Automation Skills Enigma

The automation skills shortage in America mirrors the continuing decline in interest in factory engineering jobs. Few consider automation engineering an exciting career; most just drift into it by happenstance.

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The speed of change brings a mismatch of skills. Experienced engineers know all the old things such as instrument selection, tuning controllers, good wiring practices and safety procedures. But they are relatively inexpert at new digital skills such as networking, communications, Web-based information search and integration, which comes through younger, usually lower-paid “technicians.”

Automation professionals require knowledge that is applied across multiple disciplines—electrical, electronic, mechanical, chemical, instrumentation, controls, computers, networking and information processing. This mix is simply not available in any traditional programs today, and lumping them together into one educational curriculum does not seem practical.

The International Society of Automation has tried to define an automation degree course but, to date, has not found any school or university that is willing to develop an automation track. There is simply no interest. In my opinion, unless direct support comes first from end-user companies who have identified the urgent need and are clamoring for results, lobbying government officials and politicians is simply wheel spinning.

In the final analysis, the problem is pay. There are those who insist that in American industry at large, there isn’t any shortage of engineering skills—just lack of rewards. Responding to a discussion on this subject on my Web site, engineer Richard Lamb wrote:

There are just better things to do these days than controls engineering. The automation business has shrunken from the heyday of the 80’s and 90’s. The engineers are still here. But they all have jobs now with better pay and working conditions. As manufacturing competitiveness has tightened, customers are tight with an automation buck.

Working 9-5 beats the heck out of weeks doing startups. The controls guy doing the startup gets to take the heat, under intense pressure to get the thing up and running. Staff engineers work incredibly long hours, with people breathing down their necks, to troubleshoot and maintain old equipment and keep complex technology running. Not exactly a rewarding experience. All this for a pay scale that just meets the average for an engineer/programmer, and maybe even less.

Most of the smart people that I know who were formerly in controls and system integration businesses are now writing software for financial services, healthcare, Web applications, or doing validation services for the pharmaceutical industry. You get the same pay, and you get to sleep in your own bed at night.

To circumvent the problem of engineer shortages, or perhaps to reduce costs, many companies simply contract whole projects to large automation suppliers or systems integrators. But that merely passes the problems along, and the company loses control of vital engineering skills and resources.

Coveted careers

And therein lies the rub. The automation careers that are generally not held in high regard here in the United States are greatly respected and even coveted in developing areas such as India, South America and the Far East. Today’s global market offers easy availability of foreign engineers, with skills that match the need and willingness to fill the gaps. So a lot of automation project design work is going offshore, including capability to provide local commissioning and training for maintenance services. This offshore migration is the inevitable result of inability to develop and attract local talent.

Many are lulled into thinking that it’s only the low and medium-skilled jobs that are going offshore. That’s simply not true. More and more high-value design- and systems-engineering positions are being filled offshore, leaving little but manual labor to be done locally. Recognition that automation professionals are at the core of a country’s success is the key to prosperity.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: jim@jimpinto.com Or review his prognostications and predictions on his Web site: www.jimpinto.com
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