Make the most of newly hired, experienced engineers

Oct. 29, 2007
Contributing Editor Dirk Willard reminds readers that an old dogs can learn new tricks and plants should keep this in mind when hiring new, yet experienced, engineers.

The introduction to my new job reminded me of a cartoon about interviewing from college: The boss hands a clipboard to a dazed just-graduated engineer and sneers, "Don't screw up or you’re fired! That’s the end of orientation, now get to work!" At the time, I already had 10 years of experience in engineering. "So, I’m just supposed to wander around until I figure out something to do?," I asked myself. That’s what I actually did, developing a shopping list of potential plant improvement projects and ideas management didn’t ask for. They eventually picked two of them, which, as I had detailed, were real moneymakers.

Everyone knows a greenhorn needs to be led by the hand in a plant but operating companies still haven’t figured out how to bring an experienced engineer quickly up to speed. Some sites just dump newly hired old hands in with the young engineers until they’re bored silly with endless orientation classes.

So, what’s the best way to transition an experienced engineer? After the requisite safety training, start with a short orientation tour of the plant. Keep it simple. A single day should suffice. Stick to a particular unit for a large facility. Pair the new hire with a plant veteran and, after that, introduce the engineer around. Within the first week, assign a project in the unit. This will give you a chance to evaluate communication as well as technical skills.

This is crucial because troubleshooting, which is the basis of process engineering, is a mix of engineering and people skills. A good experienced engineer knows which questions to ask and, with a little coaching, who to ask. If the reporting structure is complex, it may be a good idea to give the new person a list of people to work with or, at the very least, a phone directory.

Choose a project that won’t take more than a month to complete and that requires a report. Read the report’s introduction carefully to see if the conclusions are valuable and well-supported. Too often, people are hired because of some know-how, such as the ability to program a distributed control system (DCS), without considering their investigative skills. However, an engineer who doesn’t understand how equipment works will have limited usefulness to a company.

Our department head once asked me to review a "first" project report written by one of our young engineers. Although Tom was a wiz on the DCS, he had a poor grasp of investigative engineering and, like too many engineers, inadequate writing skills. His conclusions didn’t make sense. Fortunately, at that time, we had experienced engineers to feed him clues. Where would he be without them? Hopefully, he learned what they passed on and worked on his writing.

The idea is to give the new experienced engineer on-the-job training. Every company has a way it does things, such as project reports, process flow diagrams, etc., but orientation seldom covers these. If possible, provide templates, e.g., for cover letters, proposals, computed-aided-drawing title blocks, cost estimation spreadsheets or work order forms.

If there’s a shortage of studies, consider letting the engineer loose in the plant to generate a few. Take advantage of this opportunity. Even an engineer who knows nothing about your industry should be able to find something amiss or a potential cost saving. I’ve never been through a plant tour without finding a safety issue, a maintenance problem or something worthy of an economic study.

Here’s the catch: the new engineer needs a template for proposing new projects. The best approach is to provide the electronic files and some examples of proposals. Furnish as many examples as possible so the person knows how to wordsmith a proposal to meet management expectations.

Take a leaf from consulting and engineering and construction firms — they can’t afford to let an engineer take much time learning a job. On my first day at the old Upjohn facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., Laura, one of the client process engineers and a former employee of my consulting firm, provided me with all the templates I needed. I had six weeks to show my stuff and she didn’t want any of that time wasted. By the time I’d been at a firm in Pittsburgh for two days, I was buried under three projects and working 15 hours a day — and loving every moment. My introduction to the company involved a tour of the offices, a few introductions, some sage words from some of the managers, a box of files and stack of drawings. They recognized they needed a skilled hand and followed Patton’s rule: "Never tell a man how to do a job. Just tell him what to do and let him surprise you with his brilliance."

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