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Renaissance Technologist PUBLIC ACCESS

To Get a Job-And Keep It-In Today's Brave New World, An Engineer Must Be Adaptable, Entrepreneurial, and Versatile.

[+] Author Notes

Barbara Wolcott, a freelance writer based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is a regular contributor to Mechanical Engineering.

Mechanical Engineering 122(08), 46-50 (Aug 01, 2000) (5 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2000-AUG-1

This article observes that in the present competitive world, it is important for an engineer to be adaptable, entrepreneurial, and versatile. According to a private marketing consultant in Cambria, CA, Vicki Clift, ‘Engineers must consider themselves self-employed no matter where they work, or for whom.’ Clift strongly urges engineers to develop cross-industry interests, suggesting that a space engineer can move to medical instruments. Clift recommends that people ‘cross pollinate,’ for instance, by taking ideas from the medical industry that could apply to aerospace. He suggests compiling a list of five or so people and meeting with them on a regular basis. One large contributing factor for the change in employment is the result of an even greater change in the way large contracts are bid today. The state of Oregon recognized the importance of teaming when it established a grant program called Flexible Networks to help businesses form alliances for new markets and opportunities for growth.

ENGINEERS ARE ACCUSTOMED to working with precision mathematics and immutable physical science, and that sense of order has traditionally spilled over into their approach to employment. Get a degree; find an employer. Then, with luck, settle in. It worked well for a long time, at least until the last decade of the 20th century.

Fundamental engineering has not changed except to progress by embracing new technologies based on established science. However, the businesses that exist because of engineering expertise have changed drastically. Companies have to move fast and stay lean. No longer can they afford large staffs of specialized engineers on the payroll. According to people who make their livings by advising companies and placing engineers in jobs, two kinds of engineers are in demand today: the generalist on the corporate payroll, and the entrepreneurial specialist.

The traditional narrow focus of delineating a job into components and assigning workers to complete isolated tasks has yielded to a skills race in which a group of employees is assigned a project with a deadline. At the same time, niche engineering has given way to integrated design, planning, and production.

According to Jason Berkowitz of Hunter Recruitment Advisors in Los Angeles: “Ten years ago, engineers just out of school were put to work designing the world’s greatest screw, then the world’s greatest bolt, and eventually maybe they got to design the world’s greatest powertrain and run the show. That’s not the case anymore.”

Stacey Swisher Harnetty, an ASME member who works in Kingsport, Tenn., is a case in point.

Asked about her experience as a young engineer, she said, “I didn’t anticipate moving around so much.”

She has worked for Eastman Chemical Corp. for the past nine years, but has held five different jobs in that time. She has been a member of a corporate engineering group, a development and research group, and the power and services group, which provides in-house utility support. For a time, she worked at plant engineering and now is a maintenance supervisor.

Competition has forced large companies to reduce the number of specialized engineering positions in favor of those requiring multidisciplinary skills and experience. The result is massive outsourcing in both manufacturing and employment.

Jim Siske of Management Recruiters in Columbus, Ohio, specializes in placing engineers in jobs. He described the realities of the marketplace: “You can’t cost- justify having a large staff of engineers on the rolls until you do get the contract, and often don’t have the luxury of time to assess what you have and what you’ll need. Thus, outsourcing and teaming.”

Lee Ferrero, president and CEO of the Private Industry Council, which operates from a base in San Luis Obispo, Calif., under the Federal Job Training Partnership Act, said, “Companies that do not reorganize risk being left out of the race for business.” He added that outsourcing has become common practice, so while engineers in large companies are finding themselves out of jobs, the change presents opportunity because they can parlay their skills into working from almost anywhere and providing services to any company.

Berkowitz said the trend is not due only to corporate layoffs. He said he sees a real brain drain from large established companies into startups, mainly of creative people who find the large company environment stifling.

He cautioned, though, that the move is not for everyone. Many refugees from the corporate world may be uncomfortable in a situation where dress is casual and coworkers are all on a first name basis. “Not everyone wants to get their own coffee, order their own printer, and set it up,” he said.

A private marketing consultant in Cambria, Calif., Vicki Clift, said, “Engineers must consider themselves self-employed no matter where they work, or for whom.” Clift strongly urges engineers to develop cross-industry interests, suggesting that a space engineer can move to medical instruments, for example. “Think machinery and process, not a particular industry,” she said. “I think a broad scope of experience is important to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they occur, whether they be in aerospace, medical instruments, fitness equipment, or anywhere that makes an engineer much more sought after.”

Clift recommends that people “cross pollinate,” for instance, by taking ideas from the medical industry that could apply to aerospace. “By having lunch with someone in a different field, you open your mind to possibilities that are applicable anywhere.”

Clift suggests compiling a list of five or so people and meeting with them on a regular basis. “Connect with people who are broad thinkers because it continues to keep you sharp, tells you what’s going on, and points to where the resources are,” she said.

People to keep in mind include old school friends and other engineers, and an area for this kind of exploration lies within professional organizations.

One large contributing factor for the change in employment is the result of an even greater change in the way large contracts are bid today. A decade or so ago, only giants like Lockheed, Boeing, and Rockwell had the expertise necessary to fill the governments requirements for multimillion-dollar contracts. The reduction in military spending and the rise of the Internet combined to hit the large companies where it hurt. Not only were there fewer contract opportunities, but also the nature of competition changed. Internet communications let small companies team up to amass the necessary skills and experience demanded by large contracts.

These combination firms created by opportunity are the result of Internet access, not merely a speed-dial network, but a unique “Yellow Pages” kind of compendium of World Wide Web sites available instantaneously. The communication of interests and expertise is a compelling drive to merge part of their businesses for the purpose of winning a particular contract.

Appearing to be one large corporation in the bidding process, they are in actuality different small companies linked together, working as a team. The state of Oregon recognized the importance of teaming when it established a grant program called Flexible Networks to help businesses form alliances for new markets and opportunities for growth.

An example of the team approach to government contracting is PRT Systems Corp. of Park Forest, 111. PRT is a second-phase contender for a NASA contract to develop a magnetic levitation launch system. According to the company’s president, George Scelzo, PRT has 17 employees, and it teams up with other small companies to equal the necessary engineering skills to come up with the product envisioned by NASA.

At NASA s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where maglev tests are conducted, Stanley McCall of the Procurement and Industry Assistance Office defines teaming as a joint effort on a specific activity that may not carry over to future relationships, as opposed to partnering, which implies a long-term, more permanent relationship.

McCall, a small-business specialist, and his colleague David Brock, a procurement analyst at Huntsville, have worked for years to encourage large contractors to outsource a percentage of their contracts to small and minority-owned businesses. According to McCall, “A small entity can create an expertise that can be used from project to project when it’s needed.”

Brock said, “This kind of subcontracting is a very important part of the programs that we are responsible for implementing.” When a contract exceeds a half-million dollars, companies are required to submit a subcontracting plan. “When it gets to us, we evaluate it,” Brock said. “We can go back and negotiate, hopefully upward, the amount they plan to subcontract.”

One reason Brock works to fine-tune big contracts is that many of them remain in force for 20 years or more, with options and renewals. “We have to maximize the opportunity under that contract for small business participation,” he said. “Call it partnership or teaming, it’s a boost for small business.”

McCall and Brock attribute much of the credit for increased outsourcing and teaming to the global marketplace, because they see that companies are finding that, in order to be competitive, it is a proven way to cost- justify the use of engineers. Until 10 years ago, their office’s best efforts saw contractors outsourcing about 24 percent of the work. In the wake of dizzying changes in markets around the globe, that figure for NASA in some cases has risen to 55 percent.

The last four to five years have also seen a major shift in another way of teaming, according to Brock. “What you’re seeing today is fewer procurement opportunities because it’s more cost efficient for government to have fewer contracts to oversee. Instead of having five or six little contracts providing the same services in different areas, we find that it’s easier to have one contractor provide all those services. If you have five contracts out, you have to have five contract administrators. With only one in place, you only need one.”

Sverdrup Technology in Alabama has an engineering and technical services contract for NASA that started out at about $70 million for five years. The company began with a one-year contract with four one-year options, and now has a contract nearly double the value of the original.

“This has been very beneficial to Marshall,” Brock said, “But Sverdrup is not getting all the work. They have subs and partners working with them. Almost 38 percent of all that work is subcontracted to small businesses.”

Large companies are using the same techniques to enhance their bidding positions by letting their individual departments enter into teaming.

Economic Vitality Corp.’s president and CEO, Dave Spaur, works to promote business in San Luis Obispo, Calif., a small population center halfway between the metropolitan regions of San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Lockheed Martin did this years ago,” he said, “looking at forming teams to put bids together. Sometimes they even used a competing company when they needed that part of the bid covered. It’s called coopetition.”

Spaur said the company is very adept at looking at what contracts are available and then putting a team together to bid for them.

At California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, professor Brian Tietje said startups are happening be- causemf the outsourcing by larger companies, and at the same time large companies are teaming up with competitors as, for instance, IBM and Dell in an agreement for computer parts.

“They compete fiercely in the computer industry,” Tietje said, “but teaming forms strange alliances out of competitors. This is a strange dance where your best customer may also be your toughest competitor.”

A business consultant who serves both companies and engineers, Don Marusca of Cambria, Calif., feels the fundamental challenge for engineers in the advancement of their careers is in how effectively they work with people. “This is becoming even more important as projects tend to become more complex, both inside and outside their own organizations,” Marusca said.

He added that a related challenge is how engineers go about communicating their technical knowledge to people who may not be technical, yet are critical to the decision cycle. “Opportunities for engineers who can figure out how to do that are phenomenal,” he said.

According to Berkowitz at Hunter Recruitment, there are other new skills to learn. “Engineers have to be able to fit into a fast-moving, flexible work group, and that flexibility goes in every possible, imaginable way,” he said. “There is barely a job out there where you can look at your job description and say, ‘This is what I do.’ You are much more likely to be put in charge of an area of results and need to reach that.”

The example ofPRT Systems’ progress with NASA can be seen in any number of situations where people are adept at teamwork and decision making with others of different interests. They partner on a virtual basis and thereby have access to many more kinds of work and opportunity than they could if they only think of themselves as part of one organization, or only one small team.

The new corporate culture has changed not only the way engineers work, but also how they are trained.

At the Purdue School of Engineering and Technology in Indianapolis, the head of the mechanical engineering department, Hasan Akay, said that mechanical engineers need to be multifaceted, with a multidisciplinary background. With more emphasis on teamworking in the business world, Purdue is advocating more collaborative learning. “Japanese industry was taken as a model for collaborative work,” he says, “and it evolved from quality circles 20 years ago.”

At Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., executive director for career development Joe Stahley sees a strong job market for mechanical engineers, in particular. “While some of the traditional fields associated with mechanical engineering have declined, new areas are emerging,” he said. “Some of our graduates are accepting positions in biomedics and biomechanics.”

According to Stahley, the lure of computer engineering has reduced the roster of mechanical engineering students in recent years. But that, he said, “makes a good market even better, with fewer mechanical engineers to interview.”

According to an ASME poll published last October, 79 percent of a sample of young engineers had full-time jobs in less than three months of searching.

Crystal Heshmat is an engineer four years out of school who works for Mohawk Innovative Technology Inc. in Albany, N.Y. According to Heshmat, an ASME member, at the time she graduated, she had a few job offers to choose from. Some of her classmates, she added, searched three or four months for their first jobs.

“I guess I was pretty aggressive in going out and doing research,” she said. She added that as a student she had been able to build up some experience as an intern in research environments.

Opportunities for engineers in the business teaming climate are spawning a boom in private consulting engineers who live in outlying areas, do much of their work on the Internet, and travel when necessary.

Some are well off, having cashed in a business or retired, and moved to Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Boulder, Burlington, Santa Fe, or Durango—all areas selected for a high quality of life where business can still be conducted. And these lone eagle nests have nurtured a growing population of consultants, researchers, and specialists in various services.

One of them is aerospace-trained engineer Chuck Anders. After 30 years working for transportation and environmental agencies, Anders visited the areas of the country he thought were promising places to live, did a site analysis on each one, and then settled down in Arroyo Grande, Calif.

His strategic planning company is at the heart of the new engineering paradigm—a specialized approach to narrowing the scope of decision making.

Anders’ Strategic Alliances Co. uses the Internet to maintain an instant think tank of more than 300 professionals to contact with questions from clients. As answers and suggestions come in, Anders instantly reorganizes the information and then redistributes it to the group for further discussion.

When all of the information is gathered, he compiles it into a comprehensive array for the client, basically offering the and planning that was previously available only in multiple-day workshops.

Anders received an FCC license and designed a 10digit FM radio transmitter to immediately interact with each expert in the consulting group by way of a keypad, creating a virtual workshop. Instead of guessing what decision-makers are thinking, with some people dominating the discussion and others remaining quiet, the teletranscription allows each person equal time and consideration.

“I look for where we agree, but more to where we disagree,” said Anders, “because that enables us to identify areas of misunderstanding.”

In some instances, Anders uses the Internet for long distance discussion to identify areas where people are operating on different levels of knowledge. “In many cases, they seem to think alike, while one or two are different. Those people may be right because they often have information the rest do not have and that may include legal aspects and specific project specs.”

Anders sees the process as systems and synergy. In one case involving a city, his group did project scoping and engineering for a contract, following the release of a request for proposal where a company had already won the bid. With all the different elements together for the first time, the final design was altered by 40 percent from original, a vivid example of the value of teaming for all levels of engineering.

Copyright © 2000 by ASME
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