The manufacturing sector faces a crisis: Skilled automation professionals are diminishing in number — just when we need them most. Retiring workers are leaving a huge void in the field, but new blood hasn’t rushed to fill it. Even new opportunities like shale oil extraction haven’t attracted the workers they require. Why? Today’s college graduates either aren’t aware of these significant career options, or view them as blue-collar and therefore less desirable. Graduates enter other areas of business instead.
And how can we blame them?
There is little or no formal education program for automation professionals.
So, here we stand, on the brink of a manufacturing renaissance, without the resources needed to make it a success. It’s up to us — the automation community — to close the gap between workforce supply and demand through our own training and career development programs. We must act now in order to grow the next generation of automation professionals. And we can do it, if we implement these best practices for automation workforce development:
- Real-world application. Any successful automation training and development program must put learning into action soon after the learning. Hands on experience on actual automation projects is the only way to make knowledge stick.
- Opportunity to learn on the job. Companies should embed inexperienced internal resources on project work that is outsourced. This way, new automation professionals can begin doing real work right away, gaining hands-on experience with specific processes and technology while referencing mentors.
- Training flexibility. The best training programs offer a wide variety of courses, labs, meetings and seminars — all available through a range of delivery models. Variety is the spice of learning. There is no one silver bullet that will create an automation professional. The learning process takes years and exposure to many different types of learning experiences. For example, automation professionals should be able to access customized e-learning materials via video, webcast and podcast at any time. The one-to-one nature of this learning style ensures that each student receives information appropriate for his experience level.
- A process-focused talent development model. Companies that develop their own automation talent must offer a curriculum that balances mastery of specific technologies and processes with the ability to think beyond existing norms to find the best solution for the challenge at hand. Training labs must provide insight into specific processes and applications—and again these need to be based on real-world projects. A process focus with platform-specific course options helps to ensure successful talent development.
- Continuous improvement. Companies must work to develop talent over time, as resources move from one level to the next. Therefore, training should include a leadership guidance curriculum that covers soft skills such as client interaction, conflict resolution, career advancement and project management in addition to real world training. Clear and specific succession planning processes need to be in place such that young professionals remain challenged and can envision a path toward long term success.
The gap between automaton workforce supply and demand continues to widen, and it’s up to us to close it. It’s up to us to offer the training and education programs our employees need to succeed. And it’s up to us to secure America’s position as the global manufacturing leader.