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Hiring the Next Generation of Hydraulics Engineers

Date: 7/30/2018

Technology is evolving faster than ever. As the hydraulics industry adapts to ever-changing product and machine design, we as an industry are counting on our engineers to continue developing better ways to bring more productive, more efficient machines to market and new ideas to the industry. Industrial machines and mobile vehicles now comprise a seamless blend of traditional hydraulic components managed and controlled by sophisticated electronic control systems. The engineers and technicians of today are now required to design, build, commission, maintain and trouble-shoot these advanced systems; they need to understand both disciplines – hydraulics and electronic controls – in order to work effectively and efficiently to maximise productivity and minimise downtime.

Industry evolution reflected in the workforce
It is no longer enough to be an excellent hydraulics engineer; as machine complexity increases, engineers now have to take a systems approach, knowing as much about controls and electronics as they once did about hydraulic and mechanical solutions. Twenty years ago, Eaton looked mostly for traditional mechanical engineers; today, Eaton increasingly looks for ‘mechatronics’ engineers – those who possess strong skills not only in the mechanical domain, but equally so in the embedded controls, software and electronics spaces to better serve the movement towards smarter and more complex machines.

This latest industrial evolution has also seen the engineering profession transition from focusing primarily on the work behind the machines to serving as a knowledge resource for people and companies. Today’s hydraulic engineers must have the technical know-how, but must also be able to communicate, collaborate and work well in a team – especially with customers and consultants. An engineer with a great idea still needs group input and expertise to turn it into reality.

As much as a strong engineering education and effective communication skills will launch a career, continuous professional improvement will keep it going. As engineers, we work to envision the future through our product plans and technology road maps, but where we will be five or ten years from now is truly unknown. The ability for hydraulics engineers to understand and incorporate both mature and emerging controls technologies such as Variable Speed Drives, Bus Networks, Fibre Optics, Industry 4.0, Telematics, Prognostics and Diagnostic Health Monitoring, and Virtual Reality into new machines is absolutely required for continued success.

Considering an advanced education
New challenges and opportunities turn up every day, and hydraulic engineers must be able to build on what they know and use it to learn and create new solutions. Learning how to learn may sound silly, but it is critical as engineers drive the future of the industry and the machines we see all around us. 

While a master’s degree is not required in the world of hydraulic engineering, it can serve as another step in this learning and growing process. Pursuing an advanced degree after completing undergraduate coursework further develops continuous learning habits and demonstrates a thirst for additional knowledge to potential employers. Whether a master’s degree is pursued immediately following a bachelor’s degree or after a few years of work experience is a personal choice, but an ambitious engineer should consider additional learning opportunities whenever possible.

At Eaton, many of our engineers take advantage of our education assistance program to help complete master’s degrees while working, allowing them to gain life experience and reap the benefits of additional education, taking a deeper dive into the scientific and technical knowledge behind machine design. For those who seek leadership or management roles, it is worth looking beyond traditional engineering degrees to formal business education, such as advanced degrees in Management of Technology or Business Administration.

Other engineers and technicians may choose to take an alternative progression route; that is, seeking employment immediately from school and undertaking an engineering apprenticeship whilst simultaneously studying at college in order to become a fully rounded individual with the real-world experiences, knowledge and practical skills required today. This route offers the individual the best of both worlds; practical hands-on skills learnt ‘on the job’ from a young age, allied to first-class knowledge learnt in the classroom. 

Becoming a hydraulics engineer without hydraulics training
Hydraulic-specific educational opportunities are, unfortunately, hard to find. In Europe (just as it also is in the United States), most hydraulics engineers are self-taught, with only infrequent short courses helping them to develop their skills and knowledge. This can lead to wide variations in an engineer’s capabilities, with many hydraulics engineers unaware of the fundamental principles which underpin our chosen technology.

At Eaton, we are proud of our long heritage as educators in the field of hydraulics. Building on the previous successes in hydraulics education delivered by Vickers, Eaton is now again at the forefront of hydraulics training with state-of-the-art training centres covering the EMEA region (in Havant, UK) and in the Americas (in Maumee, OH and in Eden Prairie, MN in the USA). As well as training our own Eaton employees and distributors in the correct application of our products and systems, these centres offer training for everyone, raising the skills and knowledge levels of hydraulics engineers throughout the industry. Our doors are open, and all are welcome to take up places on courses ranging from the fundamental principles of hydraulics all the way up to proportional valves, closed-loop control and energy-efficient system design. 

The biggest challenge facing the hydraulics industry
As the hydraulics workforce ages and a large number of employees approach retirement eligibility, there is great concern across engineering fields of an impending shortage of qualified engineers. An industry wrongly perceived as old, dirty and stagnant, the hydraulics industry may be hit particularly hard as older workers retire and younger workers choose different fields of study. In response to this looming shortage of trained engineers, Eaton has created leadership development programs that allow new engineers to work with a mentor on a number of different projects that support them in developing a stronger specific knowledge-base of skills that will support the increasingly complex nature of the hydraulics industry. 

When hiring at Eaton, we consider new talent not just today, but looking into the future. Will this person be able to learn and adapt? Do they aspire to grow beyond the currently available position, whether into management or developing into a technical expert in a particular facet of hydraulics and controls? Do they possess the desire and passion to constantly learn and better themselves, as is needed for success in science and technology fields? 

Considering these questions, what can current students do to set themselves apart? First, seek real life experience. Whether through internships, co-op work programs or academic research projects, find a role that involves real products and solving real problems. Build something and test it in a lab – figure out how to make it work. Consider getting involved in student organizations that participate in design competitions. Whichever avenue you choose, find something that gives you firsthand experience delivering on a timeline and within a budget. These experiences help students making the transition from school to work – taking knowledge from the classroom and applying it to real life problems.

Ultimately, many of the technologies we have today were little more than science fiction twenty years ago. Who knows what opportunities and challenges we will have another two decades from now?

Today we see glimpses of the future in emerging technologies like wireless communications, pervasive sensing, advanced learning algorithms, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, automated machine functions and driverless vehicles. It will be exciting to watch as the next generation of engineers drive the future of our industry, incorporating these advancements – and even newer technologies that have yet to be discovered, engineered and brought to market. 

Acknowledgement: this article is based on a piece originally written by Mr. Ben Hoxie, Hydraulic Controls Manager – EATON USA