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Experience Beats Degrees

What Makes Today's Engineers Better at Playing in the Field?

By Jeremy Pollard

There are a lot of "mes" out there. I don't have an engineering degree, but I have a lesser, three-year diploma from a highly recognized institution. That's a me. And some might say (well, they did back then), that engineers needed one of me with one of them, so they wouldn't hurt themselves in the field.

No flak jacket needed. Engineers as engineers are theoretical peeps, while I was more practical in my education back in the day. There are some differences now, however, that make engineers better at playing in the field.

I was searching the jobs arena on an automation website, and, funnily enough, all the controls positions required a bachelor's degree. So, if I have 30 years experience on wide-ranging product lines and applications, would I be left out in the cold with these employment positions?

I was the software product manager for a company in Houston in the late 1980s, and, with the Free Trade Act that was just new at that time, I had to go through education equivalency and came out of the other end with two degrees. Would they count?

Less math = better engineers

I also had to go through a right-to-work study that is basically a wait-and-see game. The company I was "working" for had to advertise in a few arenas for people to do the job I was going to do. It seems the point was that this company had to hire an American citizen, should one be available, and I am Canadian.

The hoops were jumped through, and at the end I did not receive my permanent work visa. So I returned home very disappointed in the process, but more for my enthusiasm for the job and company I was leaving. The educational equivalency didn't count.

At the time, I had 12 years of experience with the leading automation supplier at a time when the automation marketplace was just starting to boom. I could've made a difference.

But today, and not withstanding my age, I would be a very capable and willing participant in most companies that engage in industrial automation. And no, I'm not trolling for a job.

Regardless of the letters after your name, you should be able to get a job, keep a job and be treated with a level of respect that only comes with "paying your dues."

Canada instituted a program with foreign countries that subsidizes the hiring of workers for various jobs. There are many skilled jobs that are available with many companies that can't get filled. The United States is suffering a similar fate.

And we've talked about the issues surrounding the youth of today and getting them involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities. The numbers clearly show that STEM is lagging the workplace.

I work with a distribution retail company taking care of all their software needs. One of the gentlemen who works on the floor is a trained microbiologist from India. When he came over to Canada (the current employment program was not in place), he could not get a position doing anything else but taking blood in a retail lab environment.

His training from India will go unused since he had a family to support. He and I aren't too far apart when it came to decision making about jobs and futures.

This leads me to Anecdote No. 2. Our daughter works in a pharmaceutical laboratory as a microbiologist. For some reason, the company stated a few years ago, as the subsidized work programs were just coming of age, that anyone who didn't have a degree could no longer work in the lab.
Huh? Imagine after doing the job for 15-20 years because you had a three-year diploma, you were told you couldn't work there anymore. We are hiring new science-degreed people to replace you. What they didn't say was they are hiring them from India through this new program.

No disrespect is intended, but the quality of work between the new degreed peeps and the released workers with vast experience is incomparable. Experience does count for something. In my view, it counts for everything. If you can't do the job, then it's different. But if you can, then regardless of the letters after your name, you should be able to get a job, keep a job and be treated with a level of respect that only comes with "paying your dues."

There are many people in the automation field who don't have degrees as such. There are many very good if not excellent purveyors of all walks of process and discrete manufacturing, and some of us can even teach our craft very well.

Experience is the best teacher, and remember what my dear ol' mum used to say—you can't put an old head on young shoulders. So, be careful what you ask for.