When I got my chemical engineering degree, the job market was buoyant. I had lots of offers, including from a leading global chemicals producer, a distillery and a shoe polish maker. Most involved starting out in a production role. That was the norm. After all, many companies had a clear policy of making new engineers familiar with the realities and challenges of plant operations before letting them migrate to other types of engineering or management positions. It simply was a given that having that sort of hands-on experience was desirable, if not essential, for a productive (and lucrative) long-term career at the company.
Indeed, in those days, the executive ranks teemed with chemical engineers. It wasn't at all unusual for a retiring CEO to recall how he (and it most assuredly was a he in those days) began his career at the company working graveyard and weekend shifts at some old production site. The message was that the polished look and expensive suit and the years in a fancy headquarters' office shouldn't camouflage that the executive was an engineer who had some experience with the nuts and bolts of producing chemicals. So, aim high new engineer at the plant — you may have a shot at eventually running the company.
With today's feeble job market, many newly minted chemical engineers probably don't have the luxury of selecting from among multiple offers. I'm sure there are plenty in the class of 2010 who would welcome any technical job — and engineer's paycheck.
Besides that, though, a production position has its attractions. It can help round out the undergraduate education largely focused on fundamentals that most engineers now get. Theory can only go so far in dealing with real-world equipment and processes. Hands-on experience is invaluable. But, is taking a job at a plant a wise move long-term?
That very topic came up at the last quarterly meeting of the Chemical Processing Editorial Board — and sparked a lively discussion.
One member stressed that starting in a plant used to provide better career progression but that's changed now. Another noted that his company no longer focuses on advancing people from manufacturing. A third mentioned that lack of career opportunities is driving engineers from plants, while another admitted that part of the lure of getting an MBA was to get out of production. The migration of experienced engineers impacts how well plants operate, one member warned.
Somewhat surprised by the extent of the negative comments, we decided to run a poll on our website, ChemicalProcessing.com. As you might be aware, we conduct such an online survey every month and summarize the results in the InProcess section of the magazine.
So, in August we posted the question: "What is the impact on an engineering career at your company of starting out in a production role?" Over four-fifths of respondents saw such a plant job as a positive. More than half said that beginning a career in production offered a significant advantage, with almost a third more saying it provided some advantage.
It's certainly interesting that poll respondents and our Board so markedly disagreed. We don't have demographic information on those who voted online, so there's no way of comparing their particulars with those of our Board members. Perhaps many of the web respondents are younger engineers in production who feel they have made the right career move. But, that's, of course, only idle speculation.
What's your opinion about the value of starting out in production?
Some might argue that this is irrelevant because larger issues trump such matters anyway. After all, many companies no longer pay as much attention, if any, to long-term career development of technical employees, figuring that people won't stay around (often, though, it's because of downsizing and other corporate actions). Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that most engineers nowadays can expect to work for three, four or more organizations.
A further factor for any engineer striving to get into high-level management is the clearly declining value that an engineering degree holds with corporate boards. As I have already mentioned, technical people once seemed to dominate senior management at chemical companies. However, today at many firms the board is apt to opt for a financial rather than a technical person as CEO — a trend that unfortunately afflicts all manufacturing in the U.S. And that's likely why many engineers looking at long-term career prospects get an MBA and get out of production.
Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at MRosenzweig@putman.net.