Retired Emerson executive and full-time Presbyterian minister Dave Beckman began his keynote address to the Emerson Exchange this morning by telling a story. The moral of the story, the preacher noted, “If the reward is big enough, nearly anything is possible and it sure helps to have the right priorities.”
Beckman went through an economic and social review of the issues facing companies in the process industries, illustrating his point. “All the easy energy has been found,” he said, “and all the simple optimization techniques have been applied. What is left,” he said, “is the heavy lifting.”
“This will require new, more sophisticated technology, as we drill deeper, convert more biomass, refine an increasingly sour crude, transport gas from remote regions by converting it to liquids, build green coal fired power plants, construct safe nuclear generation stations, leach out metals from ever diminishing ore deposit, and open new frontiers in our fight to cure disease,” Beckman said.
Beckman noted that talent is required, engineers who can work together in collaborative teams to seek out the new ways to do that heavy lifting.
“The pace of change is dizzying,” he said. ” But, change is what makes flexible technology and skilled engineers so valuable. If there was no change, our profession would be much smaller – design it once and push the start button. We are going to have to design our processes to flex with the ever increasing swings of the market.” Beckman continued, “We need to have the right tools or technology. It’s simply not possible to be flexible enough to cope with the demands placed upon us if we do not have open and expandable systems. And in my career, which spans 38 years, no technology has better suited us for the challenge before us than Fieldbus because it opened up communication.”
“To a large degree, the Exchange is about technology.” Beckman said. “But technology is only part of the answer; skilled people are needed to unleash the true potential. One thing is clear, the heavy lifting we referred to earlier will require new skills and knowledge to meet the challenges we face today.”
Beckman believes we face the combined issues of an aging workforce rapidly leaving the business and the increasingly complex processes of automation that will require even higher levels of new learning. “Over the next four years,” he noted, “40% of our current workforce will retire taking with them much of the ‘tribal knowledge’ we use to run our plants.”
Beckman says it’s a new kind of worker who is going to emerge at the end of this decade. The traditional manufacturing worker is rapidly disappearing and replacing him is a “Skilled Worker” who works with the mind, not the back. They don’t refer to themselves as workers but as professionals. They want to make a difference and have both a career and a successful family life. They want to be significant.
Beckman says the Katrina disaster shows how this works. Engineers and technicians whose own homes were destroyed, and whose families were homeless went back to work to rebuild the refineries the life of our country depended on.
“I think the expressions on the faces of those heroes tells it all. Is what they are doing significant? You bet.”