Predicaments can crop up at all stages of a chemical engineering career. Properly dealing with them without serious consequences often isn’t easy or sometimes even possible. You may face ethical as well as technical and political challenges. So, let’s look at a variety of these and how to deal with them.
Employers expect new hires not to make waves. After all, when starting a job, we’re conditioned to want to please our bosses and avoid confrontations. This can create ethical dilemmas. Let me relate a couple.
A couple of days into a new job, a professional engineer was asked to sign-off on a couple of pressure vessels. In reviewing the files, he discovered that material tests and calculations were missing. So, he suggested conducting positive material identification testing and then his re-doing the calculations. His employer rebuffed that and instead bluntly directed him to sign-off. He rightly refused and was fired. The story ended well for the engineer: he won a sizable wrongful termination lawsuit.
Or consider the predicament faced by a new contract engineer when handed a set of stainless-steel fasteners for a filter and told to do a pressure test and sign-off. His boss had picked these fasteners to replace the original carbon-steel bolts that had corroded. The new engineer had doubts about the strength of the stainless-steel bolts and went to the mechanical group, which advised the change would reduce the filter pressure rating by 10%. The pressure test would have violated ASME Code. His boss had expected the new engineer to bury the mistake. Instead, the engineer replaced the bolts with ones of the correct material. The boss then fired him.
In both situations, the newly hired engineers made the ethical choice and suffered dire personal consequences. However, they understood that unlike technical mistakes, which can be corrected, ethical lapses can tar a person forever.
Engineers long at a company also certainly can face pitfalls. For instance, a project engineer, after spending a year preparing a pared-down scope for a tank replacement, handed it off to corporate and an engineering firm. That firm embellished the design, believing it could impress plant operations — probably at the expense of the engineer. Corporate then complained that the poor scope development led to over-runs.
You’ll have to live with your design being run through the mill by friends and foes alike. It may get the thumbs up now but fall out of favor later. You even may become the fall guy. It’s the nature of our business. Don’t lose sleep over it.
Still, some things — particularly a focus on economics — stay the same.
Years ago, I had to specify ceramic flow control valves for a difficult service. I had about six months rather than the year really necessary for finding a good solution. My strategy was to go with an available valve, not invent one; corporate previously had invented a design and the valves lasted ten days; my valves survived more than six months.
Sure enough, though, another engineer later complained that my valves were too expensive. He suggested buying throw-away valves rather than replacing the ceramic liners. His valves were a third cheaper. Of course, he wasn’t contending with a nearly impossible deadline. When the company down-sized, he was kept on but I wasn’t. You survive these bruising situations by forgetting about them.
The approach of retirement brings other challenges. Younger engineers may view you as a “fossil.” (Certainly the world of chemical engineering has changed over the 40+ years of my career; tools I started with like a slide rule, hand-held calculator and French curves are considered archaic or oddities now. So, too, is programming in Fortran or running around a plant with a clipboard to collect data.) This means you must show diplomacy and discretion to avoid damaging your reputation. Don’t disparage someone for asking “such an easy question.” Don’t lord your depth of knowledge over others. Remember, it goes both ways — young engineers take on software issues that might faze you as though it’s second nature to them, which, of course, it is. Don’t berate them for their insistence on checking plant operations from the computer screen rather than looking at actual equipment. The most difficult skill to develop during this phase is that of patience.