I have discussed from time to time with fellow engineers the obvious shortcomings of a common U.S. business practice. The practice of firing senior engineers when business turns south or when a newly hired executive punching their ticket on the way up the ladder decides to show they can reduce costs quickly. This otherwise, from an engineering point of view, startling practice is always backed by the bottom line argument and the apparently perennial business mindset that research and development is a cost center.
Don’t get me wrong I am sure there are senior engineers that have decided to retire on the job and are dead wood. I personally have never met any in the research and development arena. The senior engineers I have come to know were all bright, focused individuals. They typically have to be to keep their positions. There is no tenure in the corporate world to dull these practitioners only the constant sharpening and learning of skills as goals are set and goals are met.
Yet an urban myth persists that these grizzled practitioners of applied science become dead weight or even obstructionist as time passes. Dead weight that are the repository of the corporate history of all the design do’s and don’ts, all of the errors and fixes, that know the strengths and weaknesses of internal and external resources. In short dead weight that knows how to create new products efficiently and effectively within their profession and particularly within the corporation. This myth is particularly corrosive since few companies have a method of capturing lessons learned in an effective manner let alone passing them to the next generation of engineers. The results of this attitude are as predictable as those of an engineering equation. The same mistakes are made again and old ideas rehashed as new.
Unfortunately not only do businesses pay the price for the premature removal of these experts but so does society. The most spectacular examples are those building collapses and bridge failures. The most insidious are the reduction in innovation that may already be effecting our business environment. A reduction in innovation starved by the lack of the wide ranging knowledge that is typically needed to quickly recognize the technical pros and cons of a concept in terms of its manufacturability and novelty. Getting a product from concept to market early in the window of opportunity is important. Ask any new business graduate.
As a day to day process engineering innovation requires a knowledge of past successes and failure. It requires not only the knowledge of what is on the market today but what has been put on the market and failed in the past. So by putting the senior engineer out of work or by not recognizing the return on investment they represent when being considered for hire U.S. corporations continue to dig themselves into a deeper technological hole.
Here is an example in a different but related field;
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