Brain drain is happening all over the world. In Europe and Asia, they lament that their best and brightest are moving to the U.S. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., we moan that our engineering and manufacturing jobs are moving overseas.
If you believe half the opinion pieces and editorials floating around, there must be a giant black hole somewhere in the universe that is sucking up all of Earth's brainpower.
Closer to home, the process industries are facing their own version of brain drain; but the engineering talent is not leaving this country, it's going idle or leaving the profession altogether. Process plants are laying off engineers and outsourcing work to service companies. Further, advances in control technologies and related IT and asset management technologies have, over the last several years, boosted individual productivity so much that a few can now do the work of many.
Experienced engineers (read: older), operators and technicians are leaving the ranks at a faster pace, either by retiring early, being retired early, or leaving the industry in search of greener pastures. There's also growing evidence that the process control discipline is not attracting the new engineering talent coming online. Not only are experienced brains draining away from process control, not as much talent is pouring into the pool either.
Process Plant Jobs Draining Away
"Some of our clients have cut deeply into their engineering departments," says Cliff Speedy, controls engineer at C&I Engineering, Louisville, Ky. "A number of the food and beverage plants we work in only have an engineering manager.
A chemical company manager in Tennessee agrees. "We are losing engineers at process plants," he says. "At my company we have fewer engineers. The situation is not dire, but it's not particularly enjoyable either. Fewer engineers are required due to productivity improvements enabled by automation and information technology. It would be nice if the technology made our jobs easier and we were able to keep all the people that were required with lesser technology. However, that is not the case, due to competition. As soon as one company reduces headcount, the rest are pretty much bound to follow."
Downsizing the engineering staff can be detrimental to plant operations. "The impact to the plant is that only what absolutely needs to be done gets done," says an anonymous engineer at a chemical plant in Michigan. "I am one of the last engineers at this manufacturing site who is in a traditional engineering role. There is an extreme focus on cost reduction all the way around."
We've heard this before. Plants no longer shut down for regular maintenance. Instead, they run for years at a time as maintenance problems pile up and the plant runs more and more inefficiently. Studies by Honeywell and Fisher Controls (Emerson Process Management) show that few control engineers have time to tune loops these days. They just let them run, as long as the plant doesn't blow up.To most engineers, none of this makes a bit of sense. Inefficient operations cost millions in excess energy, low-quality product and waste. Wouldn't it be more cost-effective to keep engineers on staff? Not to an accountant.
Part of the problem appears to stem from the fact that engineers and chemists no longer play as important a role in managing and operating process plants. The accountants and lawyers hold sway now, and have less of a professional stake in the work process engineers do.
"The accountants want to reduce the number of employees," says Glenn Givens, PE, at Innovention Industries in Burlington, Ontario. "They measure the value of these employees by their salaries. They cannot measure the relative benefit that each employee provides to the company so they assume that each employee in a given class provides the same benefit and has the same worth. Therefore, the accountants try to retire older, more experienced engineers and technicians and replace them with younger cheaper ones. They cannot measure the cost of the loss of experience."With all due respect to Mr. Givens, there's little hard evidence that there is a campaign against older process engineers. Staff cuts in the U.S. appear to be across the board, with no widespread discrimination. That may also be because of salary compression here in the U.S., where fledgling engineers have starting salaries roughly comparable to that of grizzled veterans.
"My former employer (a paper company) is apparently looking at engineering more and more as a commodity to be bought in the open market," says Tom Burger, owner of Burger Engineering, Camden, AR. "They are only hiring engineers to be production and maintenance managers, not engineers."
Invensys has studied the problem in depth. They commissioned a study of customers and did some market research, mainly because the brain drain affects how they sell systems.
Loss of key individuals and their knowledge is a major concern within the process industry, according to the company's research. "Two major factors contributing to this are downsizing and retirement," says Neil Cooper, director of strategic marketing at Invensys. "In the case of downsizing, senior engineers are being let go in an effort to reduce costs. But is this really effective? The people who keep production processes running smoothly are now gone. This significantly raises the risk of plant outages as well as injuries and environmental issues including the personal liability that plant managers now face under new legislation." What's the cost of an engineer compared to the cost of outages? As Cooper puts it, "If your plant is down for three hours, how many hundreds of thousands of dollars have you lost?"
The problems created by downsizing are compounded by the retirement "bubble," where a significant base of critical knowledge is walking right out the door when senior process engineers retire. "We estimate that 20-30% of what is considered the core knowledge staff within process industries will retire within the next 5-10 years," says Cooper. "This is particularly prevalent in the 'brown field' environment in North America and Europe."
NASA is having the same problem: a large percent of their experts are retiring. Over the next five years, one-fourth of NASA employees will become eligible for retirement. "NASA is on the brink of losing the talent it has," says Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science Committee. He is also chief sponsor of the legislation, "NASA Flexibility Act of 2003," which will give the space agency more flexibility in hiring new engineers and scientists.
Outsourcing May Not Work
A shortage of onsite engineers in the process industries means that plant management has to contract with outside companies to get work done. "While it provides us an opportunity for work, it can be a source of friction for us later in the project," says C&I Engineering's Speedy. "It's difficult to ascertain the needs and wants of a client without a technical resource at the plant, and it is near impossible to turn over complex systems unless there is a competent person on site."
"We estimate that 20-30% of what is considered the core knowledge staff within process industries will retire within the next 5-10 years." --Neil Cooper, Invensys
In essence, process plants are downsizing, laying off experienced personnel, and relying on a single engineer to manage everything from process control to maintenance. We don't really have a brain drain in process control; instead, our best engineers are being put out to pasture. When those with in-depth site-specific knowledge leave the plant, chaos can reign, especially in older plants.
"Emerson, Honeywell, Matrikon and even OSIsoft try to sell them software that does this," says Kennedy. "Personally, I think it is like most advanced control: it is not an algorithm issue, it is a 'lack of knowledge' issue. Most of this tuning software is not as successful as the original project in this area, done at a paper company several years ago. It simply listed the most offending loops every morning so that the people could better organize their work day."
In 1900, it took almost 40% of the workforce to grow America's food, but today"thanks to progressive mechanization, it takes less than 2% of the population.