In a declining economy,
what's a good automation techie to do?

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

In a poor economy, don't simply sit back and wait for the axe to fall. Be pro-active - use your personal strengths, plus new ideas and tools, to find new opportunities for continued growth and success. There are always good opportunities for good people. And good people find those opportunities!

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Check out, December 2002

In a poor economy, don't simply sit back and wait for the axe to fall. Be pro-active use your personal strengths, plus new ideas and tools, to find new opportunities for continued growth and success.

Consolidations are causing cutbacks

The world economy continues to be fragile and unstable. The recent terrorist activity and a possible war in the Middle East have caused great uncertainty. The stock market the visible indicator of economic health has declined some 60% across the board, and most technology companies have been the hardest hit. It is impossible to predict when, if ever, business will return to "the good old days".

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

Another trend that is generating additional employment reductions at automation companies in the US is the migration of manufacturing and design services to offshore locations. Already a significant share of US manufactured goods is sourced in China; and there is a significant market for outsourced software from India.

You might like to review my article, which outlines the reasons for the decline in automation markets.

Click Why is Industrial Automation Declining?

What's a good automation techie to do?

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 markets where you will have no experience, 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, good companies 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.

There are good companies around find them

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 already 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 that 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.

There are always good opportunities for good people. And good people find those opportunities!

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Copyright 2002 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA