The life of a traveling controls guy

Work at distant plants starting up, troubleshooting and supporting automated equipment has many ups and downs that should be rewarded for a job well done

By Dave Perkon, technical editor

As a past member of the traveling controls guy guild, I wanted to give a shout out to this group of valuable employees. We often work long hours, away from home, many times over weekends and holidays, and likely feel underappreciated at times.

We traveling controls guys provide much-needed services and knowledge for both the end user and supplier. Many newly installed pieces of equipment would just sit there looking pretty if the controls guy just didn't show up after getting tired of all the trial and tribulations involved in this line of work.

While peddling a product can be tough, as well, I have to say that the traveling sales guys have it easier, unless you like lunch and dinner alone. But even Ken, my favorite sales guy, doesn't have to deal with that often. He'd just invite me or another customer to lunch, and he buys. Wining and dining and pool parties don't happen often for the traveling controls guy.

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When at a factory in the middle of nowhere, the best food choice for the two weeks you are on-site is often the snack bar at Wally World or a greasy-spoon, all-you-can-eat buffet. There is nothing else. In places where lunch is called dinner and your evening meal is called supper, sometimes after hours, it's just you and the vending machine. Snickers, Chips Ahoy! and Pop-Tarts have been a great dinner, or supper, option after a 12- or 16-hour day, but I would suggest doubling up.

It often starts with a plane ticket and the need to work weekends and holidays. That's when production is shut down and the equipment or area can be accessed at the plant. My controls engineering manager once told me I would only be on-site for two weeks. He then gave me a plane ticket to travel to the plant on a Friday evening and to return on a Sunday evening more than two weeks later. Yep, three weekends in a row. I have nothing against working hard; you often must in life. What I didn't like is the feeling of no social life and missing the wife and kids.

Of course, after arriving at the plant, a controls guy is probably going to have to wait.

Of course, after arriving at the plant, a controls guy is probably going to have to wait. The equipment is probably not ready for you. Either the millwrights are not done installing the equipment or the electricians have not even started installing the conduit. You probably should have been told this important information before the five-hour drive or the flight across several states on a Friday evening.

The skilled labor may or may not have its own agenda affecting the length of your stay, but we'll leave that detail to another column. I've worked with many excellent installation crews over the years. They nailed it consistently. Knocked it out of the park. I have also worked with crews that seem to enjoy stealing your multimeter and screwdrivers. In one particularly "infected" plant, I wondered if the skilled-trades crew that was selling liquor and "other services" in the back parking lot at break time was selling my tools there, as well.

After a quick trip by Wally World for supper and to purchase a low-priced multimeter, I would arrive late at my cheap hotel. I remember them often being a little steamy, noisy and smelling strongly of cigarettes and air freshener. It's the price the controls guy pays for the project being out of money at the end. It's no wonder that I knew a field-service guy who brought his home, a camper, along with the wife and kids, and parked them at a nearby state park while on-site.

Fortunately, today there is somewhat less travel for the controls guy due to the advent of remote access, email and Web meetings. However, the on-site controls troubleshooting, installation and programming are critical services that should be awarded as such. Don't just fluff your feathers when the boss tells you how valuable and appreciated you are. Ask for a raise. With your technical, design and programming skills, you should get a raise at least yearly, or maybe you should shop around for other employment options.

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When he tells you times are tough and the money is tight, ask for a review in three months and ask for a raise again at that time. In the mean time, negotiate better work conditions for you. Ask for overtime if you typically work more than a 40-hour week. Request to travel no more than five days or seven days in a row with overtime before a return trip home.

Also, reserve a room at a nicer hotel. Some of the lower-end hotels that your boss suggests leave much to be desired, and it often starts with the dirty rooms and disgusting, cold continental breakfast pile of eggs that is only edible if it's free. I have eaten some that I'd pay not to eat. At the end of a long, hot day on your feet, don't settle for fast food; go for the more expensive place. And be sure to upgrade that plane ticket to nicer seats and enjoy the ride home on Friday evening.

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