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Tomorrow's Engineer

Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. --That’s Life, Frank Sinatra

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When a subject seems to recur as a topic, it can be called a “meme” and I think I found one. My reading over the past month or so complemented my thinking about the topic of this issue—workforce development and the future worker.

Marketing guru Seth Godin, writing in his blog asks, “Is effort a myth?” He thinks people really want to believe effort is a myth. Godin says we are lucky—lucky to be born at a time without the black plague or in a country without freedom. We’re lucky to have access to tools and opportunities. But effort is directly related to success. “Effort takes many forms. Showing up, certainly. Knowing stuff. Being kind when it’s more fun not to. Paying forward when there’s no hope of tangible reward. Doing the right thing.” He calls it the paradox of effort: luck may be more appealing, but you can’t choose luck. “Effort, on the other hand, is totally available, all the time.”

In a “Fortune” magazine article, “Why Talent is Over-rated” (Oct. 27, 2008, p. 138), Geoff Colvin, senior editor at large, asks, “So if specific, inborn talent doesn’t explain high achievement, what does? Researchers have converged on an answer. It’s something they call ‘deliberate practice,’ but watch out—it isn’t what most of us think of as practice, nor does it boil down to a simplistic practice-makes-perfect explanation.”

Practice deliberately

It’s not just hard work. Deliberate practice is a process that includes self-examination—checking back on your day and pondering what you could have improved. It involves setting short term goals, for example, knowing exactly what you want to accomplish each day. It includes doing things over to get them right over time. Business managers and human resource professionals often try to spot “talent” in young people and select them to move up. According to the research cited by Colvin, “We all tend to assume that business giants must possess some special gift for what they do, but the evidence turns out to be extremely elusive. In fact, the overwhelming impression that comes from examining the lives of business greats is just the opposite—that they didn’t seem to give any early indication of what they would become.”

The third article I found was from the Fall 2008 issue of the “MIT Sloan Management Review.” In “When Stars Migrate, Do They Still Perform Like Stars?” Boris Groysberg, Lex Sant and Robin Abrahams looked at the probability of star performance from hiring a star from another company. “Past research is clear on the benefits of high performing, or ‘star,’ workers. Star computer programmers, for example, are more productive than average ones by a ratio of eight to one. But reaping the benefits of such talent is not so simple. Say you hire a number of stars. How can you guarantee that they will be able to replicate their success in a new environment—in short, how portable are they?” The conclusion is that if the job doesn’t require teamwork, then hire a star. If the position requires close coordination with members of a team, then the person will probably not be a star performer in the new company.

For our lead article this month, Managing Editor Wes Iversen conducted a number of interviews with industry leaders to get a feel for what they’re looking for. Not only do future engineers need to understand all the advances made by the current generation of engineers in process control, they must also develop additional skills in project management and the ability to work in a diverse workforce. And they need to realize effort trumps luck.
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