Over 25% of manufacturing workers are over 55 years old, and 10,000 baby boomers retire each day. Furthermore, manufacturers struggle to attract younger workers with targeted digital skills. Unemployment rates are low. The stigmas associated with the manufacturing industry are causing tech-savvy, STEM-inclined young people to choose other career paths.

The manufacturing industry is undergoing a digital transformation. During this transition, many essential roles, including process and quality engineering, will also transform. It’s important to clearly communicate these changes to newcomers and equip current workers to gain the skills they need to succeed

When I grow up, I want to be a process engineer

On the shop floor, process engineers design, implement, and continually optimize industrial processes. Watch the video below for more context on these efforts and the tools needed to support them.

ways to support process engineers

Often, these optimization efforts are continuous iterations with a focus on improving yield and performance from the systems, people, and machines involved in production. At larger companies, a process engineer might focus on a specific niche. However, at a smaller manufacturer, process engineers wear many hats. The process engineer’s key contribution is their understanding of how each component of production contributes to the whole. This knowledge enables them to identify which lever to pull to solve challenges they face.

A knowledge worker’s primary contribution is their knowledge, as opposed to a specific skill. This includes creativity, problem-solving skills in changing environments, and an ability to learn. Knowledge work is differentiated from other work by non-routine problem-solving.

We’re applying  6 takeaways from Drucker’s 1992 essay to help manufacturers support their process engineers as knowledge workers.

1. Figure out what information is needed to enable them to do their job.

Activities like time studies and line balancing help process engineers benchmark shop floor performance. These metrics theoretically give process engineers the tools they need to optimize operator and overall performance towards their targets. However, real world conditions interfere with reality.

Process engineers need this information in real time.  However, time studies are often manual, and they’re sometimes completed by separate teams using paper-based processes. The time lapse between when the data is collected and when the data is reviewed is a crucial drop in insights for process engineers.

However, fundamentally, access to real-time data and clear performance targets are necessary information for process engineers.

2. Actively prune what is past its prime

Drucker believed that innovation required winding down deprecated systems.  For process engineers, this could mean adopting new technologies such as manufacturing apps, that can augment existing systems. Make sure you have access to flexible new technology that integrates with these systems, but doesn’t necessarily lock you into specific processes or technology in the future.

Other functions across companies and industries have had this type of extended ecosystem for years. Just a look at sales and marketing functions show hundreds of tools with flexible APIs and other system integrations to fit each customer’s specific needs.

Empower process engineers with similar options to help support their innovation.

3. Embrace employee autonomy

Knowledge workers support their teams with information and analysis. Therefore, they know more about how these teams work and the levers to pull to adjust performance better than leadership teams. They are in the weeds more so than anyone else in the organization.

Give process engineers the autonomy they need. A move to “management by objectives” can empower workers to make decisions based on targets and accountability.

4. Build true learning organizations

This is an ongoing question for manufacturers. How can manufacturers adjust their work environment so knowledge is shared and grows? The manufacturing industry is facing significant retiree rates amongst the demographic with the most institutional knowledge. Organizations need to make sure the tribal knowledge is captured and turned into common knowledge.

Creating an environment focused on learning and growth serves two functions. First, it helps these organizations retool a workforce to focus on learning, rather than acquiring and exercising a specific set of skills. Second, true learning organizations empower knowledge workers like process engineers. The problems they face will only become more complex. Given workforce trends, these challenges will need to be solved with a smaller pool of employees.

Giving process engineers the tools they need to learn will help them succeed in this type of environment.

5. Provide a sense of purpose

Increasingly, employees want to feel like they’re a part of something bigger than themselves. This greater sense of purpose helps motivate people. How can manufacturers motivate workers? Clear objectives and transparency about how their work impacts the organization is a good place to start.

Manufacturers can take a page from companies in other industries and provide greater transparency into overall company objectives.

6. Be mindful of those left behind

Manufacturing is creating a ton of new technical and digital-supported jobs, but not necessarily bringing back the jobs traditionally associated with manufacturing that have been offshored, automated, or both. This disconnect is creating a negative cultural association with manufacturing. Because of the industry’s perceived instability, parents and institutions aren’t encouraging the candidates that fulfill traditional knowledge work to apply to these positions.

Understanding how previous changes have impacted the workforce is a good place to start. Over time, these organizations can focus on supporting workers to grow and transition into roles that fit them if needs change, and continue communicating honestly with their employee base and candidate pools. This will prevent similar negativity in the future.

Looking forward

Industry insiders agree that the manufacturing industry is undergoing a lot of change. A change in perspective about employees and their roles in the company can help companies ensure these employees are equipped with the tools, and other resources they need to succeed.

Let us know what you think. What other ways should manufacturers support their process engineers? If you liked this post, check out some of our other blogs or subscribe to our bimonthly newsletter in the footer!