By Walt Boyes, Editor in ChiefWE'VE ALL
watched the dislocations caused by Hurricane Katrina, and to a lesser extent by Hurricane Rita, and we have to be wondering how these storms will affect the economy and that favorite part of the microeconomic world—our jobs.
Certainly, there will be some process automation professionals who will lose their livelihoods. Those working for small distributors, reps, panel shops, and similar enterprises will come home to find their former employment simply isn’t there anymore, blown to flinders courtesy of the two storms. Others will find that demand for their services has increased as they’re called on to restore and rebuild damaged process plants and refineries. In reality, however, this is all short term dislocation. What’s the real trend for process automation jobs?
Automation jobs are cyclic with the economy. Global growth is slowing, but is still in the 3% range for the coming year. Manufacturing activity continues, albeit more slowly, to expand. Much of what you will see depends on where you are. If you’re a Chinese automation professional, you’re seeing rampant growth. If you’re in Illinois or Germany, you’re seeing much smaller growth. In China, Eastern Europe, some parts of the U.S. and Asia Pacific, economists are worried about overheating economies. In the Midwest U.S. and Western Europe, they’re worried about doing CPR on an economy that is flat to recessional, while elsewhere in the U.S., economic growth is significant.
To measure how healthy your job is, the key indicator is capacity. The rule of thumb is that when a facility reaches or exceeds 80% of capacity, its owners initiate start capital spending, and start staffing up. As of July 2005, the U.S. Commerce Department reported that 70% of U.S. companies are at that +80% level of utilization. That’s up from 61% in March 2005. That’s a steep slope and a very good sign for U.S. process automation professionals. If you’re in automotive, food/beverage, pharmaceuticals, petroleum refining, upstream petroleum, mining or utilities, you should expect expansion, new capital projects and hiring. If you’re in semiconductors, primary metals and chemicals, then you’ll likely wait, or even miss the boat in this economic cycle.
Most of those companies are investing outside the U.S. Meanwhile, only part of your job’s safety is dependent on the economy. Much of it depends on you.
Remember the Three Little Pigs? The pig who was safe, and saved the other two, was the one who built the strongest house with the strongest door. Working for a company in a declining economic environment is like building your house in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. You’ll survive just fine—until Hurricane Katrina comes along. Sure, you can complain that the disaster relief agencies didn’t do their jobs, but you still don’t have a house.
“The best defense is a good offense.” I believe Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, said it first, and I urge you to make it your career motto. Watch trends, stay current in your field, and make sure you have a backup plan in case your company’s levee breaks.