Automation World Survey: The Search for Skilled Workers

Feb. 19, 2014
Why is it so hard to find that ace employee? Is it a skills gap, interest gap, or pay and training problem? An Automation World survey reveals what readers think industrial companies and job candidates can do to fill open automation-related positions.

Manufacturing is coming back. Plants in many industries are expanding. Utilities are investing in upgrades. The oil & gas industry is on fire. By many indicators, industry is on the upswing, but companies across the U.S. (and around the world) say they are not finding the qualified engineering, operations and industrial IT people they need to replace the Baby Boomers who are retiring.

A spate of surveys conducted in 2009-2011 predicted dire consequences as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce and fewer students graduate with engineering degrees and technical certifications. The National Research Council, which is the working arm of the National Academies, said the electric power industry alone will have to replace nearly 100,000 skilled workers by 2015 (25,000 of those in the nuclear industry). Another survey of 100 manufacturing industry executives, commissioned by Advanced Technology Services, predicted that 55 percent of the largest U.S. manufacturers would be hard hit by the “skills gap”—the difference between the number of open technical positions and the number of people with the proper skills to take over.

Automation World wanted to know: How much of an impact is this issue having on industry today, and is a skills gap to blame?

In January, Automation World surveyed more than 900 management, engineering, operations and IT personnel working in discrete manufacturing, continuous process and/or consumer packaged goods industries. Thirty-two percent say their company has had trouble filling positions for more than three years, while 20 percent say it’s been a problem for more than five years. An additional nearly 20 percent say, “It has always been a problem.” Only 8 percent say finding qualified candidates for jobs in their company has never been difficult. (See the charts throughout the article for details.)

According to the data, 57 percent of respondents agree that “a lack of skills among those applying” is the primary reason engineering and other technical positions are going unfilled. We’ve “interviewed 50 candidates or more who look good on the resume and fall apart at the first semi-technical question,” said one respondent.

Despite clear indications of a skills gap based on respondents’ answers to our survey, the data highlights the fact that there are many more reasons why technical jobs have been difficult to fill during this time of relatively high overall unemployment.

Are low wages to blame?

While more than half of respondents cited a definite skills gap as the principal reason behind their hiring difficulties, 24 percent noted that wages being offered are too low to attract and retain qualified applicants.

“The company I work for decided to offer low pay to new hires since there are a lot of people out of work; but in my area the skills needed are specific. There is not an excess of qualified people out there for me to hire,” said one respondent. Another pointed out: “We teach our electrical people to pull wire and pipe, not to be able to write code or troubleshoot complex automation equipment. [But since] the pay is the same for both [types of jobs]…most guys take the no-brain path.”

 “Companies are typically underpaying by 25 percent or more,” observed another respondent, when comparing today’s pay rates with those offered over the past several years. “And contracting is not much better. $90,000 salaries or $55/hr. contracts are not what senior people should be paid.”

For more on the pay scale issue, see “Are Salaries, Not Skills, Keeping Automation Jobs Unfilled?

The third most commonly cited reason, according to 16 percent of respondents, as to why automation- and manufacturing-related jobs are going unfilled is a pervasive “lack of people interested in the jobs.”

“No one wants to work weekends or second/third shift,” said one respondent. “The social profile needs to rise for these jobs,” said another. Other comments included: “I believe that the perception of this type of job has been tarnished. The U.S. has driven hard toward the information age and created the impression that skilled trades jobs are unimportant and undesirable.”

As for manufacturing engineering in general, many responses echoed this sentiment: “The news for the last two decades has been full of stories about how we are losing manufacturing jobs. Why would anyone want to study some of the hardest majors when it looks like all those jobs are going to be gone? The reality is that engineers have good pay, they are in demand and over half of our engineering staff is foreign-born because not enough U.S. kids study engineering.” 

Numerous write-in responses revealed additional reasons why skilled workers are hard to find. These included location, size of business, and lack of “glamour” compared with web design or working for Google. “Engineering and electro-mechanical assembly is a highly sought skill set in my area leading to a highly competitive hiring market. But we just don’t see enough people with the proper skill sets graduating in our area,” said one. “It is difficult to find people with technical skills in areas which suffered from erosion of manufacturing over the last 30 years,” said another.

The most frequent write-in response related to a perceived reluctance on the part of industrial companies to train people into the skills that are actually needed. “The skills gap is made worse by companies’ unwillingness to offer training for skilled trades, or to update the skills of existing employees,” noted one respondent. Said another, “I have yet to see an applicable ‘new’ candidate. Most have come from internal candidates that were sort of doing the job [where they received] half-hearted training, but [they] are the easiest to put in place.”

Automation skills needed

Engineering positions are the hardest to fill (61 percent of respondents have difficulty with those), followed by operator/technician (43 percent) and programmer/IT specialist (31 percent). Since automation-related jobs are so diverse, delineating specific technical skills can be difficult, but some respondents were willing to get specific. Students and job-seekers, take note of the following comments:

  • “Typically [we have a] lack of skilled workers to match the job requirements. Controls engineering includes several specific niche categories of workers required: customer-specific specifications, application-specific specifications, willingness to travel, ability to lead, hardware design, software design, expertise, etc.”
  • “Engineers with electrical power experience combined with computer control system experience are hard to find.”
  • “The real problem comes from the lack of mathematical and physical skills.”
  • “I jobbed out some simple plug gages recently, which took six months to get back. Then, when they came back, the manufacturer’s calibration certificate was incomplete (no measurements recorded) and didn’t include all of the dimensions on the prints that were sent to them. So these problems with basic skills like print reading and following an instruction are widespread through industry.”
  • “A shift to the ‘app’ generation has left us with a workforce unaware of the fundamentals driving automation technologies to a large extent. Thus, finding people capable of truly understanding, troubleshooting or designing programs related to this area is a real challenge.”
  • “SCADA and automation are a niche market that colleges don’t specifically address. Sure, there are controls engineering programs at the colleges, but technician programs fall short of programming, and computer science degrees teach programming, but nothing about SCADA/controls systems. People in SCADA roles seem to fall into them by chance and all their training is on-the-job.”
  • “Applicants are asked to solve some basic mechanical engineering problems (gear ratio, torque, cylinder force) and model a two-part assembly in SolidWorks. Many don’t get the problems correct and/or didn’t use good 3D modeling practices.”
  • “The education system has moved more toward using electronic gadgets without attempting to know how things work. Young engineers prefer to work on computers and prefer desk-type work rather than get their hands dirty in the field. The knowledge base is getting narrower by the day and may not be suitable for a wide variety of job needs… Society is disconnected from how the technology is delivered.”

Need for training

Some respondents contend that the knowledge base of people coming into the industry is actually good, but it’s the experience they find lacking. Digging into the write-in responses, we found “lack of skills” often meant “lack of experience” within a particular industry, technology or machine. Companies want one to five years of experience, but seem unwilling to be the ones to provide it. Said one student, “As a soon-to-be graduate, I cannot come up with three to five years’ experience because I was a full-time student for the last 3.5 years!”

Many see this as a change from the way things were. “In my first engineering job in 1995, I found my BSME education was based so much on theory and not on real-life machinery, components and manufacturing. I didn’t know what a cylinder was, didn’t know there were other types of bearings besides roller bearings, couldn’t read electrical schematics. I had to learn all that on the job, and luckily the company I worked for was willing to hire new grads and allow the senior engineers and designers to help us newbies.”

Another respondent admitted, “It is a challenge to get both the proper degree and the appropriate occupational training for engineers. Most guys survive with a lot of motivated self-study after college.”

Companies that are willing to find or create on-the-job training (OJT) or mentoring programs are having some success. “OJT with a qualified instructor has proved to be the best way to train, [although] it is considered too costly by most companies,” noted one write-in comment.

One respondent explained the problem from the employer’s perspective: “There isn’t enough time/money to spend training people to take the job we need them to fill. Since they are not skilled workers to begin with, everything needs to be trained into them by people who are already short-staffed due to minimal budgets for personnel. At our shop, engineering and regulatory [functions] are spending substantial amounts of time walking operators through short work instructions—sometimes every couple months—due in part to the skill level [as well as] operator comprehension. For example, one operator conducting a test approved the test because he only thought the lower specification was important. [This led to] to nonconformance paperwork, corrections and additional training by engineering and quality, who are already putting in 50-65 hours a week.”

Fifty-seven percent of Automation World’s survey respondents say have had some success attracting applicants and finding qualified candidates that they could bring up to speed fairly quickly. See our discussion threads on LinkedIn and Facebook for ideas and strategies you could apply.

Join the Discussion: Closing the Skills Gap

What are companies doing to attract, create and retain skilled workers? Join the discussions on Facebook or LinkedIn and tell us what your company is doing to address “the skills gap” concerning its engineers, technicians and automation specialists.

Whether you’re a new grad who had a great interview, an industrial recruiter with knowledge of good internal training programs, or a plant manager who started a mentoring program, let us know who’s being proactive about growing skills and closing the gap. Share what’s working in your region, so others can try it where they live.