Are Your Skills Up To Par?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Are Your Skills Up to Par? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine March 2000

Just prior to sitting down to write this article, I was preparing a hand written drawing of a possible new report layout. I had the straight edge out and the mechanical pencil in hand - I was going back to my roots! This was not the first time that I had caught myself failing to be "technologically correct" however - on numerous occasions, especially recently, I have been displaying anachronistic behaviors. Having these experiences made me think.

I recalled someone (possibly Tom Peters) saying that the half-life of an engineering degree is seven years. I have been in the workplace for almost twenty years, so my IE degree must have depreciated to around 14% of what it used to be "worth" (we'll assume that my retention and application rates were on the high end). Today, this half-life may be even shorter. My son is within a year of graduating high school, and it appears that he at least has an interest in considering industrial engineering as a starting point.

Because of my bias, I had to ask myself if what prospective engineers are taught in colleges today is just as valuable as it used to be. Why is industrial engineering the choice to make? While I have not been in an engineering college classroom for a few years, I believe that it is, if not more so. Today's engineering students have the advantage of much better technology. Their rate of learning is not somewhat constrained by the need to do manual calculations, drawings, and reports. Will the mechanical pencil become obsolete? What about drawing tables, straight edges, and plastic triangles?

The impact of voice recognition alone will change the way in which we use our hands at work. From the perspective of a once MTM-certified engineer, this is significant. The potential impact on productivity from the full deployment of this technology is staggering in itself. What will the cumulative effects of the most massive business-related system change of all time (personal computers) will be? How outdated are the industrial engineering skills of the "past"?

It is at this point that I reflected on and assessed the value of the mechanical drawing class that I took for a year in high school. I don't know the percent of mechanical drawing classes that have been replaced by CAD classes, but I do recognize the benefits of what I learned in that year about attention to detail, doing precision work, and learning to conceptualize something differently. I used a slide rule for one year in high school before I got my first calculator, so I can only wonder what benefits, if any were lost when it went the route that mechanical drawing could go.

Here is a common sense example. What is the average "words per minute" typing speed of people born in the 1950's versus those born since 1980? Which group complains about not having enough time more than the other? Apply the Gilbrethian logic that endeared me to the book, and later the movie, "Cheaper by the Dozen" and you will quickly identify a major time saving initiative for American business - make everyone learn how to type proficiently!

Have those of us who entered this field five, ten, or more years ago kept up with trends in our field and areas of expertise, or have we let our skills atrophy too much? What can we teach IEs who are entering the workplace that we have learned from experience and applying concepts to work consistently? How will our profession continue to change as memory density and processor speed continue to double at least every eighteen months?

Because we focus on improving systems, I am confident that our industrial engineering skills will become even more valuable as we find ways to take advantage of faster and improved analysis tools. In hindsight, I have been impressed with the way that the industrial engineering profession has adapted to bring in technology as a useful tool. I recognize how much easier it would have been to understand the key concepts of operations research if the computer had been like they are today (and this is not the end point). I am most struck however by the way in which a diverse curriculum has also been able to capture and preserve the human side of engineering as well.

As technology decreases the analysis time we have to spend, perhaps we can invest our extra time in making more improvements related to human factors. Technology is not the end all to success in our profession however. I did not use a personal computer to do my job as an industrial engineer during my first five years on the job. As a rookie IE, my first boss, who was then 67, taught me invaluable lessons about working effectively with people and doing job analysis in a fair way. Technology would not have influenced that learning process - hands-on experience and lots of practice was, and will still be, required to develop these skills. Keep improving!

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