1661899482226 Keith Larson

What kind of training do you really need?

Nov. 10, 2006
As supervisors and employees from outside the research environment are surveyed on thesis-based degree programs, continuing education expectations will converge—and not toward those of the supervisors.
By Keith Larson, VP Content, Putman Media

Probably not what your boss thinks you do. Provided, that is, the preliminary results of a study from the Council for Chemical Research are broadly applicable to front-line process automation professionals and their supervisors.

“We’ve begun a survey of professional research employees in the chemical industry—with associate degrees and above—and their supervisors to identify how education providers can best support needs of industry,” explains Russ Rhinehart, study committee member and chemical engineering professor at Oklahoma State University. “Thus far, the data provides a strong and unexpected picture of contrasts between what supervisors and employees desire.”

The most striking disparity? Supervisors place a heavy emphasis on formal, thesis-based degree programs. By contrast, employees put formal degrees at the bottom of the list in favor of practical, task-specific education and training.

Supervisors say they want employees to pursue a formal degree because they believe that with such programs, learning rigor and depth are guaranteed and that critical and independent thinking are demonstrated. The resulting sheepskin demonstrates that its recipient is better prepared for the future and hence more promotable, the supervisors say.

Employees, meanwhile, perceive an advanced degree as a low-return investment. “They don’t see a masters’ degree—perhaps earned at night school, one course at a time over five years—as being a good use of their time,” Rhinehart explains. Employees would prefer short courses and specific training with emphasis on immediate utility. And while supervisors don’t discount the functional benefit of such training, it doesn’t make the recipient more likely to be promoted, they say.

Another contrast revealed by the study is employees’ preference for active learning experiences, such as interactive software-based tools, on-the-job implementation exercises and small group work with instructor as coach. Degree-granting universities, by contrast, tend toward passive, independent, intellectual exercises that are more readily managed and evaluated.

When surveyed on what topics they’d like to see furthered developed, staff-level researchers identified process modeling, simulation and optimization; process control; business and plant economics; and equipment-based unit operations as key areas of interest. Supervisors added statistical and decision-making skills, as well as team and leadership effectiveness to the list.

To date, the universe studied thus far is focused primarily on chemical industry researchers—many with advanced degrees—and does not capture the larger sector of the manufacturing and design portions of industry. So, here’s the call for participation: Go to www.ccrhq.org/survey and complete the survey. The results, to be released in the spring, may well guide your next continuing education program.

From my own perspective as a former chemical industry researcher, I have to say that I’m not at all surprised at the study’s findings to date. Further, I have a prediction: As supervisors and employees from outside the research environment are surveyed, continuing education expectations will converge—and not toward those of the supervisors.

As a bachelors-degreed research engineer during much of the 1980s, I soon discovered that in the ivory tower of industry research, “promotability” very much depended on having that advanced degree—in no small part, because the ivory tower was self-propagating. Group supervisors and directors had put in the time for an advanced degree, and, by gosh, they expected promotion candidates would too. Long story short, I left that research job to pursue an advanced degree myself, but was diverted on the path that ultimately led me to writing this column and a long series of adventures along the way.

One of those adventures included an early 1990s cover story in this magazine on the value of an advanced engineering degree. I still remember one particularly pragmatic headhunter’s assessment of an advanced degree’s value: “By the time you’ve been in industry for five years, you’re either a performer or a clown—and an extra piece of paper won’t make a bit of difference.”

Sure hasn’t for me. (And yes, you may interpret this conclusion either way you wish!)

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