Whither Automation Skills?

Many people think that the automation industry is quickly developing a “skills shortage,” which will occur after the current generation of engineers retires.

Where will the new engineers and technicians come from to operate future factories and process automation plants? Here are some insights that I hope will help.

I was chatting with a couple of oil company technicians at a Houston exhibition last year. They were in their 30s and had about 10 years of experience. We got to talking about pay and prospects. As smart, ambitious young men, they were at the exhibition not just looking for new equipment, but prospecting for better jobs. They were eager to move ahead, but felt blocked—progress, doled out through annual salary increments, was too slow and arduous.

Then their “boss” appeared and I started talking with him while his two juniors discreetly disappeared. He acknowledged that the company had definite salary scales, with annual pay increases, comparable with the rest of the industry. Yes, there was indeed room for growth and promotions for exceptional performers, but most people did not jump more than a pay grade or two without switching jobs. I asked him how long he felt it would take new recruits to progress to some level of responsibility; he said it had taken him 10 to 15 years, and that was probably “average.”

In the old days, instrumentation technicians and engineers were not really computer literate. And process engineering skills had to be acquired through a long “apprenticeship”—often years, and even decades. The problem today is that corporate administrators are simply extrapolating old patterns of employment.

As industry transforms into a high-tech workplace, the new generation of process and automation engineers and technicians will be completely different. They will have grown up with computer games, the Internet, PDAs and cellphones. Some computer games are more complex than typical process plants or monitoring systems. By comparison, the software tools and smart equipment in today’s control rooms should be a cakewalk. But company policies are still measuring progress by obsolete learning standards. And this is why bright youngsters shun jobs in factories and plants, and go off looking for careers outside the automation business.

Be a professional
The Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) is working diligently to develop the image and value of “certified automation professionals.” But progress is stymied by lack of recognition of the profession. Here’s the key question—will automation professionals be recognized with higher base pay and faster advancement? Without that recognition, certification is worthless. ISA’s challenge is to convince employers of the merits of the CAP program. If there’s a big pay differential that comes with CAP certification, engineers will want to achieve that status. Right now, it’s just eyewash.

Dick Morley, father of the programmable logic controller (PLC), and co-author of the book, “The Technology Machine—how manufacturing will look in the year 2020,” suggests that the remedies require significant social change, a modification of the mind-set. Kids must “feel” that their engineer-dad is working at something significant. Pay scales must change, to encourage the brightest and best to become engineers and innovators. Manufacturing people must be considered professionals. Heroes of engineering and manufacturing must be recognized and lauded.

Future workplaces—the equivalent of “factories”—must be bright and stimulating places where people enjoy working and the jobs are challenging and rewarding. Knowledge workers don’t need time cards, defined working hours and staff-sergeant supervisors. Today’s young people are smart, and even brash. They want to work, but unlike their parents, they don’t want work to be their lives. If they can be attracted, they are the ones who will be the automation engineers and technicians of tomorrow.

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 at www.jimpinto.com
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