Scoping the Next Generation of Automation Professionals

What skills will be required of future automation professionals, and how do we get there from here?

Much has been written about the growing shortage of engineers and skilled automation professionals—
a problem compounded by the near-term retirement of the huge generation of baby boomers.

So when Automation World set out to cover automation staffing topics this month, we decided not to focus so much on the “sky-is-falling” issue of the shortage. Instead, we set out to look at the kinds of skills that will be needed by the next generation of automation professionals, along with some ways that industry and academia might go about producing an automation workforce that will possess the necessary skills.

For this report, we interviewed a variety of well-known industry sources for their thoughts on the topic. Capsule reports from some of those interviews can be found throughout these pages.

Another obvious source for this kind of information is the International Society of Automation (ISA, www.isa.org), which is heavily involved in education and training, as well as the certification of industry professionals. We spoke with various ISA sources for a look at future skills requirements, as well as prospects for an “automation engineering” degree program in U.S. universities. That report begins below.

The ISA view

Vernon Trevathan, a retired Monsanto engineer who is vice president of the ISA Professional Development Department, is an expert in automation skills requirements. With more than 40 years experience working in process control, dynamic process simulation, industrial automation and project management, Trevathan also had responsibility for training hundreds of process control engineers at Monsanto, and is the editor of the ISA book, “A Guide to the Automation Body of Knowledge.”

Trevathan has some definite ideas about the skills that will be required of automation engineers in the future, and the areas in which improvements are needed. He divides these into four categories, the first of which are “foundation skills,” such as teamwork and communication with others, project management, and self-discipline to manage schedules and to multi-task.

“Engineers have a history of being miserable at working with other people, and automation engineers are probably the worst example of that in general, because we like to work with the details, get into the minute aspects of programming and the like,” Trevathan observes.

Engineers have also historically been weak in project management, he adds. “At Monsanto, we almost never let an automation person be the project manager, because we knew they didn’t know how to do it.” Monsanto typically used professional project managers, no matter how small the project. But that’s a luxury today that most companies can’t afford for small automation projects, says Trevathan, meaning that automation engineers must learn effective project management skills.

Trevathan refers to the second category as “enabling skills,” which include detailed process and manufacturing understanding, standards and regulations knowledge, and asset management and predictive maintenance skills.

While most automation professionals 20 years ago worked for end-user companies, the majority today work for engineering services providers. This makes it more difficult for them to gain a thorough understanding of the processes they work with, because they move from job to job, Trevathan notes. Standards and regulations are proliferating today as well, making it difficult for engineers to keep up, he adds.

The area of asset management and predictive maintenance will become increasingly important in the future, Trevathan believes. “We have sort of relegated that to the maintenance department in the past, and automation people haven’t worried about it too much, but we won’t be able to get away with that in the future.”

Everybody struggles

The third area is what Trevathan calls “technical knowledge and skills.” This includes digital communications of all types. “A lot of the new EE (electrical engineering) graduates have a good foundation in digital communications in general, but they probably have studied nothing about industrial protocols,” Trevathan observes. Data management and analysis—including integration with business systems—is another important area, he adds. “But none of this is directly taught in formal undergraduate education, so everybody’s got to struggle to come up to speed on these things.”

Trevathan’s fourth category is “work process knowledge and skills.” One big area here is automation improvement. During Trevathan’s years at Monsanto, the company embarked on a multi-year benchmarking and process improvement project spanning distributed control systems (DCS) at more than 100 plants. The initiative paid off big, says Trevathan, producing billions of dollars in benefits. “The multiplier of benefit-to-cost of doing it was just unbelievable, because we already had most of the hardware in place, and we were just implementing new functionality,” he observes. “But people don’t know how to do that in process today.”

There is not an obvious solution to this problem, says Trevathan. Systems integrators generally don’t have the wherewithal to provide large-scale process improvement services, he contends. And while some major automation controls vendors say they offer this service, “it’s just very hard for somebody from the outside to come in and do it.”

Another area that Trevathan describes as a “personal pet peeve” involves project scope and justification. “People still like to do projects,” he says. “But they don’t want to go through a good justification—partly, I guess, because they don’t know how to do it.” Further, he adds, the challenge is not just to justify a project, but to scope it correctly to deliver the maximum reasonable benefits, another skill in which automation engineers often fall short.

Along with these challenging areas for the future, Trevathan also sees a need for improvement in traditional skills. “Most people my age like to say that the big problem is that the new automation professionals don’t know how to do the old basic skills, like instrument selection, tuning controllers and good wiring practices,” says Trevathan. “And that’s true. People aren’t learning that.” But he is quick to add that an even bigger problem may lie in older practicing professionals’ failure to learn the basic digital skills, both the communications, and the data and information integration.

“I think the point is that automation professionals need to know a whole lot of stuff,” says Trevathan. “And a B.S. degree in automation engineering is probably the only viable way today that they’re going to learn, and get an introduction to all this stuff. But so far, we just don’t have much interest in that.”

Tough sell

Indeed, according to various ISA sources, a push by the Society to promote the establishment of a four-year bachelor’s degree program in automation engineering is so far hitting roadblocks at most U.S. universities. The ISA has developed both two-year and four-year automation curriculums, and is talking up the need for such programs with federal and state legislators, as well as with university administrations and community colleges at various levels, says ISA Executive Director Patrick Gouhin.

But universities typically see changes in curriculum as a major expense that comes with a lot of risk, Gouhin says. And as noted by Jerry Cockrell, professor of engineering technology at Indiana State University, in Terre Haute, and next year’s ISA president, the academic world can be a highly politically charged place. “You’ve got the old, traditional engineering programs that don’t want to allow this so-called automation engineering, or any other type of engineering, into the club,” says Cockrell. “I’ve created two degrees while I’ve been at ISU and it’s a two-, three- or four-year process, and that’s not even counting the accreditation that you have to go through.”

But that’s not to say that the initiative can’t succeed in the long term. “Obviously, we wouldn’t be putting forth all of this effort if we didn’t believe there was a good possibility of eventual success,” says Randy Buchanan, a professor and assistant director for the School of Computing at the University of Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, who chairs the ISA Automation Engineering Curriculum Development Committee, established in March 2007.

Buchanan says he submitted a proposal last year for a four-year bachelor’s degree program in automation engineering at Southern Mississippi that was ultimately denied at the state level. He is considering resubmitting the proposal later, however, and notes that several other colleges and universities around the country now have similar proposals in the pipeline.

“The major thing we started working on a couple of years ago [in the ISA committee] was a bachelor’s degree in automation engineering that was EAC/ABET accredited (for Engineering Accreditation Commission/Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology). That’s sort of the spearhead movement,” says Buchanan. But other kinds of programs could emerge sooner, he notes, such as two-year automation engineering technology programs, graduate programs in automation disciplines, and concentration areas, or “minors,” in automation as part of existing engineering degree programs.

Success in these areas will help bolster the movement, Buchanan observes. “But it’s really not going to become apparent that automation engineering is its own discipline until it has a bachelor’s degree with that name, just because of perception, if nothing else.”

The ISA’s drive for an automation engineering degree program is predicated on industry requirements. The traditional engineering disciplines such as electrical, chemical and mechanical engineering don’t necessarily map one-to-one to what industry needs. “What we’ve heard from industry people is that they have to hire traditional engineering graduates and then train them to bring them up to speed in automation,” says Buchanan. This training can not only take years, but also requires a substantial investment.

Buchanan believes that a correctly designed automation engineering degree program could help alleviate this problem. “I realize the difference between training and education, and you don’t want to turn this into a training certificate,” he says. “But I think you can integrate theory and application, and academia and industry needs in such a way that a student could graduate with a bachelor’s degree and walk into industry and be productive on the first day.”

An automation engineering degree program will be unique, in that students will learn traditional engineering discipline skills, but those skills will be applied across multiple discipline boundaries, Buchanan explains. Automation engineering merges the fundamentals of electrical, electronic, mechanical, environmental, computer, information and instrumentation, he says. Students will learn traditional math, science and engineering fundamentals, but the program will also have an automation core that is not available in any traditional program today.

This can then be buttressed by additional emphasis areas that are preferred by a school’s industrial constituents, says Buchanan. “One school could offer an engineering automation degree that has the engineering core, the automation core and emphasis courses in, say, process control, while another school could offer emphasis courses in manufacturing, or aerospace, or semiconductors, whatever their industrial constituents require.”

Buchanan declines to predict when the first automation engineering degree program will be launched at a U.S. university, but concedes he will be “disappointed” if it doesn’t happen within five years. Gouhin, for his part, expects that it will likely be 10 years or more before anything like critical mass is achieved, with a reasonable number of four-year institutions offering automation engineering degrees.

But Gouhin adds that the timescale could be shortened if industry were to align strongly behind the concept. If a lot of big end-user companies would say, “Here’s what we need, and we’re not getting it out of the university system,” it would give the ISA better leverage in pushing the idea with universities, and at the federal and state levels.

The ISA does have letters of support for the concept from some companies, Gouhin says. But others still see automation as a “specialty discipline,” and have been less supportive, he concedes. The Society is going back to these companies with an explanation of why it disagrees, Gouhin says, while also “working to improve the relationships we have in the corner offices of end-users.”

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