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Automation Competency Model Moves Forward

In partnership with the Automation Federation, the U.S. Department of Labor is developing a skills model that will provide first-time, formal federal recognition of automation as a profession.

You’re at a cocktail party, and someone asks what you do for a living.

“I’m an automation professional,” you reply.

“Oh, so you work with robots,” comes the response.

Well, maybe you do work with robots. But while robots may often be the first thing that occurs to a lay person who hears the word “automation,” that’s far from the only possibility, of course.

Indeed, only a relatively small portion of U.S. “automation professionals” work in the field of industrial robotics. The rest work in a wide range of other automation specialties and subdisciplines throughout the discrete manufacturing, process and hybrid industries. The International Society of Automation (ISA, previously known as the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society, estimates the total number of automation professionals in the United States at around 200,000. Yet, most people don’t have a grasp of all that “automation” entails.

Automation defined

But help is on the way. If all goes as expected, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL, will by early next year roll out the details of a new “Automation Competency Model”—a formal, federally approved document that will define the skills and competencies needed to work in the automation field. The new model is being developed by the DOL through a partnership with the Automation Federation, an umbrella organization formed by the ISA for associations and societies engaged in manufacturing and process automation activities.

The Automation Competency Model will encompass nine tiers, ranging from personal, academic and workplace foundational competencies at Tiers 1 to 3, through industry and technical competencies specific to the automation profession at Tiers 4 and 5, up through occupation-specific knowledge and technical competencies, along with management competencies, at Tiers 6 to 9.

The details of the model are being hashed out in a series of meetings between DOL representatives and interested industry and academic participants. And one goal, says Automation Federation Chairman Steve Huffman, is to paint the profession with a broad brush. “What we’re doing is establishing a legitimacy for the automation field, and we’re trying to be all-inclusive in that regard,” Huffman says. “We’re dividing the whole automation pie among process automation, factory automation and hybrid, where a particular facility would have both areas,” he says.

Foundational step

Huffman, like others involved in the project, see the creation of the Automation Competency Model as a key foundational step in the organization’s automation workforce development initiative. “The first task is to get recognition that the profession even exists,” Huffman observes. “Once we have a completed model, we will be able to provide industry, academia and the public with a clear understanding of what automation is and what it takes to be successful in the profession.”

The completed model will be available on the DOL Web site for use by educators, career counselors, human resource departments and others, and will link to other DOL and industry resources. As such, it should help attract more young people into the automaton field, proponents believe. And by providing formal federal recognition of automation as a “profession,” it should also aid current ISA initiatives to establish “automation engineering” as a four-year bachelors degree program offered in U.S universities.

“Today, if you go on the DOL Web site and look under disciplines, you won’t find automation,” says Randy Buchanan, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi who chairs the ISA committee that is working on the degree program project. This means that there are no automation statistics available from the DOL that can be used to justify the need for an academic program.

That will change, however, once the Automation Competency Model goes up, Buchanan says. “That’s why the DOL work is so important, because we’ll actually be able to put some numbers to it, and provide some validation of the things that everybody is already saying about the need for this program.”

International Society of Automation

U.S. Department of Labor

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