The manufacturing industry: Are you surprised to hear that the UK still has one? Perhaps you'd be even more surprised to learn that it offers a wealth of interesting career opportunities to well-qualified young scientists and engineers. In fact, things are changing in manufacturing, and research, innovation, and leadership skills are more in demand than ever.
One of the stimulators for this change has been the high-tech industry, in which new products and processes have to be introduced very quickly and organisations have to adapt just as fast. Time to market is the driving force. In the early days of the microelectronics industry, for example, there would be a development line, after which the new processes or products were transferred to a preproduction line, and then, after a period of evaluation, to a production line. Nowadays products are developed in the production line in a production environment.
This in turn means that "teamwork" is the current keyword in the industry. In the past, each individual department was quite separate from the others and had its own priorities and objectives. Today, industry thrives on cross-functional teams. Such teams need co-operative workers who are prepared to be flexible in their approach whilst safeguarding the prime deliverables of their own function. So a unique advantage of working in such a team is that you rapidly learn the important aspects of other roles in the organisation, which puts your own job into a clearer perspective. Because of this--although at first sight the transition from one discipline to another might appear difficult--the experience gained has enabled many people to start in one field and move to others as opportunities arise. This in turn benefits both the individual, through personal growth and promotion, and the company, which acquires well-rounded managers with broad experience.
If you are determined to make the most of your scientific background and skills, the opportunities are numerous. The most obvious is in basic research on a company's core technology. But frequently postgrads want a more direct contact with the fruits of their efforts, and so they work on design and development of either products or processes. In today's industries, information technology and software are also the source of great opportunities and challenges. In all of these roles, there is the need to constantly keep up to date because technology seems to move forward at an ever-increasing rate.
However, it is not essential to have a technical background to succeed in industry, so if you want to get away from research, this may be the place for you. There are many opportunities in the broader aspects of industry that are essential for a successful business. Those with an extrovert character who enjoy interacting with people and who wish to develop their management skills might be well suited to production line management, marketing and sales, production control, or human resources. And for those with a more retiring personality, there are numerous opportunities in development and support engineering or in the essential administrative functions such as procurement and finance. What is necessary is the will and drive to succeed.
So is industry dull and boring? The answer is unequivocally no. Even in the traditional industries, life is dynamic, whether it is from the use of new materials, the introduction of new or better processes, or the implementation of improved methods of production or financial control.
The UK manufacturing industry has suffered in the past through the traditional management process in which bosses make decisions and inform their management teams. They will then move on to some other problem. The "teams," meanwhile--being innovative--all think they have better ideas and go their own ways, so that the decision may never be fully implemented. It is an accepted fact that the UK has been the source of many innovations, but rarely have they been initially exploited here. This situation is now changing within the UK as the CFT concept gains credibility, but there is still a residual attitude, and industry desperately needs new blood to change the culture.
What is essential for the manufacturing industry is to become more appealing to new graduates than it has over the past few years. The satisfaction of being in a team, of bringing a new product to market, or of improving the performance or cost of existing products is grossly underplayed, as is the enthusiasm and subsequent personal fulfilment generated by such achievements.
So what is the best way to enter this exciting environment? As a graduate, whether in science, engineering, or any other discipline, you have been trained to express yourself, to analyse logically, and to communicate. These are important attributes, but not enough. Interpersonal skills are also vital, and during any interview, prospective candidates will be evaluated against their long-term management and broader career potential. You should show your keenness by doing your homework and impressing your potential employers by knowing something about their companies, aims, and possible problems.
But how to get an interview in the first place? The obvious way is to scan the advertisements or contact recruitment agencies, but if you have decided which sector of industry you are interested in, there is no harm in writing directly to a relevant company and sending a good CV.
There are now a few postgraduate courses aimed at giving "hands-on" experience in industry, and these can be extremely useful, as only basic knowledge can be gained in the classroom and laboratory. Projects undertaken in a pressurised industrial environment give real training in solving industrial problems. Bear in mind, though, that even these experiences are limited: In most cases, although a project may require a solution to a problem, there is rarely sufficient time to do the implementation--which is where the real learning experience lies. A very good 1-year course is the Advanced Course in Design, Manufacture and Management ( ACDMM) at the Institute for Manufacturing of Cambridge University. But even if you do enrol in one of these postgrad courses, bear in mind that a few years of experience really making things happen will be invaluable and give you the confidence and credibility to move on to a broader role or even go into consultancy.