Advice from an experienced plant manager to those interested in entering the maintenance field

Sept. 9, 2008
Managing Editor Lisa Towers writes about one plant manager's journey through his maintenance career, and the advice he would give to those interested in entering the field.

In my August column, I implored you to write in and tell Plant Services readers about your career experience in the maintenance field, and to immortalize in print and on our Web site your advice for the next generation of maintenance technicians (“How Did You Get Here?”). One reader, Brian Varley, stood out with this missive that encapsulates his knowledge of the field.
“I've had a few twists and turns in my career, and there are some things I would definitely recommend for anyone considering a career in manufacturing today,” says Varley, a plant engineer for Sonoco Clear Pack in Franklin Park, Ill., who has a degree in chemical engineering. “When I graduated in the early 1980s, the chemical industry was in one of its slumps, and I ended up working for plastics processing firms that were hiring chemical engineers to improve their processes. Over time, I learned about the web converting process, and became knowledgeable about all kinds of rotating equipment, not just pumps and blowers.” He says he has morphed into being a plant engineer by virtue of his work experience.

Early on, Varley worked at several companies as a process engineer, improving production operations and working on the plant floor. “I worked a lot with maintenance people in those days, getting machines and auxiliary equipment running right so the processes could do what they were designed to do,” he recalls. He was given several opportunities to supervise people, and learned management by trial and error. Eventually, he went from being a process engineer to “managing a group of 21 highly skilled people, and overseeing a budget of more than $3 million a year, plus the responsibility of keeping a 24/7 operation running at peak efficiency.” 

Since that first maintenance manager job, Varley says he has felt the changes in manufacturing and maintenance that have hit the United States. “Outsourcing was the first to hit; both outsourcing of non-core competencies, then complete outsourcing of maintenance functions,” he recalls. “In the 16-plus years I've worked in maintenance, most have been spent upgrading maintenance departments to improve not only the skills of the people in them, but more importantly, improving the results of their work. Predictive maintenance, 5S, Lean and Six Sigma have all touched the organizations I've led, with mixed results.”

He has changed with the shift in U.S. manufacturing toward high-value or unique products that cannot be produced elsewhere, and that command a decent margin. “Many have very short lives, so the plants must be flexible and the people willing to change,” he says. “Most manufacturing plants are fairly clean, and require everyone on the floor to THINK, and use any talent they can bring. This is not the sweatshop or assembly line of our fathers and grandfathers, where the workers were expected to be human robots.”

And, there are jobs aplenty for those who have the right stuff: “There is no doubt that manufacturers are looking for skilled workers, people who can use their heads AND their hands. Mechanics, electricians, programmers and engineers are needed to keep what we have going, and to install the next generation of equipment. So if someone likes to figure out how to make things run better, there are potentially long and rewarding careers.”

Varley offers this advice for anyone interested in pursuing a career in maintenance:

1. Try things. Take a class in machine shop or electricity, or controls. Tinker with a motor. Find someone who works in a manufacturing plant and who enjoys his work, and ask to see what he does.

2. For student engineers, take some courses in business or management. A basic understanding of how to read corporate numbers or how to lead employees is important.

3. Broaden your engineering knowledge. Electrical engineers need to understand the mechanical side of machines, and vice versa.

4. Don't focus on the theoretical. The practical applications will be what you use the most.

5. Don't be afraid of change. Manufacturers must change continuously, and be flexible, or they die.

“The fun part of being a plant engineer is in being involved in almost every aspect of a plant,” he adds. “There is almost nothing you won't touch as a plant engineer, and every day will bring a new challenge, a new opportunity. And for maintenance mechanics and electricians, there is never a dull moment.”

Next month, we’ll hear from John Christofferson, an electrical supervisor at Neenah Foundry Co. in Neenah, Wis. If you have a spare moment to write in, we want to hear from you, too.
E-mail Managing Editor Lisa Towers at [email protected].

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