How Do You Keep New Engineers From Leaving Your Business?

This guest post is authored by Paul Dunn, vice president of sales at MAVERICK Technologies.

Recently, a customer of mine who resides on the Gulf Coast (but is not an oil & gas or petrochemical company) approached me with a very interesting problem.  He had lost all of his process engineers to other companies over the past three months, taking all of his process and control system knowledge Supply-Demandwith them.  The company pay and benefits had been attractive enough to retain employees for years, but there has been quite a sudden sea change and he was at a loss on how to deal with it.  He told me of his plans to hire or contract three engineers to replace what he had lost.  Once we discussed it, I left him with a question that shook him to the core:  “How will you keep the new engineers, once they become functional, from leaving you for greener pastures?”

We are just now beginning to see the resource impact of one of the most under-reported stories in the history of the United States.  In November of 2012, several major news outlets reported that the U.S. would become the largest producer of oil in the world by the year 2020.  This has been accompanied by the massive reserves of natural gas that are being tapped throughout the country, making the U.S. the low cost producer of oil and gas derivative products for years to come.  This is resulting in a staggering amount of investment by most of the major petrochemical and oil & gas companies (PCOGs) in new capital projects; either in new production facilities or with retrofits of existing facilities.  The latest capital project investment in the Middle East region is listed at $2 trillion (yes, with a “T”).  The latest figures for investment here at home is projected (probably underestimated) at over $200 billion.  That investment is expected to grow as more of the reserves get tapped and are added to distribution and manufacturing chains over the next 20 years.

The elephant in the room is that the companies associated with this industry are going to continue to seek out and hire as many experienced control resources as possible.  Demand has been ratcheted up to a level that we have not seen in decades.  This coincides with the impending decline in experienced controls engineering and technician resources, where we are estimated to lose 40 percent of the workforce to retirement over the next five years.  Our engineering schools are not replacing these people fast enough.  This is a classic supply/demand curve issue, driving the compensation scale up to an area that non-PCOGs will not be able to afford.

PCOGs see other companies as the breeding ground for acquiring talent.  For the most part, this phenomena has been located primarily on the Gulf Coast, but as resources become more scarce, it is spreading.  Another customer just contacted me worried about finding resources in the Northern Georgia region of the country.  All of their old standbys had disappeared and were otherwise occupied.

Non-PCOGs are going to need to start thinking differently about how they will be able to support their operations from a controls viewpoint.  A combination of tried-and-true practices and new and perhaps radical ideas about how to perform controls support may need to be considered, including:

  • (T&T) Investing time and money into fully documenting existing processes.  If your engineers leave, does your intellectual property as well? Has the knowledge that your operators have in their heads been captured in the control system or does it operate semi-automatically?
  • (Radical) Companies facing decisions on control system replacement should strongly weight the availability of programming resources that a particular platform may offer.  Riding a controls platform that has minimal support on a broad scale offers little possibility of finding support down the road if your resources disappear.  The functionality of what many would consider PLC-based control has moved very close to the DCS capability and vice versa.
  • (Radical) Choosing control equipment and implementation strategies based on external remote supportability.  There are ways to accomplish this that will meet with recommended security guidelines that will not put a company at risk from external threats.  This strategy is a flow down from the IT world, but cannot be handled in the same way as it has been with IT.
  • (Radical) Placing freshly graduated engineering and technician resources into positions that offer them rapid knowledge gain.  The reality of the modern engineering graduate is that the majority of them do not want to work in the same environment for the next 30 years.  Times have changed.  Co-sourcing, career variability and intellectual challenge will be the key to retaining these employees.
  • (T&T) In the short term, companies may need to look at their total compensation for controls engineering and technician resources.  What was acceptable yesterday is being pushed aside very quickly by market demands.

If you work in a non-PCOG company, this is an issue that you need to pay attention to before it reaches your door.  I am sure that there are many other potential answers out there, and I would really enjoy hearing your feedback about this issue.

Paul Dunn

About the Author
Paul has more than 20 years of experience in automation engineering and business development. Before MAVERICK, Paul spent five years as a business development manager for Tegron, and five years as an engineering manager at NASA Glenn Research Center. He earned his bachelor‘s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Dayton and received his MBA from Cleveland State University.  Contact Paul at paul.dunn@mavtechglobal.com.
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  • Dave F.

    I could not agree with you more. We nor any in my network are all having trouble finding Controls people, both Technicians and Engineers. I started out 25 years ago as an Instrument Tech and then worked and Educated myself into a Control Systems Engineer. We once had 20Instrument People, and roughly 28 Electricians.
    We now have 27 “Automation Technicians”. And of those 1 is left who is a true Instrument Tech and 3 are trainees and the rest have an Electrical background. We cannot find controls people. In Engineering we are ok as I had Interns that was able to train and offer good jobs.

    When this topic comes up and everyone whines about not being able to find anyone…….I tell them there is not an issue. They look at me funny and I say (sarcastically) that supply and demand says that when supply is short, price goes up…..and we for the most part are not willing to pay more to get these people……so therefor I argue we created our own issues.

    Everyone combined electrical and instrument groups into “Automation” super crafts, and although there is a grey area in the middle, they are and always will be separate specialties. When we combined them, we managed them with people with Electrical Engineering degrees, so they leaned towards what they knew……and slowly we lose that Instrument knowledge. I have watched it erode over my 25 years.

    At the same time we stopped Apprenticeships and said we would let the schools solve it for us. I have 2 kids that are Engineers now and they got very little controls training in college. One is an EE and one an ME. At most they had one or two controls related classes.

    So to sum it up………I do not feel for us too much, I worry for us as this is a situation that we created in the name of money and it is going to take all of the money we think we saved over the years to fix it…..or go out of business. Now the only answer is to create a supply to fill the demand, this can only really be done one way now. We could have started back up with training programs, but now there are so few knowledgeable people left out there and they are so busy with downsized companies that the last thing they have time for is training people. We will have to raise the pay and benefits to steal them from each other, get the word out and kids will see how fruitful it is. This will get kids going to school again, and in 20 years we may have brought it back…………

    Just my humble opinion……..Dave

    • Bobby P.

      Paul and Dave,

      You both make excellent and valid points. I feel that the lack of truly knowledgeable “controls” engineers, especially in the areas of hardware design and instrumentation is (and will continue to be) a huge challenge for the automation industry. Four-year schools need to better instill a “real world” understanding in their engineering students. Also, private industry should realize that the “more with less” philosophy is not a one size fits all solution. New and recent graduates need mentoring and training and should not be expected to be 100% productive (i.e. billable) at the start of their careers.

      On a somewhat related topic: I have recently heard of engineering “elective” classes being made available to middle and high school students in my area. These were certainly not available to me when I was coming up. Hopefully an early exposure to the engineering field will encourage more kids to follow through with a career in engineering.

      My two cents,

      Bobby P.

  • Peter Koza

    I have over 30 years of contract instrumentation and controls engineering. First, the real wages have been decreasing for at least 20 years. After taking off the per diem split for living expenses, what is left over is half what I was making 13 years ago. Granted that much of that old equipment is obsolete, but I have spent a great deal of my own time and effort in staying current.
    Second comment: We do have an apprentice, journeyman, master system. This is what the contract employment industry does. Yes, I am the disposable employee. So aren’t we all? I couldn’t imagine doing the same little job the rest of my life. Besides, now they pay me to learn new things.
    Final comment: “Experience required: 5-6 years” is NOT a Senior engineer!

  • M. A. Taube

    I’ve been talking about this situation for at least 5 years – mostly with recruiters, but, occasionally with a hiring manager. Unfortunately, it’s the “keepers of the purse” that have to realize & acknowledge the inexorable outcome of the MBA Mantra (Do more with less) & reverse the policies and, most importantly, the budgets that created the situation. It’s going to be very painful to the corporate bottom line, but that is what is required for those companies that want remain viable.

    • M.A.,

      I find it a shame that many people feel that the MBA mentality is do more with less, but I understand where the perception comes from. I went and got an MBA because I wanted to understand what the “bean counters” were thinking. For me, it was a great exercise in learning how other people think (and also learning that the “bean counters” probably were making decisions in a vacuum). We in the engineering field do a terrible job explaining our cases in front of the business types. We have got to understand their thinking and provide them with the information that will get them to act. The companies that want to focus on short term profit will pay for that in the long run. I prefer to spend my time with the ones that want to be around for the long haul.

      Regards,

      Paul