Have you paid your daily dues?

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Today, major industrial automation companies are consolidating and laying-off. What’s a budding young engineer or technician to do? Or, if you’ve already in the instruments business, should you simply wait for the ax to fall?

Rather than suggest you defect to other "burgeoning" markets, I’d like to propose more practical directions that combine your own personal strengths with new thinking in a new economy.

The original version of this article was published by
ISA - InTech ISA - InTech - Industry View, October 2001

The world economy is fragile today. In the U.S., in spite of repeated attempts by the Fed to stimulate business through interest-rate cuts and a major tax refund by the new administration, the stock market-the most visible indicator of economic health-continues to decline across the board.

Industrial automation companies, traditionally considered more stable than most, are not exempt from the economic malaise. Indeed, all the majors report a steady decline in most market areas. Larger companies are under pressure, with declining sales and profits causing a wave of mergers, consolidations, and layoffs that will continue to change the landscape.

In this changing scenario, what’s a budding young controls and instrumentation engineer or technician to do? Or, for that matter, if you’ve already spent several years in the instruments business, should you simply wait for the ax to fall? Rather than suggest you defect to other "burgeoning" markets, I’d like to propose more practical directions that combine your own personal strengths with new thinking in a new economy.

First of all, forget the old adage: "I’ve paid my dues." In the fast-moving new business environment, you pay your dues daily. If you’re not moving up, you’re moving down. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Believe it or not, in these tough times there are companies that are moving ahead strongly. Look for them-you’ll find them. Here are some signs.

A recession is a sign of aging technology and outdated management techniques. It’s easy to look good in good times, but in tough times, the best companies shine because they are doing the right things for the long haul. In a decline, they are building with a different set of tools: employee ownership (to keep the best people); a sensible level of R&D to generate new products for a new age; conservative financial management accruals that anticipate a worst-case scenario with a realistic plan; no short-run financial fiddling; and long-term commitment to survival and success.

Find a company that has performance incentives that allow individuals to benefit from their own results. Is the CEO a financially driven “cutter,” or a “builder” and a leader? Are the top people accessible? Does the company have employee ownership and stock options, or are those things just for the higher-ups?

If you’re working for a publicly held company, look at its annual reports and check on the financials. Is the company consistently profitable? Is it investing in new products and upgraded capital equipment? Is it operating on a global scale? Use a search engine, and you’ll find more than enough information to help you make a balanced decision on your current or future employer.

Does the company have Web pages updated regularly, with published results to get employees and customers involved? Does it have company e-mail and Web access for all employees? Does the company publish regular, perhaps weekly, news and views? Or are the employees, like mushrooms, kept in the dark?

Is there news that the company will acquire or sell out? There is nothing wrong with working for an acquired company-indeed, the acquirer will be trying hard to generate new success and will most often look for new leadership within the company. But if the possibility drags on, good people start to exit. Follow suit. It’s a good trait to be loyal, but don’t wait to be laid off when you see the writing on the wall. Don’t stick around and complain-let your actions speak.

Leverage your skills
If you’re already working with an end user or supplier who you “feel” (go with your gut) is still in the dark ages with commodity products, become a leader yourself-make a strong pitch to make improvements. Become a rabble-rouser with a positive intent. Don’t be patient with excuses-play by the rules: Strike 1, strike 2, and strike 3, you’re out. Go find other employment in a new age business.

If you’re in PLC programming, remember the 30-year-old PLC replaced "relay ladder logic." Move on to other tools and techniques that utilize your skills. If you’re working with DCS, recognize that PCs and software have already made significant inroads. Start learning how to program in C++ and Java. Dig into Ethernet and TCP/IP. Work on your own continuous improvement. Don’t be too busy to learn.

Browse the suppliers’ Web sites, and ask them to send you the latest information on new products (do it at home if you don’t have Web access at work-the sign of a dark age employer). Find out who is using those new products and why. Get the local salespeople to bring over a demo. They’ll often leave it with you for a few days to become familiar with its products and features. They won’t think of you as a "lowly technician" but rather as a friendly customer and ally.

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