Adapting to a new market for quality, engineering professionals
by Henry J. Lindborg
In consulting and planning with not-for-profits—especially universities, which are unaccustomed to market turbulence—I often use the phrase "glacial change." The phrase implies change that is large but so gradual that human beings don’t see it in their lifetimes.
But I’ve had to modify my language. Climatologists predict that by the middle of the 21st century, there will be no glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park. What we’ve thought of as geological time has been abbreviated.
We’ve all heard this, and satellite images confirm what we’ve heard. Change guru John Kotter even produced a useful fable about it.1 Now, we have the more immediate metaphor of "reset," echoing the title of Kurt Andersen’s Time magazine cover story and book.2
In reset, we suddenly come to the painful realization the world is transformed. The gradual, accumulated economic, social and environmental shifts that take decades are suddenly made visible in massive changes, many of which are unlikely to be reversed in a new cycle.
As I recently tracked the fate of a large manufacturer negotiating concessions from its union, I was struck not only by the weakened condition of a great company, but also by how the firm made sense of its future. As it expressed hope of emerging stronger, it made clear its market would be forever different.
So, too, the market for quality and engineering professionals has changed. We’ve seen engineering unemployment double this year, and the long, slow downward drift in manufacturing has accelerated. How do we adapt?
Change vs. transition
Thirty years ago, William Bridges observed the important difference between change and transition.3 Change is situational, and transition is psychological, with three phases: an ending, a neutral zone and new beginnings. In ending, we lose something. The neutral zone is a sort of wilderness in which we let go of the past and either go dormant we try new things. In new beginnings, we engage a new reality—ourselves transformed—with a new sense of identity.
During the last decade, I’ve worked with quality professionals in transition. Some have moved to new industries. Others have cultivated new instrumental and networking skills to find jobs in emerging industries. Now, mature workers are even taking advantage of internships.4
A New York Times article notes that science and technology professionals are broadening their skills to include business and communications.5 I’ve noticed this gradual trend, as those with doctorates in engineering, law, biology and medicine have entered the management program in which I teach. At the same time, many are just entering or still wandering in the wilderness, reassessing what they bring to this reset world.
Organizations in recovery
To assist those in transition, I consulted with Jeff Dean, training specialist at Oshkosh Corp. The vehicle maker is different from many other manufacturers as it faces rapid growth challenges. Having obtained billion-dollar contracts from the federal government, the firm has needed to hire and rapidly train hundreds of new employees. Participating in both processes has given Dean important insight into job searching and what will be required of organizations in recovery.
More than 4,000 job-seekers turned out to apply for about 750 positions at Oshkosh. Dean interviewed candidates for two days.
"Lines began to form as early as 3 a.m.," he said. "Many people came with nothing more than hope and a resume. As the days progressed, I had to take a break and process the magnitude of what was happening in front me."
He was deeply moved by the hardships many faced, but he had to choose. "Everyone I interviewed wants to work," he said. "What separated the group was their ability to combine their cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills. I call it, ‘head, heart, hand—do you know how, do you want to and do you have the ability to?’"
Dean’s formula is a good one. Detailed career plans aren’t worth much if you can’t define your skills in the few minutes you have.
Dean also needed to help redesign training for new employees, many of whom brought rich experience from other industries. His team began rapid improvement of training approaches and materials. By reviewing outcomes and efficiency, they were able to develop training programs that delivered the same or better results in less time. His experience models what we may expect as the economy recovers.
Many organizations are themselves in the wilderness, partly dormant, awaiting change. During their new beginnings, they will look at new realities. They will hire in new ways—often for projects rather than permanence—but they will screen carefully for a good skills fit. They will also look for those who understand urgency and know how to rapidly improve existing systems that have to be upgraded to compete in reset markets. Quality professionals should be first in line.
- John Kotter, Our Iceberg Is Melting, St. Martins, 2006.
- Kurt Andersen, Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America, Random House, 2009.
- William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, revised 25th anniversary edition, Da Capo Press, 2004.
- Ageless in America, Internships for Mature Workers, www.agelessinamerica.com.
- Steve Lohr, "Adding Layers of Skills to a Science Background," New York Times, Aug. 20, 2009.
Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.