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Nature of the Work
* Individuals with a master's or Ph.D. degree in management science or operations research should find good job prospects through the year 2006, despite projected slower than average employment growth.
* Skills acquired by operations research analysts are useful for higher-level management jobs.
Efficiently running a complex organization such as a manufacturing plant or an airline requires the precise coordination of materials, equipment, and people. Operations research analysts help organizations coordinate and operate in the most efficient manner by applying mathematical principles to organizational problems. Managers then evaluate alternatives and choose the course of action that best meets their goals.
Operations research analysts tackle a whole host of problems facing 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 describe how things happen within the organization. Use of models enables the analyst to break down 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. Many of the models employed in operations research are so complicated that only a computer can solve them efficiently.
The type of problem they handle varies by industry. For example, a civilian analyst for the Armed Forces may coordinate flight and maintenance schedules to produce an optimal schedule for the safe deployment of troops and material. An analyst employed by a hospital concentrates on a different set of factors, such as scheduling admissions, managing patient flow, assigning shifts, monitoring use of pharmacy and laboratory services, and forecasting demand for 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 use operations research in all divisions. Firms may contract out operations research services to a consulting firm. Some operations research analysts specialize in one type of application, whereas others are generalists, especially at the beginning of their careers. In addition, economists, systems analysts, mathematicians, industrial engineers, and others may also apply operations research techniques to address problem areas within their respective fields.
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 sources of information. 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 buyers, and examine data on storage costs provided by the accounting department.
With this information in hand, the analyst is ready to select the most appropriate analytical technique. There may be several techniques that could be used, but all techniques involve the construction of a mathematical model that explains the system and solves the problem. In almost all cases, the computer program used to solve the model must be modified repeatedly to reflect different 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 values for these variables, enters them into a computer which is then programmed to solve the calculations, 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 by management, the analyst may work with others in the organization to ensure the plan's successful implementation.
Operations research analysts held about 50,000 jobs in 1996. They are employed in most industries. Major employers include telecommunication companies, air carriers, computer and data processing services, financial institutions, insurance carriers, engineering and management services firms, and the Federal Government. About 1 out of 5 analysts work for management, research, public relations, and testing agencies that do operations research consulting.
Most operations research analysts in the Federal Government work for the Armed Forces. In addition, many operations research analysts in private industry work directly or indirectly on national defense.
Employers generally prefer applicants with at least a master's degree in operations research, industrial engineering, or management science, coupled with a bachelor's degree in computer science or one of the quantitative disciplines like economics, mathematics or statistics.
Employers often sponsor skills-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 to assume nontechnical managerial or administrative positions.
Individuals seeking employment as operations research or management science analysts who hold master's or Ph.D. degrees in management science or operations research should find good opportunities through the year 2006 because the number of openings generated each year as a result of the slower than average employment growth expected and the need to replace those leaving the occupation is expected to exceed the number of persons graduating with these credentials. Graduates with only a bachelors degrees in operations research or management science should find opportunities as research assistants in a variety of related fields which allow them to use their quantitative abilities. Organizations are expected to use operations research and management science techniques to improve productivity and quality and to reduce costs. This reflects an acceptance of a systematic approach to decision making by top managers. This should result in a steady demand for workers knowledgeable in operations research techniques in the years ahead.
The importance of quantitative analysis in decision making ensures that training in operations research will continue to be valuable in obtaining employment. Employment opportunities will occur in the transportation, manufacturing, finance, and services sectors, where the use of quantitative analysis can achieve dramatic improvements in operating efficiency and profitability.
In 1996, the median salary of operations and systems researchers and analysts was about $42,400 a year. The middle 50 percent earned between about $33,100 and $55,500; the lowest 10 percent were paid less than $24,300, while the highest 10 percent earned over $65,500 a year.
The average annual salary for operations research analysts in the Federal Government in nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was $66,760 in 1997.
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. Because its goal is improved organizational efficiency, operations research is closely allied to managerial occupations.
Information on career opportunities for operations research analysts is available from:
The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, 901 Elkridge Landing Rd., Suite 400, Linthicum, MD 21090.
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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