Attracting good young engineering talent takes more than a good pay package

Industry increasingly sees sustainability as critical to long-term success

By Paul Studebaker

When I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1981 with a MS in metallurgical engineering, I might have gone to work for Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois, or Bethlehem Steel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but I chose to join a little magnet manufacturer in Valparaiso, Indiana, called Indiana General. Not because the pay was highest or the career paths were most inviting or even because I liked (or understood) magnets, but because the little plant had a foundry on one end and a research lab on the other, and in between, it did everything you can do to metal: casting, rolling, drawing, stamping, powdering, pressing, sintering, heat treating, machining, grinding, tumbling, plating, painting, assembling and, of course, magnetizing.

I was reminded of that do-everything plant on a recent visit to the Eastman Chemical facility in Kingsport, Tennessee, to present our Hall of Fame award to 2015 inductee Jim Downs. Founded in 1920, the sprawling main plant covers 900 acres and does the kinds of things with cellulose, natural gas and coal that Indiana General did with iron, cobalt and rare earths, and I learned that it presents the same sort of technological playground for advanced control that the magnet plant did for metallurgy. Only way bigger.

Downs heads up the Advanced Control Group, a smart and handsome selection of chemical engineers that divides its attention among production support, projects and its own research and development, currently focused on unit integration and plant-wide optimization. Like many engineering groups, Downs' is top-heavy with incipient retirees, and he worries about attracting enough talent to support its esoteric missions.

See also: Virtually Simulating the Next Generation of Clean Energy Technologies

Graduating engineers would rather work for high-tech startups and near big cities, Downs told me. It's hard for young people to see the attraction of a big, old plant like Eastman's in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

It's hard for young people to see the attraction of a big, old plant like Eastman's in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.

My younger son will graduate next year with an MS in aerospace engineering, specializing in spacecraft systems. He wants to work for NASA, but not everyone can do that, so he's also exploring internships at a wide variety of aerospace companies and their suppliers. The companies that make the highest technology tend to be deeply involved in military applications, a fact which has caused him some soul-searching.

But the best ones are also open and adamant about sustainability—their values and goals for emissions, energy and water efficiency, waste and greenhouse gas reductions, and responsible materials usage, sourcing and recycling. It's also very easy for him to check them out, not only by reading their policies and reports, but what's said about them on glassdoor.com, and what their facilities and surroundings look like on Google Earth and Street View.

For example, there's a very impressive array of solar panels around Raytheon's missile plant in Tucson, Arizona.

Your company is probably aware of the importance of sustainability for attracting young engineering talent, as well as long-term viability, safety, public image and maintaining a motivated workforce. Energy monitoring expert Bill Holmes told me he recently attended "the most amazing and enlightening sustainability (and conservation) event in Wilson, North Carolina, that I have experienced in my career."

Holmes said, "Plant managers for nearby Cummins, [forklift manufacturer] NMHG and Bridgestone plants participated in a panel discussion, and each emphasized their corporate and plant's commitment to sustainability. At the end of the discussion, each plant manager was asked what their highest priority was, and each said information systems that would allow them to set priorities, make changes, get employees involved, document the results and meet their aggressive goals."

If you want to attract young talent, it's great—but not enough—to offer even the most fantastic set of technical resources, challenges and rewards. You also have to be able to prove that your process industry plant is a great place to work, and a responsible steward of the planet and the environment. If you can do that, you can attract talent pretty much no matter where you are—or what you make.

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