Is Industrial Engineering Suffering From a Talent Gap?

October 1, 2013

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If the U.S. is to undergo the hoped-for manufacturing resurgence in the coming years, the sector will need industrial engineers (IEs), the professionals trained to design and optimize factories. Many believe that education in the field is lacking and too few students show an interest in the career. 

Mike Duke, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said at the recent Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Summit that the U.S. needs to improve STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to meet manufacturers’ need for skilled workers and professionals. But he took this exhortation further by bringing up industrial engineering (IE) specifically: “I have a personal bias, being an engineer myself, but we also need those that can design the factories, design the processes, the technology. So as a country, not just Wal-Mart -- we have a shortage in that area, too. We need more science and more engineers to help us ... build the foundation” for a manufacturing resurgence.

As IMT reported recently, the manufacturing sector believes that it suffers from a serious skills gap -- a long-term problem in filling such positions as machinists, operators and technicians. The number of open positions in manufacturing is running about 250,000 on average, according to some researchers. Others think it is much higher.

In the 2011 study of the talent gap by the Manufacturing Institute (MI) and professional-services firm Deloitte, 42 percent of manufacturing executives told researchers their companies are being negatively affected by workforce shortages or skill deficiencies in engineering technologists for production support, which include industrial engineers, manufacturing engineers, and planners. Sixty percent of respondents reported experiencing a moderate to severe shortage of workers in those fields. Retiring workers are likely to worsen these shortages over the next several years.

Some sources suggest that the talent gap in IE is largely structural: The demand for trained professionals is high, and the supply is too low.

Rich Hutchings, vice president of engineering at Manpower’s Experis division, told IMT that talented people are coming out of engineering schools, but recruiters sometimes wait too long to extend a job offer. “Companies need to move faster in hiring,” he said. “If you wait two weeks, the good ones are gone. They’ve already got job offers.”

Hutchings also cites a misalignment between companies’ needs for expertise and the skill levels of available workers. “Industrial engineers especially face a lot of expectations in areas like quality, lean, and Six Sigma,” he said. “Companies are looking for somebody with 10 or 15 years’ experience. Book smarts only get you so far. Rarely can a younger candidate get done what they have to do without that previous on-the-job experience.”

Shahrukh Irani, director of IE research at Hoerbiger, a Swiss manufacturer of automation and drive technologies, told IMT that he thinks industrial engineering education is too distant from the realities of manufacturing. Irani recently moved to the private sector after teaching IE for a number of years at Ohio State University. “From the days of Frederick Taylor, this profession has been all about improving the way we work,” he said. “That is such a powerful goal.”

The Toyota Production System (TPS), precursor to lean manufacturing, revolutionized large-scale manufacturing, but Irani believes such practical approaches have too often been neglected in IE education -- to the detriment of graduating engineers. “Most faculty have no manufacturing experience, no industry experience, have not spent time working in a company,” he said.

Irani added that “the curricula of today have to be reimagined from the ground up. We have to have industrial engineers who understand lean and Six Sigma and beyond that. If we are going to turn around manufacturing, we have to have IEs who also know computer science, robotics, wireless, mobile computing, and flexible manufacturing. They have to know how to set up and run a factory.”

Douglas R. Rabeneck, an IE who works with companies through the operations workforce optimization practice at management consulting firm Accenture, said he feels the talent gap in his field comes down to high demand in workplaces of all kinds, including manufacturing. While he agrees that “the educational process engineers go through at universities could definitely be improved,” he said he thinks that engineering schools overall “have been pretty good at trying to work with industry and adapting. There’s a good dialogue that goes on between university professors and industry.”

Rabeneck said one of the important ways engineering schools have helped prepare industrial engineering students has been through cooperative education, giving a student “the opportunity to do engineering work for a company while you’re in school," he said. "I think that’s been very successful. It takes longer to graduate, but when you do you already have a year or two of experience. It’s a great advantage.”

The shortage of industrial engineers, Rabeneck added, has more to do with the lack of interest in the engineering profession at the level of secondary education than any failure in higher education to provide practical training. “I’m hearing there are not enough students coming out of secondary education who have an interest in STEM education, in gaining those skills, in going the engineering route,” he said.

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