Valuing talent

A news article in our February issue (CE, Feb. 2006, News, "90% of the world's engineers Asian residents by 2010?") generated this comment from a U.S. chemical engineer: "I recently read an article in another magazine about how engineers have created approximately 50% of the new jobs created in this country, but only 5% of the country's workers are engineers.

By Renee Robbins, Editorial Director May 1, 2006

A news article in our February issue ( CE , Feb. 2006, News, “90% of the world’s engineers Asian residents by 2010?”) generated this comment from a U.S. chemical engineer: “I recently read an article in another magazine about how engineers have created approximately 50% of the new jobs created in this country, but only 5% of the country’s workers are engineers. I can also attest that, at least where I work, engineering is behind finance and sales as far as pay goes. As long as U.S. business rates engineers as less important than business people, this country is headed toward a meltdown similar to what Russia went through 30 years ago.”

Engineering often seems to be treated as if it’s less important than sales and finance. Such an attitude can lead to a range of ills: frustration, job cuts, hiring freezes, burnout, and career change.

Engineers create. They create machines and substances and processes and systems from the raw materials available to them. Sometimes they even create new raw materials. They are the engines that have made U.S. manufacturing more productive and efficient than ever before.

Some companies do give engineers the respect they deserve—and all that goes with respect. Some are small companies started by engineers. Others are large and/or high-tech companies with a preponderance of software engineers in their ranks. But where are chemical, mechanical, and industrial engineers nurtured and thriving? Twenty years ago, it might have been in the auto and petroleum industries. Today, I’d guess pharmaceutical and biotechnology.

A recent report from consultants at McKinsey & Company titled “Making a Market in Talent” ( www.mckinseyquarterly.com ) said, “A 21st century company should put as much effort into developing its talented employees as it puts into recruiting them…. In a modern, networked, and knowledge-based business environment, intangible assets (such as skills, reputations, and relationships) generate the highest value. Effective resource allocation means unleashing the value of talent….”

Manufacturing today is very much a knowledge-based business, and the skills, reputations, and relationships developed by talented engineers are vitally important. Despite the experience the subscriber offers above, I bet there are companies who both believe that and act on it. How is your company mobilizing and motivating its engineering talent? What does management do to demonstrate that engineering is important? Let me know, and perhaps we can avoid that predicted U.S. meltdown. E-mail me at renee.robbins@reedbusiness.com with the word “Talent” in the subject line.