It’s not just about the engineering
After a solid year of declines in manufacturing and related employment here in North America, it’s becoming apparent that we have turned a corner in the industry. As of early March, the Institute of Supply Management (ISM) reports that its index of purchasing managers has remained at a level considered to reflect industry growth for seven straight months. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job losses in the manufacturing sector leveled off in February. Correspondingly, ISM reported that manufacturing employment grew by 2.8 points in February over January’s numbers.
Driving this improvement in manufacturing (if you can call the current leveling off of job losses an improvement) are continuing contraction of inventories, an increasing backlog of orders, and continued growth of exports—all of which were reported in ISM’s March manufacturing industry report.
With so many fewer workers employed in manufacturing due to the dramatic reductions that took place over the past few years, one fact was clearly inevitable—a change in how things get done in manufacturing.
So just what is changing on a day-to-day basis for engineers in the manufacturing sector? We were able to get a good look into this issue during collection of data for our mechanical engineering career study, which is the cover story in this issue (beginning on page 40). The best way to impart the changing nature of engineering is to directly share some of the verbatim comments entered by survey respondents when asked how their jobs have changed since they began their career. Here’s a sampling of responses:
“It’s been a progression from engineering to business.”
“I’ve had different responsibilities, including: project manager, department manager, and sales and engineering manager.”
“I have been writing more technical reports than I ever thought possible. I wish I would have paid more attention to the English portion of my engineering degree.”
“I spend a lot more time working financial and program management issues and less time on engineering.”
“I drive strategies used for product design and validation and am more involved with sales and marketing decisions.”
Granted, these are just a few of the verbatim comments collected in the survey, but the trend they show is clear: a job in manufacturing engineering today involves much more than engineering. Business and communication skills are playing increasingly larger roles for engineers as engineering evolves to become a more strategic point of competitive differentiation for many companies.
After years of offshoring and job reductions, we all knew that manufacturing would look quite different for engineers than it did 20 years ago. We’re now beginning to get a clearer picture of the way forward for engineers.