The graying of America—and the less-than-sexy appeal of a career in manufacturing and industrial settings—means an ever-increasing shortfall of experienced engineers and technicians.
As business prospects continue to rise on the strength of demand in key markets like petroleum refining, water treatment, industrial processing and mining, end-users of valves and actuators, and the companies that manufacture them, face a growing dilemma-a shortfall of the young engineers and technicians needed in coming years to design and specify products and maintain installations. The ability to recruit and train these workers is essential if companies are to remain competitive and expand operations in step with market opportunities.
Finding the next generation of plant engineers and technical workers is especially important now, experts say, because a graying workforce will soon be retiring in large numbers. As they leave they will take with them much of the knowledge and on-the job experience that are vital to innovation and operational efficiency, leaving companies with a critical shortage of talent and institutional expertise.
A Dearth of Experts
"Retirement is creating a dearth of engineers and experts in the industry," says Cooper Etheridge, president of actuator maker Automation Technology Inc., Industry, TX. By some estimates the average age of engineers in manufacturing and sales positions at most companies ranges from the mid 40s to the early 50s, a marked difference from 20 years ago, executives say, when the average age was mid 30s to early 40s.
Moreover, much of the institutional knowledge has been moving upstream for some time, he says, from end-users like refineries through the engineering companies and valve-automation houses to the valve and actuator manufacturers. This trend, which gained momentum from the consolidation of the oil companies and the downsizing many went through in the 1990s, is easing a bit as petrochemical producers ramp up operations to meet current demand, but for cost reasons it's unlikely to reverse itself. "End-users are looking more and more at using the engineering expertise of their suppliers to help determine what they need for their plants," Etheridge adds.
Most companies find it difficult to recruit engineers despite forecasts of at least another decade or more of growth in many key end-use markets. "Industries that use a lot of valves, like petrochemical, have very bright futures," remarks Jay Petegara, senior engineering advisor at Syncrude Canada Ltd., Fort McMurray, Alberta. "I don't see demand slowing down. This could go on for the next 15 to 20 years."
Valve and actuator demand is also expected to grow in areas other than industrial applications. Ed Foster, vice president of The Mundy Cos., a maintenance contractor in Houston, says demographics will play a role, as the growing number of elderly in America increase the need for commercial and service buildings like hospitals and assisted-care centers. "I see a continuing need for people who can bolt things together and weld things up," he remarks.
Nevertheless, many young engineers are either opting for careers in other industries or looking to parlay their degrees in jobs that may be a fast track to an executive office rather than a plant floor or field installation. "From a manufacturing standpoint we're not seeing a lot of engineers, and on the sales side we're having a hard time finding people," says Leon Brooks, industrial sales manager of distributed products for Cameron in Houston.
Even when companies recruit enough young engineers, individual work preferences can be challenging to managers who stress cross-training. "It's not always easy to get them to do some tasks, like working on CAD drawings," says Tom Velan, president of Velan Valve Corp., Montreal. "Some want to go into sales, some want to move around to various jobs."
Addressing the Shortfall
Solutions to the shortfall vary, but executives across the industry agree on three ways to address the problem of finding and retaining young engineers:
- Develop generic programs for four-year engineering colleges and two-year technical schools that teach students about valves and actuators and how they are used, and raise awareness of opportunities in the industry.
- Promote greater cooperation with colleges in developing work-study programs that give students a chance to intern with end-users, manufacturers, and maintenance contractors.
- Create more training and mentoring programs within companies to help young engineers bridge the gap between what they learn in school and real-world problems and applications.