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Efficiently running a complex organization or operation such as a large manufacturing plant, an airline, or a military deployment requires the precise coordination of materials, machines, and people. Operations research analysts help organizations coordinate and operate in the most efficient manner by applying scientific methods and mathematical principles to organizational problems. Managers can then evaluate alternatives and choose the course of action that best meets the organizational goals.
Operations research analysts, sometimes also called management science analysts, are problem solvers. The problems they tackle are for the most part those encountered in large business and government organizations, including strategy, forecasting, resource allocation, facilities layout, inventory control, personnel schedules, and distribution systems. Their methods generally use a mathematical model consisting of a set of equations that explains how things happen within the organization. Use of models enables the analyst to break down real-world problems into their component parts, assign numerical values to different components, and determine the mathematical relationships between them. These values can be altered to examine what will happen to the system under different circumstances. The situation under consideration determines the mathematical method used. Some of the methods available include simulation, linear optimization, networks, waiting lines, and game theory.
Operations research analysts use computers extensively in their work. They are typically highly proficient in database collection and management, programming, and in the development and use of sophisticated software programs. Most of the models employed by operations research analysts are so large and complicated that only a computer can solve them efficiently.
The type of problem they usually handle varies by industry. For example, an analyst for an airline coordinates flight and maintenance schedules, passenger level estimates, and fuel consumption to produce an optimal schedule that ensures safety and produces the greatest profit. An analyst employed by a hospital concentrates on a different set of problems, such as scheduling admissions, managing patient flow, assigning shifts, monitoring use of pharmacy and laboratory services, and forecasting demand for adding hospital services.
The duties of the operations research analyst vary according to the structure and management philosophy of the employer or client. Some firms centralize operations research in one department, while others disperse operations research personnel throughout all divisions. Some operations research analysts specialize in one type of application, whereas others are generalists, especially at the beginning of their careers.
The degree of supervision varies by organizational structure and experience. In some organizations, analysts have a great deal of professional autonomy, while in others, analysts are more closely supervised. Operations research analysts work closely with senior managers, who have a wide variety of support needs. Analysts must adapt their work to reflect these requirements. Regardless of the industry or structure of the organization, operations research entails a similar set of procedures. Managers begin the process by describing the symptoms of a problem to the analyst, who then formally defines the problem. For example, an operations research analyst for an auto manufacturer may be asked to determine the best inventory level for each of the materials for a new production line or, more specifically, to determine how many windshields should be kept in inventory.
Analysts study the problem, then break it into its component parts. Then they gather information about each of these parts. Usually this involves consulting a wide variety of people and other sources of information, such as professional journals. To determine the most efficient amount of inventory to be kept on hand, for example, operations research analysts might talk with engineers about production levels, discuss purchasing arrangements with industrial buyers, and examine data on storage costs provided by the accounting department.
With this information in hand, the operations research analyst is ready to select the most appropriate analytical technique. There may be several techniques that could be used, but in some cases, the analyst must construct an original model to examine and explain the system. In almost all cases, the computer program used to run the selected model must be modified repeatedly to reflect the different circumstances of various solutions.
A model for airline flight scheduling, for example, might include variables for the cities to be connected, amount of fuel required to fly the routes, projected levels of passenger demand, varying ticket and fuel prices, pilot scheduling, and maintenance costs. The analyst then chooses the values for these variables, enters them into a computer which he or she has already programmed to make the calculations required, and runs the program to produce the best flight schedule consistent with various sets of assumptions.
At this point, the operations research analyst presents the final work to management along with recommendations based on the results of the analysis. Additional computer runs based on different assumptions may be needed to help in making the final decision between various options. Once a decision has been reached, the analyst works with others in the organization to ensure the plan's successful implementation.
Operations research analysts generally work regular hours in an office environment. Because they work on projects that are of immediate interest to management, analysts often are under pressure to meet deadlines and often work more than a 40-hour week.
Operations research analysts held about 44,000 jobs in 1994. They are employed in most industries. Major employers include computer and data processing services, commercial banks and savings institutions, insurance carriers, telecommunication companies, engineering and management services firms, manufacturers of transportation equipment, air carriers, and the Federal Government. About 2 out of 10 analysts work for management, research, public relations, and testing agencies that do operations research consulting for firms that do not have an in-house operations research staff.
Most analysts in the Federal Government work for the Armed Forces. In addition, many operations research analysts who work in private industry do work directly or indirectly related to national defense.
Employers strongly prefer applicants with at least a master's degree in operations research or management science, or other quantitative disciplines. A high level of computer skills is also required.
Employers often sponsor skill-improvement training for experienced workers, helping them keep up with new developments in operations research techniques as well as advances in computer science. Some analysts attend advanced university classes on these subjects at their employer's expense.
Operations research analysts must be able to think logically and work well with people, so employers prefer workers with good oral and written communication skills. The computer is the most important tool for quantitative analysis, and both training and experience in programming is a must. Beginning analysts usually do routine work under the supervision of more experienced analysts. As they gain knowledge and experience, they are assigned more complex tasks, with greater autonomy to design models and solve problems. Operations research analysts advance by assuming positions as technical specialists or supervisors. The skills acquired by operations research analysts are useful for higher-level management jobs, and experienced analysts may leave the field altogether to assume nontechnical managerial or administrative positions.
Organizations are increasingly using operations research and management science techniques to improve productivity and quality and to reduce costs. This reflects growing acceptance of a systematic approach to decisionmaking by top managers. This trend is expected to continue and should greatly stimulate demand for these workers in the years ahead.
Those seeking employment as operations research or management science analysts who hold a master's or Ph.D. degree should find good opportunities through the year 2005. The number of openings generated each year as a result of employment growth and the need to replace those leaving the occupation, is expected to exceed the number of persons graduating with master's and Ph.D. degrees from management science or operations research programs.
Graduates with only a bachelors degrees in operations research or management science should find opportunities as research assistants or analyst assistants in a variety of related fields, which allow them to use their quantitative abilities. Only the most highly qualified are likely to find employment as operations research or management science analysts.
Employment of operations research analysts is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005 due to the increasing importance of quantitative analysis in decisionmaking. Much of the job growth is expected to occur in the transportation, manufacturing, finance, and services sectors, areas where the use of quantitative analysis can achieve dramatic improvements in operating efficiency and profitability. More airlines, for example, are using operations research to determine the best flight and maintenance schedules, select the best routes to service, analyze customer characteristics, and control fuel consumption, among other things. Motel chains are beginning to use operations research to improve their efficiency by analyzing automobile traffic patterns and customer attitudes to determine location, size, and style of proposed new motels. Like other management support functions, operations research grows by its own success. When one firm in an industry increases productivity by adopting a new procedure, its competitors usually follow. This competitive pressure will contribute to demand for operations research analysts.
Demand also should be strong in the manufacturing sector as firms expand existing operations research staffs in the face of growing domestic and foreign competition. More manufacturers are using mathematical models to study the operations of the organization. For example, analysts will be needed to determine the best way to control product inventory, distribute finished products, and to decide where sales offices should be based. In addition, increasing factory automation will require more operations research analysts to alter existing models or develop new ones for production layout, robotics installation, work schedules, and inventory control.
According to recruiters and national operations research associations, operations research analysts with a master's degree generally earned starting salaries of about $36,000 to $45,000 a year in 1995. Experienced operations research analysts earned about $50,000 to $60,000 a year in 1995. Top salaries exceed $90,000.
The average annual salary for operations research analysts in the Federal Government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was $62,450 in 1995.
Operations research analysts apply mathematical principles to large, complicated problems. Workers in other occupations that stress quantitative analysis include computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, and economists. Operations research is closely allied to managerial occupations in that its goal is improved organizational efficiency.
Information on career opportunities for operations research analysts is available from:
The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, 290 Westminster St., Providence, RI 02903.
For information on careers in the Armed Forces and Department of Defense, contact:
Military Operations Research Society, 101 South Whiting St., Suite 202, Alexandria, VA 22304.
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