Unemployment, Automation and Manufacturing 2018

May 17, 2018
How will we go about filling the control system engineering positions we as an industry need to fill? Here’s a look at the issue and some ideas about overcoming it.

Unemployment in the U.S. hit a 17-year low of 3.9 percent last week. There are many new employment opportunities. At the same time that there is low unemployment, there are larger numbers of unemployable people because of skill gaps and lack of necessary training. A recent article in Fast Company magazine provided a list of the professions most likely to have a skills gap now and in the coming years. The three top areas listed were skilled trades, healthcare workers and manufacturing jobs, including both production workers and engineers.

For those of us in control systems—and especially those who are part of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA)—control system engineers are important assets. There is an increase in demand for control system services because of increased capital expansion created by the tax reforms that took effect in 2018. Optimation and many other automation firms have opportunities to grow and expand, and this means hiring more control engineers. While we are looking for more control engineers, however, many of our clients are doing the same thing—resulting in a shortage of experienced or trained automation professionals and pushing us to be creative in our approaches to increased staffing.

I looked online to see what kind of placement ads there were for control engineers. There are many listed. Glassdoor.com shows 120,576 open jobs for control engineers; Indeed.com shows 56,366; Monster, 248; Itsmycareer.com, 256; and totaljobs.com, 2,365. These are only numbers, of course, and it’s hard to know how many of these might be the same job listed in multiple places. But they are large numbers and many positions must be going unfilled. I also got these numbers at a single point in time, so they are out of context and don’t have reference points for any of the same sites six months, a year or two years ago.

The question is: How is the demand shifting and how rapidly has the demand risen? How many control system engineering job openings exist in the U.S.? If the demand is this high, how will those in need go about filling the gaps?

To help answer these questions, I reached out Alan Carty, president of Automationtechies, a firm that specializes in recruiting and placing control and automation professionals. Automationtechies has been finding control system and automation talent for CSIA members and others for the past 18 years. Carty has better insights on the shifts in demand over the past few years than anyone, especially those who deal with more generalized engineering needs. Automationtechies is well enough branded that they don’t do outbound sales. They work for a smaller, select group of mostly repeat clients. Their sample size is small compared with the entire market, but the relative fluctuations are still meaningful.

“In the past few years, we typically were working on 80-90 positions at any given point in time, and we’re currently working on 124,” Carty says. “Based on this increase, plus the conversations I have recently had with control systems integrators, machine builders, automation product manufacturers and other companies that hire automation people, there is likely a 20-25 percent increase in the number of open positions compared to a year ago. One of our large CSI clients stated the they have over 20 open positions; and a medium-size automation product manufacturer recently told me they have over 100 openings. It’s obvious that we are currently experiencing a large shortfall of candidates.”

Carty also reflected on creative ways that companies in need of control engineers can find talent to fill their needs. One of his observations is that companies can’t hire strictly from within the industry people who are already trained and experienced. “They also need to add people into this workforce,” he says.

At Optimation, we have traditionally looked to the retired pool of individuals to supplement the workforce in periods of high demand. There are also opportunities to hire engineers who may have some experience but, because of lack of demand, have skills that have gone stale. New York State has grants for on-the-job training to help these individuals and their employers bridge the gap. There may be similar programs in other states.

The companies that are successful in recruiting will be so, in part, because of company culture and influences they can form outside the company. “The shortfall of candidates within automation will continue to grow, but individual companies who have a strong emphasis on adding people to the automation workforce will have far fewer unfilled openings than those who don’t,” Carty says.

How we do that might vary from company to company. In part, we need to do a better job selling our opportunities. Even new engineers can have more than garden-variety job duties. Major challenges will attract and help retain young talent. We can all use personal networking to help with the recruiting. Good people generally know other good people. We need to share our job openings with employees, vendors and clients to help fill roles. We can also use social media to our advantage. Sometimes passive candidates connected through social media might find opportunities attractive, even when they weren’t actively looking for a new position.

Carty points out that co-op programs and internships are important. “When an engineering student is given internship positions while they are in college, they are far more likely to work with that company, or at least in that field, after graduation,” he says.

And he points out that we need to create a culture that compels Millennials to want to work for us. “Many non-automation, high-tech companies that do that very well,” he says. “And very few automation companies do.”

Bill Pollock is president and CEO of Optimation Technology Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Optimation, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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