Knowledge Capture: New Hires Get Up to Speed

Companies ramp up efforts to enhance skills of recently graduated engineers.

By Seán Ottewell, Editor at Large

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Transferring expertise and knowledge of experienced staff to engineers beginning their careers is hardly a new issue for chemicals makers. However, the ongoing wave of retiring baby boomers (see: “Retirement Casts a Long Shadow”) is prompting companies such as DuPont, Air Products and Dow to hone their training resources. Academia is facing a similar challenge — and responding both in terms of what and how schools teach students.

DuPont, Wilmington, Del., long has focused on the demographic situation; the company believes the bulk of the exodus of experienced staff now has occurred. One of the key tools it has used to retain know-how is its field engineering program. This provides an early-career opportunity to experience the diversity of the company by rotating through a series of developmental assignments.

“What the program does is act as a feeder pool for engineering by ensuring that the next generation gets the coaching and support needed. It also allows us to innovate as situations change,” notes field engineering program manager Miray S. Pereira.

The program focuses on finding talented self-starters who are willing to move around and who can handle real jobs rather than just training tasks.

New engineers typically have 2–5 rotations in different business functions such as corporate science and innovation, manufacturing or engineering. Each stint lasts 2–3 years and can include assignments such as manufacturing technology, maintenance and reliability, and capital project leadership.

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“The rotations vary based on business needs and the engineer’s interest. Each field engineer reports to a section supervisor — many of whom have come through the program and understand the unique needs of the role — who helps connect field engineers working in similar businesses, gives them coaching and matches them to the rotations. They visit sites to understand the business needs, serve as a trusted advisor to the engineers and manage performance,” explains Pereira, who in turn manages the section supervisors to ensure alignment with both DuPont’s engineering organization and the company as a whole.

Each field engineer also has a local site supervisor who acts as guide and mentor on day-to-day work. “They work alongside experienced engineers and do real work which, in our view, is one of the most exciting and effective development opportunities available,” she adds.

Hand-in-hand with this help are other training efforts such as the annual field development program where experts — usually including the company’s chief science and technology officer — are brought in to give guidance.

“Because of the flexibility allowed by the program, young engineers get an opportunity to explore their interests and not get constrained in any particular work area,” says Pereira.

Over time, the program has evolved and today focuses both on matching skill sets to jobs, and encouraging self-discovery, career anchors, working to strengths and appreciating diversity of thought. Tech-savvy new engineers are strongly encouraged to use their skills wherever possible.

This approach continues as engineers become more experienced, too, with some field engineers developing a passion for a particular area and becoming an expert in it. For example, James Tilton, has written a chapter on fluid and particle dynamics for “Perry’s Chemical Engineer’ Handbook,” while Jim Collins, now executive vice president and chief operating officer of the agricultural business, discovered his passion for the market while in the field engineering program.

“The field engineering program is an integral part of DuPont engineering, giving integrated end-to-end expertise to keep up with business challenges. It produces great problem-solvers,” stresses Pereira.

Anticipating Openings

Air Products, Allentown, Pa., uses historical data and forecasted hiring information to evaluate and account for chemical/process engineer positions that may become vacant for a variety of reasons, including internal position changes, career development opportunities, retirement and attrition, notes Brian McCourt, manager, talent acquisition.

“Air Products performs both formal and informal knowledge-transfer practices to prepare employees and workgroups for success after an employee moves on,” he adds.

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