Process control professionals prize keeping their minds occupied with solving problems

Keeping our noses to the grindstone is important, but we do have look up sometimes

By Jim Montague

It's been a few years since I helped assemble the Control salary survey article, but I did it for the July issue's cover story, and it was nice to see how constant the characteristics of our many readers have remained over the years. This year's crop of respondents were a little younger on average for the second year in a row, and pay and many benefits dipped as a result.

As always, however, almost twice as many respondents report that challenging work is most important for job satisfaction. For more than 25 years, about 40% of respondents have said challenging work is most important, while about 20% say salary and benefits are most important.

Because different groups of the same readers have responded in the same way over so many years, I think it's easy to extrapolate, and conclude that the field of process control engineers, technicians, operators and related technical professionals prize keeping their educated minds occupied with solving problems a lot more than getting paid for it. Salary is a necessity, but boredom must be avoided at all costs.

Not that there's been much risk of mental inactivity in recent years. What's even more remarkable about Control's respondents keeping their professional cool and steady competence is that they've done it at the same time their organizations and industries were tossed by all kinds of economic and technical upheavals. Layoffs and outsourcing the work of formerly internal engineering departments was popular in the 1990s, and waves of mergers, acquisitions and reorganizations have been rolling in ever since.

More recently, these shifts were accompanied by the rapid evolution of industrial networks from hardwiring to fieldbuses, Ethernet and wireless. Likewise, the accelerating emergence of faster, cheaper and more powerful microprocessors spurred all forms of digitalization, including shifts from hardware to software, virtual devices, cloud computing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). In retrospect, it's surprising that many process control engineers and their colleagues didn't go crazy, though given their typically low profiles and tendency to internalize stress, I guess they could have and we'd never know it.

This unwavering, at-the-core commitment to maintaining and optimizing critical applications and infrastructure always reminds me of all the other unheralded professionals I've covered that quietly keep their communities running safely and smoothly. Firefighters, police officers and other first-responders are an obvious choice, but I'm thinking more of the municipal and county clerks, teachers, doctors, nurses, parents and others who don't generate headlines, but are the living, breathing backbones of their towns and cities because they support everyone else.

If there's an occupational hazard to all this, it may be that many of these super-capable individuals are so focused on supporting their usual spheres and jurisdictions that I believe they may risk missing the approach of other threats and challenges, as well as possible solutions for addressing them. I mean, if you spent years and untold resources developing homegrown distributed controls, such as Dow Chemical's MOD 5 or NASA's controls for the International Space Station (ISS), you might not see the commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions emerging at the same time. If you're devoted to wringing more efficiency out of consuming fossil fuels to make steam, you might miss or ignore the chance to transition to alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. And, if you're concentrating on maintaining maximum uptime by running and patching your own rack-mounted servers onsite, you might think you couldn't sign up for cloud-computing services that could do the job more efficiently and securely.

In the long run, competence, commitment, problem-solving and addressing immediate tasks are praiseworthy. However, they must also serve a wider radius of awareness about what challenges are the most important to overcome, and what are the most practical ways to handle them. Keeping our noses to the grindstone is important, but we do have look up sometimes.

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