Why young engineers walk the floor

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The Independent Online
Increasing numbers of graduate engineers are being recruited as production supervisors, according to new research. It is happening largely because the job has become more complex and skillful as a result of the pressure to improve quality and performance at the same time as competing on price.

Routine tasks, such as planning labour schedules and materials supplies, have become more demanding as a result of greater diversity of products and tightened quality and delivery targets, adds the discussion paper "Back from the dead again? Production supervisors in the US, Britain and Germany", from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It is reported in the Association of Graduate Recruiters' newsletter, Janus.

In addition, many companies have responded to competitive pressures to cut costs by requiring supervisors to take a more proactive role in identifying opportunities for improving efficiency.

In Britain, 20 per cent of supervisors are now graduates, while in the United States the figure is 35 per cent. According to the NIESR study of 30 vehicle component and specialised high-speed machinery plants by Geoff Mason, the use of graduate supervisors has greatly added to the volume and pace of incremental process improvements.

The practice of putting graduates into supervisor roles is also seen as a useful means of giving future design and development engineers experience of the realities of production, such as the cost implications of design changes.

However, he points out that "whatever their advantages in terms of theoretical understanding and up-to-date technical knowledge", new young graduate engineers typically lack the extensive production experience possessed by German "meisters", who usually have been given extensive vocationally training that combines technical knowledge and wide production experience.

Hence, says Mason, "it is not surprising that most American and British managers and supervisors interviewed for this study argued strongly that supervisors should continue to comprise a mix of university graduates and shopfloor-trained workers"n

Roger Trapp

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