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A Day in the Life of a Industrial Engineer

Industrial engineers analyze and evaluate methods of production and point out ways to improve them. They decide how a company should allocate its limited tangible resources (equipment and labor) within the framework of existing physical constraints (physical plant). Each company that hires an industrial engineer, either as a consultant or as an internal manager, has its own specific limitations. An industrial engineer must quickly become an expert not only in the manufacturing and production processes of the industry, but also in the specific culture, problems, and challenges that the company faces. This may mean face-to-face meetings with executives, extensive stays on manufacturing floors, and review of historical production data. Industrial engineers receive information from others about what goes on in the day-to-day work environment, but they must also make their own observations of these activities. Many employees are uncomfortable being “watched” by industrial engineers, and industrial engineers often walk a thin line between being an analyst and being a detective. An industrial engineer’s most difficult task is communicating his observations and suggestions to company executives, many of whom are emotionally invested in their traditional way of doing business. Industrial engineers must be tactful in what they say and in how they say it. In addition to tact, being a successful industrial engineer requires charm and the willingness to stand by one’s recommendations even in the face of unresponsive management. The large majority of industrial engineers—around 70 percent—works at manufacturing companies, and many have specific areas of specialization, such as assembly, raw-product processing, or administrative (paperwork) practices. Most industrial engineers have good working conditions, intellectually challenging work, and a high level of satisfaction. Hours can be long, but this tends to be outweighed by the satisfaction derived from the education that each different project brings.

Paying Your Dues

To become an industrial engineer, you must have a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. Recommended coursework includes statistics, computer skills, ergonomics, management science, quality control, sociology, psychology, organizational behavior, economics, finance, labor relations, and mathematics. Those who plan to specialize in manufacturing areas find it useful to study shipping, billing, and automated systems, along with computer science. Graduate programs in industrial engineering are primarily for those who wish to enter academia. Employers consider production or manufacturing experience extremely useful; they also favorably view administrative experience in large-paperwork industries (such as insurance, health care, or brokerage). Many find joining a professional organization supportive of their careers (some join while still in school) because it helps them to keep them abreast of important topics and trends in industrial engineering.

Present and Future

Industrial engineering began in the late nineteenth century with the development of time-and-motion study, which led to the standardization of steelworkers’ motions and production processes and thereby increased their output. The field became known as “productivity management” in the early 1900s, and it flourished in America with Henry Ford’s successful implementation of the assembly line. The industrial revolution galvanized support for productivity management, and academic institutions gave it the name “industrial engineering,” which is what is studied today. The future of industrial engineering is linked to the future of American manufacturing. Manufacturing is affected by tariffs, employment levels, inflation, advertising, demand, public perception, inventory levels, seasonability of product—the list is endless. Computers make the job more efficient, and will continue to do so in the future, but the fate of the industrial engineer is tied to these unpredictable factors. Industrial engineers will continue to be in demand, but their numbers are expected to increase only as fast as manufacturing in the United States increases.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Two years into the profession, industrial engineers are most often working at a manufacturing or production company. They are overseen by more senior industrial engineers and have limited responsibility for implementing change. Daily duties include collecting data, putting it into usable form, analyzing it, and writing reports. Often these reports are co-written by a junior industrial engineer and a senior industrial engineer. Many young industrial engineers are asked to take an actual production position for three months to learn firsthand the daily challenges faced in that sector of production. Those who have gone directly into freelance consulting have been through training programs and work as part of teams. Hours are long for these consultants, and client contact in these first two years is limited. Computer skills are important during these early years.

FIVE YEARS OUT

By five years, industrial engineers have experienced a variety of problems and worked on teams and by themselves to solve them. Many meet with senior managers to discuss suggestions, improvements, and budgetary decisions. About ten percent move out of the industrial engineering field into management positions by this stage. Those with people-managing skills may achieve the title “senior” industrial engineer and be in charge of managing others. Those in consulting firms lead teams instead of merely working on them. Hours increase; salaries increase, but more for those in consulting than for those in manufacturing.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year veterans of industrial engineering are in one of three tracks: Those who work for a single company have generally moved into management positions; those who work for consulting firms are at the senior-associate or vice-president level and have extensive client contact and supervisory responsibilities; and those who have worked for a number of firms continue to enjoy the day-to-day challenge that industrial engineering poses. Hours have decreased for all but the last group; salaries have risen across the board. Satisfaction levels are high for all groups as well.