The Tale of Chemical Engineering (Part VI of I)

Previously parts I, II, III, IV and V.

As it happens, I recently was treated to the honour of being the recipient of a thank you dinner and award for completing my companies graduate training scheme, which is essentially the same as just having stayed with them for four years. The people that were there were the people that I had started with back in 2007 and it was nice to see who had survived and who was bothered to come along.

At the same time my company has recently merged with another large engineering firm and taken on all their staff into the new business. This meant that when coming back from Texas I was given to the new company as one of the first engineers to cross the divide.  The divide was large at first but now it's becoming smaller, a good thing. The dinner was proposed in three ways:

- thanks for staying with us.
- you are the future of the company
- (and admittedly, not said to us, but heavily implied) don't leave to go contract

Contractor / Staff has already been explained on the blog before, so I'll assume you know the differences. The main talk of the night came from our two managers in charge of different parts of the business  They detailed as to why we, as the collective young staff members, were so important to the company and mentioned the future that we are going to heading for. They mentioned future career paths, mentioning people who went on to become managers and "successes", as well as the reasons to stay with the company in the future.

I do plan to stay with the company - they work the way I like to do work and they seem like a fairly ethical company considering the business I work in - sure, they are wasteful and resource heavy in certain areas, but to be honest I've seen the other side - my Texan company were woefully unprofessional and lacking in areas I feel important to the way I want to work, and it was a serious eye opener.

The discussion of my future career made me return to the previous five posts in this series - a rant that became a documentation of how my mind was feeling when I wrote them, like a temperature taken during a year. And now, at the end of the graduate portion and entering the true engineer cycle of my career, I have came to a few realisations.

There are a lot of absolute idiots in my field. People who, somehow, have managed to avoid the culls and build themselves a network of friends that will keep them in employment. In fact, some parts of peoples skills are so lacking that I fear for the safety of some engineering solutions that they propose. I am no shrinking violet and despite tearing my self up about certain problems in recent months at work, I have decided that I am not going to be ambivalent about it, and mark my territory. If I am going to do work, it has to be of a certain quality and a certain style, and others are not going to make me do a job that is detrimental to my own career morals.

The idea of a "career" appears to be in some people's minds the ambition to become a manager. As I have seen on Jonathan's blog, this is not a problem limited to just my company. It appears that they want the best engineers and then move them into management positions.  This is quite obviously absolute madness. Sure, some people want that (and I thought that I might) but I see good engineers becoming bad managers quite easily. It's not a good idea.

Also, being a manager makes it very easy to protect yourself from the cull - engineers are the ones that are the work horses and the talent, no question, but also the ones to blame - managers are apparently those who get the credit, and avoid the fallout if there's a problem. I see almost daily people who don't do any work of any worth and are commended for it, despite hundreds (and maybe thousands) working very hard to keep the actual money making business tick over, after all engineering firms have to engineer.

It's worth noting what I mean by "manager". I have line managers, like my lead or chief engineer, who check, correct and control my work. They are fine, and sometimes very good at their job. However, there is another side - project controls, engineering managers, cost "engineers" amongst others that I deal with that don't do the technical side. Instead they are entirely at cost to the company, seemingly protected in their status by the fact that there is a perception that they need to be there to "manage" the engineering team, hence why they will be called managers from here on in.  I should also point out that I am not suggesting get rid of all managers, but getting credit and avoiding blame is the hallmark of any manager I've ever work with.

An example of this is the merger between the two companies - a big change is the integration of the two and recently we were treated to an email describing "how well it had gone". It hasn't gone well. At my level, I am still using two different procedure lists and deciding which one applies. I am constantly changing the text and logos of old calculations to the new name. I am dealing with people inside the actual company who don't understand who they work for. At a management level they are working together in the new shiny sparkling office, with the singular budget, but at the engineering level (the level that does the work that makes us money) it's still separate entities.

Obviously, things take time. My problem isn't the change - it's the fact that people are thinking they've done a great job when their job is entirely unsubstantial. Yet protected by themselves.

I am good at my job and I strive to always be better. I want to engineer good, economical, and smart solutions, not just rehashing what has been done before - I want to innovate where I can. I am lucky to work in a field that actually allows me to do this as well, but it feels that there are mixed messages and serious fallacies being propagated: engineers are being told to look to management positions - to allow, as far as i can see, the company to boast that they have their engineers in these positions in the first place.

If being "just" an engineer isn't enough, then I might have to stamp my authority on the company. There is a generation of senior engineers that are stagnant, old and out dated, filling the higher positions in engineering that need to move on and let the new generation to come in supplant them for the future of the business. People who worked in the 1980s and 90s are now 30 years into their career and vastly out of date, yet will sit and wait until retirement age. Instead, for career progression, engineers like my self and Jonathan are being told by superiors career progression lies outside of where we work, what we work on, what we want to do, what we are good at and more incredibly, what they hired us for.  And with the ceiling of the dinosaur-engineers at the top we know that this might be the only way to move onward into better compensated positions.

I see the lack of scope for my title to progress to a senior, principal or lead engineer position as a massive reason to not become a chartered engineer, the next obvious step in my career progression. If I wanted to manage engineers, I'd have done a management job.

Engineers engineer, managers manage. I have yet to meet one person that has successfully managed to move between the two, despite the push towards that by the career planners. And it's likely to become a serious problem for the future of the UK engineering sector.

Engineers that don't feel the worth, constantly told that they should be looking for something beyond their current jobs, and a generation of managers born from engineers.  Interesting situation, don't you think?

Hat tip: Jonathan, who wrote about his frustrations about being told wanting to be "just" an engineer is a lack of ambition.  Once again, his writing is magnificent in it's detail, scope and ability to get me to start to formulate my own jumbled thoughts. Also, tl;dr? Oh well.