Part 3: Educating and Training in the Industrial Workforce: Vendors Invest in Tomorrow's Engineers and Technicians

Aug. 21, 2012
Since education means so much to their customers and potential customers, automation vendors are committing dollars and resources to enhancing continuing education and STEM programs.

Automation professionals need training in order to be successful. Automation suppliers need a tech-savvy manufacturing workforce in order to succeed. So, automation vendors are reaching out to schools to shape the next generation of users, as well as providing training directly to customers to increase existing skills. In this Part Three of our focus on Educating and Training the Industrial Workforce, we examine how automation vendors are investing in the next generation of engineers and technicians.

>> Click here to read Part One of our Educating and Training Series: "Making Manufacturing Cool"

>> Click here to read Part Two of our Educating and Training Series: "Survey Says...."

Go online to Automation World’s living education resource document, found at bit.ly/awtraining, to see more examples of what automation vendors are doing to enhance training and education. (Vendors not mentioned here are welcome to subit information on their high school, university, and continuing education programs for inclusion.)

According to Eddie Lee, director of marketing at industrial networking vendor Moxa Americas Inc. (www.moxa.com) (Brea, Calif.), “as plant floor networks become larger and more complex, end customers select partners and not just suppliers for their communications requirements. This means that the ability to provide training in addition to hardware is becoming paramount in the buying decision.”

So, since education means so much to their customers and potential customers, vendors like Moxa are committing dollars and resources to making their training both good and accessible. “The most common training requests involve a combination of basic Ethernet or wireless networking material, coupled with hands-on labs to help the end user’s plant and maintenance engineers understand how to configure and troubleshoot their specific network applications and scenarios,” says Lee.
“The key point is that customers realize that they can no longer afford to rely upon a user manual as their primary source for knowledge or education,” adds Lee.

Mary St. John, director of training at automation supplier Opto 22 (www.opto22.com) (Temeculah, Calif.), says, “College students and professors alike attend our free in-house training and use our SNAP PAC Learning Center hardware. Some units are donated [to universities] via our OptoGreen Grant program.”

St. John says Opto 22 is “happy to help engage students via the tools and technologies they’re accustomed to, like social media and mobile apps. And, since Opto 22 is close to the numerous Southern California colleges and universities, we’re also proud to employ interns and full-time new grads from, among other schools, Harvey Mudd College, Cal Poly, Pomona, and the Riverside and San Diego campuses of the University of California. They help us keep our ideas fresh and fun.”

Grass roots programs like these are working across the country, focusing on a variety of niches. For example, packaging machinery OEMs and technology providers worked hand in hand to prepare the next generation of machinery designers, builders and service technicians when they developed the nation’s first packaging machinery mechatronics program at Purdue University’s Calumet campus. Austria-based B&R Automation (www.br-automation.com) works closely with Purdue Calumet’s School of Technology, where B&R Market Development Manager John Kowal serves on the dean’s executive council.

Marc Wolf, B & R’s business development manager, serves on the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) Workforce Development and Education Committee, and his focus is on networking with local high school, technical and community colleges in the U.S. The committee is also actively involved in educating the current workforce and seeking job placement for more than 30,000 U.S. military veterans.  PMMI is one of the most forward thinking associations, investing heavily in training a future workforce in packaging.

Cultivating interest
According to Walt Staehle, director of business development for process automation vertical markets at Siemens Industry Inc. (usa.siemens.com/industry), Siemens invests in Industry collaborations like The Alliance for Innovation and Operational Excellence (AIOE), and in topics like sustainability, overall equipment effectiveness and workforce development, which are all related to industrial manufacturing improvement. 

“Siemens also establishes engineering & electrical scholarships, and programs at universities, to help cultivate academic and career interest in the manufacturing automation infrastructure,” says Staehle, who spoke at a recent PMMI dinner on the topic of educating the manufacturing workforce, which served as the genisis for this three-part article.

According to Support Manager Nathan Eisel, German automation supplier Beckhoff Automation (www.beckhoff.com) (with U.S. headquarters in Burnsville, Minn.) has donated well over $100,000 in hardware and software to U.S. universities and technical colleges over the past two years to help supply the right equipment for students to learn from.

“Efforts to help educate and train the upcoming generation of young engineers is a priority for Beckhoff at our headquarters office in Germany, as well as in North America where we have numerous examples of collaboration with school faculty and students,” says Eisel. “This involves not just hardware donations, but work on educational advisory boards, curriculum development, internships, educational seminars and more.”

Beckhoff provides training and hardware for  PC-based control and industrial Ethernet technologies to engineering schools so students can graduate with real-world knowledge and experience that can be applied from day one, upon entering the engineering workforce, Eisel says.

Mary Ramsey, senior vice president of industry business for Schneider Electric (www.schneider-electric.com) (with U.S. headquarters in Palatine, Ill.), says “developing new sources of talent is crucial. Like many in our industry, we focus on university relationships to get talent in early—hiring interns, offering co-ops, and defining career tracks to entice graduates into manufacturing. We sponsor test and lab environments on campus, and competitions, such as the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, to demonstrate the opportunities Schneider Electric offers.”

Schneider’s efforts begin at the high school level. “We support Dream It, Do It to show young students opportunities available to them in skilled trades. For more advanced students, we partnered with the Automation Federation and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration to develop a comprehensive competency model for careers in automation, giving structure and clear growth paths to careers in industrial process fields. And we partner with individual universities to define our expectations for present and future workers, so they can optimize curricula for tomorrow’s engineers in field such as energy management and green technology,” says Ramsey.

Cultivating workforce diversity
Another program focusing on science, technology, engineering and and math (STEM) education for preschool through high school students came to my attention recently. While it doesn’t have automation supplier participation (yet), it is a beautful example of using STEM education to grow a multi-cultural talent pool—and it’s run by my alma mater, Northern Illinois University. NIU’s STEM Outreach program “delivers off-campus programs and on-campus activities designed to increase science, technology, engineering and mathematics literacy and enthusiasm among P-12 students, their families and educators.”

NIU has long been involved in public programs such as the very popular Haunted Physics Laboratory at Halloween, Davis Hall Observatory visits, chemistry demonstration shows, WYSE competitions and the Frontier Physics Road Shows. My good friend Jeremey Benson, along with STEM Outreach Director Patricia Sievert,  travel all over the Chicagoland area teaching “that science can be fun, and lead to employment.”

Benson says they not only speak to and hold events at many minority schools, but that girls also make up a good number of the participants. The program’s team of educators will answer any call, and book any school event, if invited.

Joel Epstein, a spokesman for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), says “the folks at SME agree that middle school is the time to begin reaching students.” SME supports “manufacturing camps” around the country. “The one is Detroit is for girls only, and has predominately African American campers,” explains Epstein. “All the camps stress the importance of STEM; last year, [campers] made and competed with their own remote controlled boats in a highly competitive regatta.” 

Another major component of SME’s non-profit work includes Tooling U (www.toolingU.com), a provider of online training and professional development for manufacturing and other business sectors. Manufacturers turn to turn to Tooling U “because it offers more than 400 unique training titles. It has a full range of content to train manufacturing and other professionals. Training packages provide industry-specific mirror images of common industry jobs, and tie online learning to hands-on tasks and responsibilities,” according to a spokesman.

Tooling U also offers customized training packages providing private label learning universities for companies, corporations, colleges and universities. Companies who’ve used Tooling U include Boeing, Caterpillar, Daimler, Honda, Ratheon, Toyota and Volvo.

So while 80 percent of manufacturing leaders acknowledge the worker shortage problem, only 20 percent are actively doing something about it, says Epstein. However, these automation vendors, non-profits and others are part of that 20 percent working to improve education for today’s and tomorrow’s industrial workforce. Their investments in today’s students support the success of tomorrow’s industrial workforce.

>> Click here for the complete survey results.