knowledge have resulted in promotions and compensation comparable to that for MBA consultants/finance specialists.
A third reality affecting industry is flattened organizational structures. Most industries have eliminated the hierarchical levels of advancement that engineers came to expect.
That structure has been replaced with an emphasis on teamwork and projects. Contributions of engineering and cross-functional teams now give companies their competitive edge. The new platform for career advancement is your ability to make significant contributions in different business functions and to a wide variety of teams and projects, which increase in scope of work and financial value to the company.
The new rules for success include, but are not limited to:
- Continually expanding and enhancing your engineering knowledge to keep your company aware of emerging technologies that will help it to be more competitive
- Broadening your knowledge of your company’s products, processes, and facilities to be ready to contribute when there is a business need
- Managing diverse groups of people as well as being able to influence and persuade others throughout the organization, even if they do not directly report to you
Many industry leaders recommend that engineers manage their own career development by acquiring a broad knowledge of company products, processes, services, and locations. In addition, they recommend being capable
of “deep dives” into one or more technical areas. In other words, management expects engineers who advance within the organization to not only be Subject Matter Experts (SME) in a particular aspect of engineering but also to have extensive knowledge of the company’s products, processes, and services and be able to lead many different groups of people in achieving business goals.
The fourth factor impacting a change in engineers’ career development is the emergence of small and midsize companies that serve as designers, suppliers, manufacturers, and/or distributors for major industries. Because these
companies tend to lack the bureaucratic restrictions of larger organizations, they are able to respond more quickly to changing demands in the marketplace. Consequently, they provide new challenges and new levels of responsibility
for creative and energetic engineers, and opportunities for rapid advancement within the organization, the industry, and the profession.
This means that new engineers have to be more versatile and sensitive to the changing needs and expectations of industry. They also have to think about their careers in different ways than the engineers who have gone before
them. As in the past, creativity, problem solving, and technical expertise are important. However, in today’s engineering job market, they might not be enough. Engineers will need to demonstrate knowledge of leading software
applications in their field, strong teamwork skills, leadership potential, multicultural awareness, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Because the engineering profession is changing rapidly, it offers new and exciting opportunities for engineers who are eager to contribute and solve problems.