Rethinking Our Need for Engineers

As the profession grays and the number of engineering graduates declines, it’s time to tap the expertise of professionals whose credentials are not BSEE.

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I’ll start out by saying that I am 53 years old. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that most of you reading this are about my age, plus or minus five years. 
Why do I bring this up? As a profession, industrial automation is “graying.” As we get older and retire, there doesn’t seem to be enough young talent to take our places. 
We’ve all read that the number of young people graduating from colleges with engineering degrees is shrinking. If your company has been at all busy during the last couple of years, I am sure that you have had trouble finding qualified candidates for open positions. This is just the beginning. A recent survey showed that greater than 46 percent of those who call themselves “control systems engineers” or a related title, will be retiring by 2020. 
Given these circumstances, we have to ask: Is the model broken? Most people working in industrial automation have gone to a four- or five-year college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in some engineering discipline, most often electrical engineering. Of course, a large percentage of automation projects involve electrical controls and systems—stuff turns on and off. Control panels need to be designed. Processes need to be monitored. But are we missing the point? How many engineers do we really need? 
Would project managers, business majors, website designers, artists or people with other expertise be qualified for many of the tasks we’re expecting engineers to perform? Indeed, is an engineer the best person to discuss return on investment with a client? 
Consider this: The largest employer of anthropologists outside of the federal government is, believe it or not, Microsoft. Why? Who better to understand how a culture performs and shops? 
I believe this model should be employed in our profession as well. Think about what we really do and find qualified candidates in all kinds of fields that can do it. When was the last time you had a project that required calculus? Wouldn’t someone who is an expert on Facebook be a better fit to design your human machine interface screens? 
Stephen Blank is Chief Executive Officer of Loman Control Systems, Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association.
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