Need Automation Workers? Who You Gonna Call?

This recurring blog covers news about ISA Automation Week: Technology and Solutions Event from the unique viewpoint of the event’s project manager, Carol Schafer.  With a technical background to draw on, a penchant for humor and the inside track on conference updates, Carol informs and entertains with messages that are always illuminating and often downright funny.

Everybody’s talking about the lack of qualified automation professionals – “autopros” as I have referred to these fine folks in previous blogs – to meet the needs of process manufacturers starving for employees. Everybody’s talking about it, but some are doing something about it.  Here at ISA, we do both.  Talking is my forte (ask around), and every good idea necessarily starts with talking.  But putting programs and resources in place to increase the numbers of engineers and control panel in factorytechnicians coming into the workforce takes some doing.  If you’re entering the workforce, or you are already an autopro (love that word), you’re either being groomed to join us (resistance is futile), or you may be helping someone else prepare to join us.  To maintain profitability, quality, and the sustainability of process manufacturers, we all need to pitch in.

ISA, as the professional society for autopros, is very involved in getting students interested in manufacturing and engineering careers, and in helping provide the necessary mentors to assist those entering the industrial workforce increase their relevancy, expertise, and knowledge earlier than they could otherwise.

What does this have to do with you?  I’ll give you three answers to this question toward the bottom of this blog.  But don’t skip down there now, or they won’t make any sense. (Yes, they will, I just want you to read the whole article so you don’t miss any of the great stuff in the middle.)

So what does one need to know, or be prepared for, upon entering the automation profession?  Sure, you need technical knowledge and you can get some of that in school, but here’s my personal take on the subject – not to be confused with actual advice or counsel:

  1. Accept that none of your friends will “get” what you do – even if you explain it.
    When I had to tell people I sold “instruments” or worked in instrumentation and controls, they would usually ask “Like…guitars and stuff?”  “Uh…nnooo…never mind.”  I mean, you can try to explain… “So, listen, what I do is I tune the control loop which has to be done with instruments that have to be calibrated to within the right tolerance, and then we watch the batch recipe and we watch the EPA emissions because the stack has to be within a certain percentage of the…”  By now, you pals are staring into space or are already off talking to someone else anyway.  My advice?  Just tell them “It’s an autopro thing – you wouldn’t understand.”  Then be secretly excited that you are an insider in a profession so cool that it defies explanation!
  2. No education program will prepare you for entering your first automation and controls job – and much of what you learn will never be used.
    I’m not saying you don’t need college or a degree.  College is useful for a variety of things…but I digress.  Once you’re out of school and into your first automation job, you’ll find yourself relying on mentors and co-workers who are willing to share their intimate knowledge of the plant’s processes with you.  When the flow rate won’t stabilize, you won’t be able to “Google it” because installations are all unique.  You’ll need someone to let you in on the particulars of the system, its history, upgrades, and peculiarities – even its personality.  If you don’t think control systems can have personalities, consider Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Somebody’s got to get control of these systems – save humanity!
  3. Realize that – fresh out of school – you still won’t have enough training.
    You’ll need specialized training from your employer – and perhaps additional training from an organization like ISA in order to avoid the common mistakes made by engineers leaving school with a head full of calculus that they’ll likely never be asked to use on the job.
  4. Be prepared to find out that the breadth and types of knowledge you need is vast – and can’t be obtained overnight.  Figure out early how to align yourself with others – such as fellow members in a professional society like ISA – who can help you grow and learn.  Ask them what training they have taken and what they recommend.  Ask them how membership in a professional society has helped them learn and grow in their profession so that they move forward and feel enthused, in control (no pun intended) and not just another pretty face around the control panel.
  5. You will belong.  If you are an individual thinker, a thoughtful problem-solver, a deductive, reasoned person, you belong here.  If, like me, you were the one to take apart electronic devices around the house and “fix” them when you were a kid – you’re going to love this profession. And you’ll be around others who “understand” you.  Speaking from a lifetime spent around engineers, technicians and autopros – it’s an addictive, and exciting career choice.

There are lots of ways to participate and to belong.  Check this out:

The ISA Mentor Program can be a key to your success or a platform for you to share what you know.  For students in the ISA Mentor Program during 2011, ISA Automation Week 2012 was a game-changer.  Their expectations about the conference were dramatically changed when they realized they were going to learn from and network with the best in the business.  Greg McMillan, respected autopro, author, and expert in the field is a key mentor in this program, along with Hunter Vegas and other volunteers who give of themselves for the next generation.   NOTE:  Greg McMillan will host a tutorial on the ISA Mentor Program within the Industrial Automation & Controls education track at ISA Automation Week 2013.  Come and meet Greg and see how the program has impacted its mentees over the past two years

Automation Week 2013ISA student memberships are available. They are cheap ($10 – can you believe that?) and we work hard to integrate them into the automation community.  We’ll talk about student sections, how you can get involved, what their value is to the business and to the technical side of automation at ISA Automation Week as well.

By now, I bet you just can’t wait to get to Nashville and the ISA Automation Week 2013 conference.  I can’t either.  Let’s meet in Nashville.  Let’s get this thing rolling, and learn how to help take responsibility for the sustainability of our industrial workforce.  It’s going to help us, and it’s going to help the industry (whichever category you fall in, let’s reverse the shortage of qualified automation professionals.)


Carol Schafer

About the Author
Carol M. Schafer has more than 35 years of experience in the industrial automation and control field as a technical sales and marketing professional.  She spent 14 years in the field as principal of a manufacturer’s representative company, selling flow and humidity products, air and gas analyzers, CEM equipment, and sampling systems.  She also worked for several years as the East Coast sales manager for a leading weather instrument/systems manufacturer.  Carol joined ISA in 1996, and is currently project manager for the Society’s annual conference, ISA Automation Week.  She also serves as a senior consultant with the ISA Corporate Partnerships Program.  She obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the California State University at Sacramento, and a master’s degree in business administration from San Jose State University.
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  • Kris Cui

    Spot on with the article. As a young engineer (28) I can certainly say that my engineering degree really didn’t prepare me for career in controls and automation. I really had no idea what this industry was until I graduated and “fell into” my first job.

    In my 6 years as a controls engineer, I’ve only met a small number of colleagues my age. Many are much older than I. While this experience is anecdotal, I would be interested to see some data on this. In my opinion, I think this will be a problem in the coming decades as older engineers and automation professionals begin to retire.

    In terms of attracting and building younger talent, I really think the industry and academia needs to engage students (be it high school or college) earlier, and raise awareness that a career in automation even exists in the first place (from Process Control to Motion Control)!

    • Carol Schafer

      Kris, thanks for your comments! ISA is certainly trying to raise awareness and help with training and mentoring the neXt generation into the automation field. I, too, had no idea what to expect when I more or less “fell into” this profession years ago. It’s humorous to me that younger autopros like yourself are still having a hard time explaining what they do to their friends 🙂 It is time for us to rise up and take our rightful place in the sun. Autopros – unite!

    • Michael Marlowe


      The Automation Federation has a partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges to promote the development of two year associate automation degree programs based on the Automation Competency Model that the Automation Federation worked to create with the U.S. Department of Labor. We have a number of community colleges that have an Automation Associate Degree program underway or are working to develop.

      The Automation Federation welcomed Project Lead The Way as our newest member. PLTW is the leading provider of rigorous and innovative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education curricular programs used in middle and high schools across the U.S. More than 4,200 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia are offering PLTW courses to their students in the 2011-12 school year. In addition, PLTW has trained more than 10,500 teachers to instruct its rigorous STEM education curriculum. PLTW and the Automation Federation will be working together to introduce automation curricula to thousands of students.

      The Automation Federation is also an Alliance Partner with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) FIRST and the Automation Federation are working together to collaborate and promote K-12 STEM education to thousands of students through after-school participation in FIRST robotics programs.

      These are just three examples of what the Automation Federation is doing to build the “Next Generation of Automation Professionals.”

      Mike Marlowe

      Managing Director, Automation Federation

  • Jeff Dinkel

    Excellent, and humorous, article. I recall those many years ago when I entered the automation/instrumentation field fresh out of college. My education provided me with the tools to learn about automation, instrumentation, and controls. However, I remember feeling overwhelmed and questioning “why did I not learn about this in school”. My friends would roll their eyes when I spoke of my adventures traveling around the globe working different projects. After a minute or so, they would want to change the subject. Us “autoprpos” are like members of a secret society. I working on changing that! I entered the education environment to enlighten and educate students about the exciting field of industrial instrumentation and controls. I started an ISA student section at the two year college I work for. My current project (massive undertaking), is putting together an Instrumentation and Controls Technician program to provide the Natural Gas Industry in our region with skilled technicians. I have found that the major obstacle to putting together a program of this nature is typically the funding required to obtain enough hardware to provide a full course of hands-on training with “real-world” equipment. Without support from industry, my undertaking would have failed. My thanks goes out to the industry members which have assisted me through equipment donations and technical support. Still, I am faced with shortcomings, but hopeful that other members of industry will help. For more information, visit

    • Carol Schafer

      Hello Jeff, thanks for your message, and also for your dedication to your profession. It IS kind of like a secret society, isn’t it! I feel inclined to say, though, that if you were telling me your automation adventures, I’m certain I’d be fascinated…takes one to know one, I guess! You may want to contact our training department if you haven’t already. OK, well, carry on, remember…stay in control….