This post was written by Chad Harper, senior director of technology for MAVERICK Technologies, a Rockwell Automation company.

There seems to be a wealth of articles detailing the problems the automation industry has finding and developing new talent. There are statistics that say there is a shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students in our universities, that there are not dedicated degrees that focus on automation, and that the demographics in our industry will drive us off a resource cliff. The conclusions in a lot of these articles recommend large, high-level initiatives to grow interest in STEM degrees at the high school and college level and somehow change the macro-course of U.S. education.

Forget that. We can do better, right now, without sweeping changes to the U.S. educational system or some other long-term solution. This is our problem as an industry to fix, and we cannot afford to wait around for major changes to the educational system. As an industry, we are part of the problem and must be part of the solution.

Myth #1: Lack of candidates

There is no question that there is a lack of qualified, experienced automation professionals in our industry. A quick, unscientific search on Monster.com, using specific distributed control system (DCS) keywords, shows that for many platforms, there is an extreme shortage of candidates.

So the focus has shifted to how to find and recruit new graduates. There is a prevailing theory that the lack of STEM graduates is overstated by major information technology companies, specifically to ensure that low-cost H1-B visas are approved at increasing levels. However, if we look at the data, in 2009 only 64 percent of engineering and technology graduates were working in a STEM field one year after graduation.

This tells us that many STEM graduates are not finding quality jobs and are going elsewhere for employment opportunities.

Another factor is that the automation industry recruits a very small fraction of the total engineering graduate population. There is absolutely no reason we can’t steal market share from other industries and grab great talent as needed. In our recruiting efforts in just two state universities, we routinely get more than 80 resumes of soon-to-be-graduating engineers with BCompE, BSEE, and BSChE degrees. If you can’t find great engineering talent out of the universities, then there is a problem with your recruiting efforts. Begin by examining the level of your effort and investment, and adding a personal touch.

Myth #2: Lack of automation degrees

OK, so this one is not exactly a myth, but let’s not blow the effect out of proportion. There have been very few attempts to pull together a B.S. Control Systems Engineer degree or something similar. In one example, Oklahoma State University developed an M.S. Control Systems Engineer degree program through a collaboration of their electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineering departments. The curriculum included advanced process control (APC), instrumentation calibration, DCS, and programmable logic controller programming, and other pertinent skills. On average, there were seven to eight graduates each year. The program was formed in 2001, but was cut in 2008 due to lack of funding and research revenue potential. Programs like these cost about $4 million annually, so without strong industry support, they are not viable.

The bigger problem in most universities is the undergraduate control curriculum. Most control textbooks still spend a third of the space explaining Laplace transforms and Bode diagrams. While a background in the theory is critical, these texts do not have the applicability to real-world problems. I consider it a bad sign when my first comment to prospective students is, “Have you taken your Controls class yet? Don’t worry, the job is nothing like that class.” It is one thing for the curriculum to not prepare the students adequately, but it is catastrophic when the curriculum actually turns off students from the opportunities in the industry. This is a spot for ISA to step in and identify some strong, applicable textbooks to push to the universities. In my experience, the professors know they need to update their curriculum, but have no one to guide them. An adjustment in the current curriculum is definitely needed, and an organization like ISA can offer recommendations nationwide to make moves in the right direction.

Myth #3: We are doomed by demographics

This one is actually true unless we start to reevaluate our business philosophies. Over the next 10 years, a large portion of our senior automation talent, and the intellectual knowledge they maintain, will retire.

If that’s not enough, add an increase in U.S. capital spending due to price increases overseas and the new supply of hydrocarbons fueling domestic investment, and on top of that add the cycle of control system migrations that have to take place. If we stay on our current course as an industry, we will be in a very reactionary mode at the very least. Costs for senior-level automation talent will escalate to the point where some plants may not be able to afford the migrations and projects they need.

The solution is to readjust our business philosophies now, before it is too late. Changes in education and training will only help so much, so we need to reevaluate how we can create senior-level talent as quickly and completely as possible.

Myth #4: Our current business practices are not part of the problem

Throughout the recession, both production companies and engineering firms pared back their staffs, reduced or stopped hiring new engineers, and dumped all aspects of control projects on the senior-level engineers who remained. During this “will work for food” phase, senior consultants were developing human-machine interface (HMI) screens and doing basic input/output configuration and loop tuning. Several years of training and knowledge transfer were lost.

Now that business has picked up, automation companies and departments are looking to make the best use of the top engineering talent, but looking for any way possible to execute basic-level work as cheaply as possible. This is leading to simpler project tasks, such as HMI development, being offshored to save on costs.

Although this is a decent business model for now, and results can be cost effective, it is breeding potentially disastrous consequences. As an industry, we have offshored all the great assignments that entry-level engineers can do. Our “farm team” or “development league” has been outsourced overseas. Entry-level engineers in the U.S. are relegated to installers and site acceptance test technicians to verify work done elsewhere. Furthermore, the project teams and tasks are so segregated that we are not effectively transferring the intellectual knowledge of our senior resources. This is hardly a good training model for our next generation of control engineers.

The solution is to revamp how we are executing automation projects in the U.S. Integrators and end users alike should look hard at the work they offshore. While it may be the most cost-effective solution now, are you robbing yourself of a key training and development opportunity for new grads? Projects should be staffed correctly, making sure that junior-level tasks are given to junior people; senior engineers should be freed up to mentor and train their junior counterparts; and everyone should be given stretch assignments to grow their skill sets.

Is it worth making the investment to absorb some costs in the name of training the next generation of automation engineers? Just in case you have not figured it out, the answer is yes.

About the Author
Chad Harper currently serves as the senior director of technology for MAVERICK Technologies, managing the subject matter experts for various control platforms. Chad has a background in advanced process control, DCS migrations, and operations management. 

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A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine

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