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Work Begins on Automation Engineering Degree Program

A new ISA committee takes aim at the engineering shortage, with an effort to develop curriculum, and work with universities.

A committee of industry leaders and academia met at Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) headquarters recently in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to begin work on the learning objectives for an automation engineering curriculum for universities. 

“There is no doubt that our industry needs a program like this,” said Ray Spangler, President of Central Automation Inc., a rapidly growing automation engineering firm in Bakersfield, Calif. “We’re trying to hire 10 experienced automation engineers in the next two months that can quickly begin to work with clients, and even though we’re offering premium salaries, we’re having a hard time finding them. So much of the technology needed in automation is missing from current engineering curriculums that new graduates of those programs are not candidates.” 

Critical need 

Many of the automation engineers lost to retirement or made redundant by restructuring in the past decade have now fully retired. At the same time, demand in automation is increasing faster than for some other types of engineers, and because of the older average age, a large influx is needed to just maintain the workforce size. Therefore, ISA estimates that 15,000 new automation engineers are needed annually. Engineers knowledgeable in automation are critical for keeping U.S. manufacturing competitive in the world market, according to industry leaders. 

U.S. schools do not teach automation as an undergraduate engineering discipline, and automation technology is advancing so rapidly that it takes one to three years for graduates of other engineering disciplines to perform at a professional level in automation. In the past, manufacturing companies and large engineering contractors funded the automation training of new engineers. During that era, engineers could be expected to remain with the company for decades. 

Today, however, few companies can afford extensive training, and engineers are more mobile. Because colleges in other countries have automation engineering programs, some companies are importing engineers. 

“We recently hired five new automation engineers from India because we could not find them in the U.S.,” said John Lake, director of automation and control for DPR Construction, a major construction company in high technology and pharmaceuticals. 

Talent pipeline 

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to industry leaders about their issues and concerns, and over and over again, we’ve heard them talk about finding the next generation of automation engineers for their companies,” said ISA President Steve Huffman. “Engineering construction firms, system integrators, manufacturers and suppliers alike are facing the same problem—they need to find capable automation engineers to replace their aging staff. ISA is committed to leading the way in development of programs and building an automation talent pipeline to industry.” 

The committee is made up of the following volunteers:

  • Randy Buchanan, Assistant Director, School of Computing, University of Southern Mississippi, chair
  • Kelvin Erickson, Department Chair of Electrical and Computer
  • Engineering, University of Missouri - Rolla
  • John Lake, Director of Automation and Control, DPR Construction
  • Lee Lane, Commercial Engineering Manager, Rockwell Automation
  • Steve McAlonan, Southeast U.S. Business Development Manager, Industrial Measurement and Control, National Instruments
  • Russ Rhinehart, Bartlett Chair and School Head, School of Chemical Engineering, Oklahoma University
  • Scott Risk, Automation Engineer, Pfizer Inc.
  • Vernon Trevathan, consultant and ISA VP for Professional Development
  • Todd Walter, Industrial Measurement and Control Group Manager, National Instruments

“Our goal is to develop curriculum content for a four-year automation engineering degree program,” said committee chair Randy Buchanan of the University of Southern Mississippi. “Once we have that in place, we’ll work with universities to implement programs and with ABET to get the programs accredited.”

Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society

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