Whenever I travel and meet new people this is a question I regularly get asked. It used to be a fairly simple question to answer… “I sell automation equipment”, or “I run a small machine building company”, or “I am a Project Engineer for a large machine builder”. Lately this has been a more complicated question to answer… I still do technical work, PLC and HMI programming, machine design. I also build small machines such as leak testers, gauges and pokayoke stations. Sometimes I do machine analysis and consulting, and occasionally teach.
Now that my book is out, I also promote it to schools and universities. I have also been working feverishly on my business website, creating lots of informational content for my “grand opening” sometime around 9/1/13.
So what “am” I? Without going into lots of explanation that people don’t necessarily want to hear I usually just say I’m in the manufacturing and automation business. When I got out of college I didn’t know exactly where my career path would lead me, but since I got an electrical engineering degree specializing in controls I might have guessed I would end up in automation.
Most of the people I have kept up with from school ended up working for manufacturing plants. Some are manufacturing engineers, some in product design and quite a few have moved into management. Most have worked for only one or two, at most three companies since they graduated. Overall the engineering field seems to be a great place to be even during the recent recession.
I have also seen a lot of turnover in certain companies. The custom machinery business is notorious for having up and down cycles, lots of volatility. While most of the top engineering, skilled labor and management personnel are paid well and retained, there are often layoffs. Assembly/builders, welders and recent graduates seem to take the brunt of this. When business picks back up there is often a mad scramble for available contractors and “whoever’s left”. Many of the contractors and junior engineers have made the rounds of most of the major machine builders in the area.
Factories go through some of the same cycles. Layoffs often hit the machine operators first, maintenance second and then works its way up through engineering, usually from the bottom. Of course sometimes plants shut down completely, leaving a mad scramble for available positions in similar plants. In Tennessee we have a lot of automotive-related manufacturing, so people are usually able to find something related to their previous positions.
Personally I have never been interested in working directly for a manufacturer. It is easy to get caught up in the “babysitting” of a production line, its machinery and personnel. After 6 months to a year on a manufacturing line I think I would know most of what there was to know about the equipment but wouldn’t have the authorization to do anything to it. This can be a good training position for engineers not long out of school, but too often recent graduates are thrown into this environment without enough preparation.
In my opinion the most important thing you have if you are in a technical field is your skills. This doesn’t mean what you studied in school or what degree or certifications you have acquired, but what you can actually do. Much of this can only be achieved by experience, but training, studying and reading can go a long way towards creating an understanding of a field. That way, when the opportunity arrives to prove what you can do you will be half-way there. Every skill you can master makes you that much more valuable to your employer.
Some skills aren’t technical in nature. If you don’t have social skills you may find yourself unemployed even though you are good at what you do. Disagreeable people are often the first to be let go. Listening, speaking, negotiation and writing can also be important even in a technical field.
As I write this post the unemployment rate is just under 8% both nationally and in my state. For young non-college graduates it is easily double that, and the work that such a person can find often doesn’t pay enough to live on. Service industries, fast-food and landscaping seems to be where a lot of young people end up after graduation. These types of jobs usually don’t offer much of a chance for career progression.
Entry-level factory jobs pay only a little more, but once you are in the door there are often opportunities to advance. Moving into supervisory or machine maintenance positions is often the first step, and progression into engineering and management positions is not uncommon. Further schooling is often required, but some companies will help defray the cost. Yes, the manufacturing sector is shrinking, but there are a lot of related fields such as technical sales, OEM production and mechanical/electrical trades that can provide great opportunities.
So maybe the question isn’t what do you do, but what will you do?