Building the Next Generation of Automation Talent

Sept. 26, 2022
Giving new employees the opportunity to participate on projects goes a long way toward building the talent pool industry needs.

For the last decade I have consistently heard one thing from almost every facet of the automation business: There is a noticeable lack of resources. I’ve heard it phrased as: “We are having trouble finding the right people,” or “There is a shortage of resources.” But the underlying message is always the same: We don’t seem to have enough people in automation.

Although things are changing, we still have a way to go.

Like many in automation, I got my start with an internship. I was one of three interns at a manufacturing plant and, after a staff meeting one morning, plant management assigned each of us to an area: design, process, and automation. I got assigned to PLCs and HMIs, giving me a chance to work with robots, program PLCs and HMIs, and build out automation cells. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was doing system integration and I loved it. That experience led me to a chance interaction at Arizona State’s Engineering Career Fair which led me first to an automation vendor and then to a systems integrator.

The shortage of resources was present when I worked for the manufacturer, it was present at the vendor, and I still see the issue as an integrator. A decade ago, I would have said it was a branding issue, as I only found automation by accident. But things seem different now. Most colleges have courses that teach robotics and other automation technologies. Trade schools have more robust automation programs. A focus on STEM outreach is driving more people to our industry. Yet, we are all still facing difficulties finding and developing the next generation of engineers.

Finding and developing resources

Recruitment is the beginning of the process, but strong training programs are the key to solving the issue of learning curves. Automation as a concept can be taught quickly, but the real labor comes in learning all the nuance we sometimes take for granted. Things like the number of vendors and their different software packages, the industry-specific regulations that guide development, or navigating the different associations and their standards, most of which have to be purchased to view.

Often, the “we can’t find resources” quote actually means “we can’t find experienced resources.” Some of this issue is created by an aversion of new employees to complete all the learning processes described above to really learn the ins and out of the processes automation systems control.

Compounding this problem is the reality that the pool of experienced resources gets smaller each year with retirements and resource migration.

Project work

Like any other business sector, if we fail to expand the talent pool, demand will always outpace supply. Several years ago, we put into place a training program to help alleviate this issue and we hope to see that continue across all sectors of automation. Training, recruitment, and branding are all steps in the right direction. Most universities and trade schools have career-focused courses that need guest speakers. Volunteering to speak helps spread the word on automation. Mentorship programs are available as well that accomplish the same thing on a more personal level. Taking a new employee under your wing on projects help build the experience and confidence needed to work on projects more broadly.

Now, more than ever, giving new employees the opportunity to participate on projects will go a long way toward building the talent pool we need. We all realize the truth of this, yet it is still sometimes avoided because a more experienced resource can get something done faster or with decreased oversight.

Because the demand for automation resources will continue to increase for the foreseeable future, we all can help by providing the platform, training, and opportunities for the next generation.

Will Aja is Vice President Customer Operations at Panacea Technologies, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.