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SME Speaks: Manufacturing Engineers Must Reduce Competency Gaps





       By Greg Hutchins, PE
Quality Plus Engineering
Portland, OR 


In a world where manufacturing jobs are changing rapidly, it's critical that manufacturing companies take steps to expand their skill sets, drive profitable growth, unlock the value of technology investments, and ensure the security and integrity of their global supply chains. One important step is to bring their workforce into the future, ensuring they are equipped to keep up with--and surpass--the imminent and ongoing evolution of both manufacturing technologies and manufacturing business.

With more North American companies focused on outsourcing today than ever before, manufacturing engineering professionals are being asked to:

  • Determine "make/buy" decisions,
  • Manage suppliers for technology, cost, delivery and quality,
  • Evaluate and improve their suppliers' core processes,
  • Integrate their suppliers' core processes with their companies' processes,
  • Manage/deploy supply chain management (SCM) systems, and
  • Improve supplier design, process, and quality.

Industry-driven studies by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) reveal that manufacturing engineers in the North American workforce lack the capabilities needed to undertake these tasks successfully. Studies reveal that we must close critical competency gaps--in business knowledge, supply chain and project management, international perspectives, and manufacturing process control--in order to be successful tomorrow.

To ensure that the manufacturing sector survives--and thrives--in future economies, manufacturing engineers of tomorrow must:


  • Be prepared to take on the challenge of free agency: The US Department of Labor forecasts that, by 2010, most engineers will be itinerant project professionals working on short-term assignments for a variety of internal or external clients. While this may seem like a distant reality, the historical evidence of this change is astounding; the Department of Labor states that, in 1998, 22% of workers were project professionals; in 2000, 26% were project professionals, and by 2010, 41% of the workforce will be itinerant project professionals.           
  • Develop career resilience: Manufacturing engineers who pursue continuous professional development through technical skills training will ensure they are resilient to the constant evolution of manufacturing industries. The half-life of knowledge for most of manufacturing engineers is seven years or less, and the half-life for computer science professionals and electronic engineers can be as low as two to three years. Without regular retraining, engineers in all fields can become functionally illiterate and occupationally obsolete very quickly.           
  • Understand new competitive, organizational, and individual work rules: Time compression, time-to-market, cost containment, high quality and increased customer satisfaction are critical rules guiding the competitive environment today, while organizational changes are demanding professionals who are capable of working well on virtual teams and in other nontraditional groups. To keep up with all the rules, engineers need to increase their rapid prototyping and lean manufacturing capabilities, while learning how to take charge of nontraditional leadership and management roles, assist in designing robust products, enhance core business processes, communicate with customers, develop and protect intellectual property, make management presentations, and manage product development. Preparation, training, and information could mean the difference between career obsolescence and celebrated career achievement.           
  • Learn how to operate within the new OEM business model: The business model for many OEMs, like auto and aerospace companies, is: manage the brand, design products, outsource non-core activities, assemble/test products, sell. Engineers own or contribute substantially to three core areas in this scenario: product design, outsourcing, and assembly/test of products. Many engineers, employees and contractors, however, will flounder if they don't know or understand today's business models. Increasing their understanding and skills in managing this new model is critical--particularly if they are going to contribute to the prevention of job outsourcing and to the preservation of domestic manufacturing jobs.           
  • Ensure their ability to effectively manage the supply chain: Supply chain management is a critical competency skill. While manufacturing engineers used to work on machine tools in internal plants or with domestic suppliers, they now find themselves carving out a new niche. Today, they more often manage offshore supplier design and manufacturing processes as their OEM employers commonly outsource as much as 85% of the manufacturing dollar to NAFTA or offshore suppliers.          
  • Be multidisciplinary: As managers, team members, designers, customer-service representatives, and product developers, tomorrow's US manufacturing engineers wear a number of hats. They must perform well in all of them and fully utilize their capabilities to help advance technologies and spur necessary innovation.


Looking at the growing need for professionals with diverse competencies in areas engineers have never considered before, it is clear that professional growth and development will be the cornerstone of our working lives--both today and tomorrow. While SME and other organizations work closely with industry and academia to ensure graduating engineers have the skills and capabilities identified by industry as critical, it is imperative that we take it upon ourselves to grow our own skills continuously while part of the workforce. Given all we know about how quickly our industries evolve, those of us in the field of engineering must constantly pursue knowledge, training, and resources so that we can remain professionally competent throughout our working lives, and pass a legacy of excellence on to the next generation.


Greg Hutchins is the former chair of SME's Quality Oversight Committee and has been an active member of SME since 2000. He is also the engineering principal with Quality Plus Engineering--a supply, risk, and project-management advisory firm. Contact him at: (, 503-233-1012, or 800-COMPETE.          



SME and Competency Gap Research    

Through extensive research on "competency gaps," first conducted with industry in 1997 and regularly updated since then, SME has identified those specific skill sets and competencies that industry most frequently find lacking in its workforce. And it has developed a Manufacturing Education Plan (MEP) as a roadmap to aggressively help fill those gaps. The MEP includes the many continuing education and professional development opportunities that the Society provides to its members and other manufacturing professionals, as well as its targeted grants to colleges and universities.

SME's most recent MEP identified the following critical competency gaps between what education programs provide their students and what manufacturers need in terms of their workforce:

  1. Business knowledge/skills
  2. Supply chain management
  3. Project management
  4. International perspective
  5. Materials
  6. Manufacturing process control
  7. Product/process design
  8. Quality
  9. Specific manufacturing processes
  10. Manufacturing systems
  11. Problem solving
  12. Teamwork/working effectively with others
  13. Personal attributes
  14. Written and oral communication
  15. Engineering fundamentals

By joining with powerful partners to create programming that addresses critical needs for its members and their companies, SME is helping to close competency gaps for North American manufacturing engineer.          


Web Portal Provides Supply Chain Resources      


Launched in April 2003, is an information portal where visitors can find a wealth of valuable links to resources and training that will help close the critical competency gaps identified by the SME MEP 2002 study. The site, a joint product of SME, the Institute of Supply Management, Cal State Hayward Continuing Studies, and LeanSCM provides visitors with a one-stop shop for information and training on managing both the supply chain and their manufacturing careers.


This article was first published in the February 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 2/1/2004

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