But times have changed.
According to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article, Suzanne Alberti, a senior executive recruiter for Millennium Search, a national executive search firm, noted that she is now searching for candidates whose talents span multiple areas of expertise such as engineering and sales.
“A candidate who can talk like an engineer and present well to help close the deal is a bit of a tougher find; you really have to think outside the box,” Alberti said. “It seems as though more and more engineers are learning and training to take on the dual roles. Having an engineering and sales background on your resume is ideal for clients in today's market.”
Ben Bagherpour, VP of operations at Vancouver-based SEH America, explained the reason for this trend.
“A good manager needs to understand what’s going on, and make decisions on a daily – or hourly – basis,” he said.
In the 1990s, according to Bagherpour, SEH America's production managers were separate from the engineering group. If an engineer wanted to make a change to the production process, the production manager had to approve it – which often meant a delay.
“We couldn’t make quick decisions with the production and engineering groups separate,” said Bagherpour. “They didn’t understand each other’s priorities.”
Today, Bagherpour said, all production managers at SEH America are engineers, which allows these managers to work with both engineering and production efficiently, because they can analyze technical data and foresee the long- and short-term effect on the cost and quality of the product.
This same technical knowledge is why the sales force at high-tech industrial ceramics manufacturer Kyocera is comprised of degreed engineers. Angela Burckhard, Kyocera’s HR manager, said that without the ability to discuss highly technical drawings, density testing and other advanced aspects of the ceramic manufacturing process, the company’s sales force would not be as effective.
Bagherpour himself is a prime example of how a technical background and leadership skills can combine. Bagherpour said he started at SEH 28 years ago as an engineer. His career path included being an engineering group supervisor as well as a production manager. Now that he is the top-level executive at the company, Bagherpour said his technical knowledge is still important.
When someone comes to him with an idea that needs funding, explained Bagherpour, he can draw on his engineering experience to understand the technical aspects of the issue and make an informed decision. Additionally, Burckhard added that engineers tend to exhibit less emotional problem-solving skills, and can communicate concisely via e-mail – important to a company whose global operations include manufacturing facilities in Japan.
Although Burckhard and Bagherpour agree that engineering skills contribute to being a good high-tech executive, finding such employees is not so easy. Burckhard said that this past spring, Kyocera expected to recruit from a large pool of unemployed engineers who had been laid off in the recession.
“We did not find that to be the case,” said Burckhard.
According to Bonnie Moore, director of business services for both the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) and the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council (SWWDC), “Local business leaders from large and small companies say that securing, developing and finding workforce talent continues to be a top priority to not only thrive, but survive.”
SEH America used to hire most of its engineers right out of engineering school, according to Bagherpour. However, for the past seven years, he said the focus has been more on hiring senior engineers who already have manufacturing experience.
“Schools are not graduating engineers with an understanding of the real world,” said Bagherpour.
In an attempt to close this gap, SEH America and Washington State University Vancouver’s mechanical engineering department are working together to give seniors the opportunity to work at solving real-world engineering problems. SEH America is also working on an internship program with the Evergreen School District.
Efforts such as these may help to address a problem that Burckhard noticed during their recent recruitment efforts. She reported that freshly graduated engineers lacked the discipline and work ethic required to come do a job every day – something that Bagherpour also lamented.
Bagherpour said that overall, U.S. students entering the workforce lack important “soft skills” such as team work, technical and critical thinking, problem solving and a good work ethic.
The CREDC and SWWDC are working with local companies to solve some of these workforce issues. Moore said that as part of its business retention and expansion program, CREDC and SWWDC has visited with most major Clark County employers this year.
“Understanding the labor demands of our local employers help workforce and economic developers accelerate opportunities for job creation,” said Moore.