Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Careers in Standards Enforcement

If you have worked in an industry for some time, you understand the difference between good work and hack work in your field. Perhaps you know harmful results that substandard business practices or products can produce. This knowledge can be the basis of your next job.

Some standards enforcers are essentially cops. They protect the public from illegal acts and harmful products such as hiring discrimination, air pollution, buildings that are firetraps, tainted food products, toxic paint on toys, and defective seatbelts. They conduct inspections, review records, perform tests, and take measurements that indicate compliance with the law or a violation. Like cops, they need to know the fine points of the laws that they are enforcing and the procedures for correcting or punishing those who violate those laws.

Some of these enforcers stay in one setting throughout the workday. For example, some equal opportunity representatives work in the human resources office of a large business and review the company’s hiring and promotion practices by checking records and interviewing staff. Other enforcement workers must travel between sites where they conduct inspections. Environmental compliance inspectors may take air or water samples at various locations; agricultural inspectors may visit several farms or food-processing plants in a workday.

Not all standards enforcers are responsible for upholding the law; some help a business to ensure the quality of its products or services. They make certain that your food will not make you sick, that your car will run properly, and that your pants will not split the first time you wear them. Management does not want to disappoint consumers, especially because news about schlock merchandise can spread quickly through social media and other channels. So quality-control workers sample the output and measure it against industry standards. When they find defects, they determine the cause. And they do more than just prevent substandard output. The current trend in management is to accomplish constant improvement of quality. So quality-control workers devise ways to exceed industry standards.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke about the guy whose job it is to sort potatoes into bags of small, medium, and large spuds. His complaint about the job: “Decisions, decisions!” What makes the joke funny is that the decisions the man must make, though unending, are really of very little consequence; great fortunes are not riding on his ability to make extremely precise judgments about potato size. In real-life jobs, however, enforcement of standards can sometimes have a very large impact. The impact can be beneficial, even life-saving. But it can also create conflict with the company or person whose output you judge as substandard. That’s one reason the decision-making aspect of the job can be stressful. Also, standards enforcers need to make their decisions within a structure of rules and procedures that sometimes can feel arbitrary and confining.

If you’re interested in doing this kind of work, relevant work experience may not be sufficient qualification; some law-enforcement jobs in this field require certification or licensure. Usually you must pass an exam that demonstrates your knowledge of the laws. You will face this requirement especially for jobs that relate to safety, such as construction and building inspectors. For some jobs, however, such as occupational health and safety specialists, licensing is uncommon and certification is voluntary. For these jobs, an appropriate education and work experience are more important.

People work in quality control at all levels, from the low-skilled potato sorters (who can easily be replaced by machines) to quality control systems managers and industrial engineers, who are highly skilled with using statistical techniques to create product-sampling schedules and to make sense of the data derived from them. These workers generally have at least a bachelor’s degree. Several organizations and universities offer graduate-level training that prepares you to pass a certification exam in quality control. Various kinds of science and engineering technicians, often with two-year degrees, support these workers.

There are formal and informal ways to move into standards enforcement. Think about who maintains the quality of output in your current job. Or consider who ensures the safety of your workplace or protects the environment in your community. Ask these people how they got their job and whether your experience in your work role would be helpful background to do this work.

If you’re aware of some aspect of quality control or safety that’s being neglected where you work (or at a similar workplace), maybe you can create a new job for yourself. Prepare a business plan for a program, with you in charge, that will address this need. Be sure to include estimates of the costs and, if possible, the payback to the company from increased sales or the smaller risk of a lawsuit. Then propose this plan to management. If you’re not knowledgeable enough to design and manage a quality control program, maybe you can convince management to bring in an appropriately qualified professional whom you can support as a technician.

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