Closing the Skills Gap

The U.S. industrial sector has seen its fair share of changes and challenges during the past several decades. Throughout it all, however, manufacturers have been able to rely on a steady supply of fresh talent — particularly in the engineering sector — to fuel innovation and hone our competitive edge.

By Marc Moschetto, Control Engineering January 1, 2008
Organizations helping to close the gap

The U.S. industrial sector has seen its fair share of changes and challenges during the past several decades. Throughout it all, however, manufacturers have been able to rely on a steady supply of fresh talent — particularly in the engineering sector — to fuel innovation and hone our competitive edge. Today, however, this competitive advantage is in jeopardy.

The skills gap — a personnel or skills shortage created when experienced employees exit the workforce faster than new talent can join — is one of the most pressing issues facing manufacturing today. This phenomenon is not unique to the manufacturing sector, but as engineers in the so-called “Baby Boomer” generation begin to opt for a well-deserved retirement, the industry is receiving a wake-up call. Forward-thinking organizations are working now to ensure that the next generation of engineers are being nurtured and trained.

The extent of this problem was brought into high relief in 2005 as the National Association of Manufacturers and Deloitte Consulting LLP published “The 2005 Skills Gap Report — A Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce.” This study revealed that 65% of the more than 800 manufacturers surveyed reported experiencing a “moderate” to “severe” shortage of engineers and scientists.

Similar findings were also uncovered in a 2007 survey conducted by Reed Research and Control Engineering . We asked manufacturers to identify the greatest challenge they expect to face during the next 12 months and “replacement of skilled employees” ranked fourth in a field of seven choices. However, when we asked the same audience to identify their greatest challenge during the next five years, “replacement of skilled employees” jumped to the number one position.

“The major problem that I see is that the media is constantly focusing on the negatives of industrial lay-offs and off-shoring, and scaring many graduates into alternative jobs,” said Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation. “When was the last time you saw articles highlighting the need for skilled engineers at specific companies? Yet you will read about the need for H-1B visas to be increased because we don’t have enough technical graduates. Something is amiss.” More troubling, perhaps, is the perceived state of the American educational system. In the same Deloitte/NAM poll, a staggering 84% of respondents believed that K-12 schools were not adequately preparing students for the workplace.

The need to inspire and motivate the next generation of engineering talent has never been more acute. And industry is rising to the occasion with a groundswell of activity aimed at fostering the next generation of engineers.

Ask any engineer over the age of 40 how he or she first became interested in engineering and the “Space Race” will likely appear at or near the top of the list. In contrast, today’s youth live in a world where space stations orbit the earth, robotic vehicles roll across the surface of Mars and video game consoles are orders of magnitude more powerful than the computers previous generations used to put a man on the moon. This poses an interesting challenge and a wonderful opportunity. During a keynote address at the 2007 ISA Expo in Houston, TX, National Instruments CEO Dr. James Truchard spoke about the lack of such “heroes” today, stating that children need engineering role models to recapture their interest and reintroduce a sense of wonder into engineering-related activities.

Organizations like the Discovery Channel are leading the charge to some degree. Programs like Mythbusters and Build it Bigger are runaway hits for the network and are capturing the attention of children and adults. A number of organizations, however, are taking a more direct approach.

National Instruments is appealing to a child’s sense of play. Since 1996, the company has teamed-up with Lego to deliver Mindstorms NXT, a blend of toy and technology that enables children to build and program their own interactive robot. The core kit includes a selection of servo motors and sensors, an NXT “brick” which serves as both the power source and the brain of the robot, and a specialized version of National Instruments’ LabView graphical programming software. The software lets children develop and upload sophisticated programs into the robot and watch their creation come to life. This unique product acts as a bridge between the virtual and physical worlds, while providing children with hands-on access to the same tools found in labs and production plants. This breeds a sense of familiarity with the technology as it exercises their creativity.

Some 5,000 universities in 120 different countries have already integrated LabView into curricula, but National Instruments realized that it needed to capture the interest of younger students as well. “Working with colleges and universities enabled us to help educators shift from lecture-based learning to hands-on learning,” said Andy Bell, K-12 academic product manager at National Instruments. “Through our partnership with Lego, we saw an opportunity to do the same with an even younger audience… and do so in a very engaging and entertaining way.”

To help teachers take advantage of the technology, National Instruments teamed-up with the University of Texas to develop curricula using Mindstorms to convey core science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) principles in a more engaging way. To-date, 120 Texas middle schools have signed-up to become part of the pilot program, and local engineers are volunteering to help teachers and students get the most from the experience.

Never boring

A similar vision and passion for educating students and teachers continues at SolidWorks, a leading provider of 3D mechanical design and CAD software. SolidWorks, whose software also is widely-used in schools and universities around the world, encourages a sense of community and shared purpose amongst STEM educators via its Website. Through this site, the company serves-up ready to use 45-minute SolidWorks-based lessons contributed by employees and educators. “Our goal is to ensure that subjects like science, math and geometry will never be boring when SolidWorks is in the classroom,” said Marie Planchard, SolidWorks’ director of education.

One way the organization is working to transform that goal into reality is by teaming up with The CAD Academy, an organization comprised of educators, industry leaders, and technology providers, which also provides complete pre-engineering curricula for high school students. According to Alan Cox, partner manager at The CAD Academy, course material has been designed around multimedia content. By leveraging applications like SolidWorks to provide hands-on experience with professional tools, as well as content provided by the Discovery Channel, The CAD Academy courses can show “engineering in action” and highlight careers in engineering in a highly-visual and exciting way.

Outside the classroom, the not-for-profit public charity FIRST (“For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”) is dedicated to creating “a world where science and technology are celebrated, and where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes.” The FIRST Robotics Competition lets robot-building teams of high school students and their mentors combine common parts and compete based on both the quality of their designs and the quality of their character throughout the competition. FIRST has attracted active participation from many leading industrial organizations, including National Instruments, Automation Direct, Brooks Automation, and Rockwell Automation. Brandeis University conducted a study of students who participated in FIRST Robotics competitions and, according to statistics posted on the website, participants were 10 times more likely to have an internship during their freshman year, three times more likely to major in engineering, and nearly four times as likely to expect to pursue a career in engineering post-graduation.

Focus on controls

Research shows that active involvement and early exposure can pave the way for future success. But educational outreach from an automation and controls perspective still has some room for improvement. “Today, the majority of people who call themselves control engineers have likely ‘fallen in’ to the profession,” said Pat Gouhin, executive director of ISA. “Automation is typically not a career destination, and we need to come together as an industry to get people interested specifically in control and automation engineering.”

To address that need, in June 2007 ISA announced the creation of a formal Workforce Development program. The program aims to create a new university relations initiative linking faculty from universities around the world with corporate R&D centers, develop a new automation degree curriculum and expand certification programs.

Of course, one of the most direct ways to reach college-aged students is via internship and co-op programs. These programs typically bridge the gap between the theoretical world of the lecture hall and the day-to-day application of technology in the workplace, and many universities and industrial organizations are teaming-up to upgrade this concept.

North Carolina State University, for example, is leveraging ABB’s Industrial IT System 800xA Extended Automation solutions as part of its new, 86,000 square foot pilot-scale biomanufacturing facility. The Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC) is located on the university’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh, NC. It has the capacity to train 2,000 students each year, including candidates from 44 community colleges throughout the state. Its goal is to educate students in manufacturing sciences, industry research and current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP).

Another solution provider that effectively straddles the academic and corporate worlds is Control Station, developer of Loop-Pro, a suite of software modules designed to simplify PID (proportional-integral-derivative) loop tuning and control, as well as optimize plant performance. The company’s Loop-Pro Academic version includes a textbook, lecture slides, workshop exercises, and even a recommended curriculum. Lessons are modeled on actual equipment and challenges that students would likely encounter in the field. In fact, Control Station representatives say manufacturers have leveraged the application as a turnkey training solution for their own employees.

Darren Goodlin, manager of instrumentation for one of North America’s largest breweries, states that his organization embraces learning as a lifelong process and leverages products like Control Station to foster and encourage innovation within the employee base. “One of the reasons we’re so successful at attracting and retaining engineers is because we keep them interested in more than just a paycheck,” said Goodlin. “We want our engineers to constantly challenge themselves and create an environment where they feel that they can sketch a new brewing or bottling process on the back of a napkin and transform it into reality.”

Dedication to learning is so central to Goodlin’s employer, that the company has even created a dedicated “College of Engineering,” tasked with developing a network of in-house and vendor-hosted programs aimed at keeping engineers and other skilled workers up-to-speed on the latest trends, technologies and management skills. “Innovation and dedication to quality is what drives our business,” he said. “Continuous education plays a big role in making that happen.”

Another program, from Phoenix Contact, helps smooth the transition from the academic world to the workplace. In addition to offering traditional internships, the company also has developed an apprentice program designed to help engineers put their skills to work in a sales or product marketing capacity. Colin Smith, industrial sales engineer with Phoenix Contact and recent college graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, participated in the internship and apprentice programs. According to Smith, his on-the-job education rounded-out his classroom education.

“Before my internship, I didn’t even know what a terminal block was… and that’s the most basic connection there is,” said Smith. “Working in the industry helped to connect the dots between what I was learning in the classroom and what challenges I would be faced with as an engineer.”

Phoenix Contact’s apprentice program extends that learning experience into the post-graduate world as well. Over the course of 12 to 18 months, apprentice program participants work in several roles throughout the company — from assembling product as part of the manufacturing team to visiting customers in one of the company’s “infomobiles,” a trade show on wheels — to ensure they understand and appreciate what it takes to develop and deliver customer solutions, rather than just sell products. In addition to hands-on training, the internship program also ensures that the experience and expertise gained by long-term employees is passed along to the younger generation just joining the business.

“Each participant in our apprentice program is assigned to a mentor, someone who is a seasoned professional in the business and can help to guide the trainee through the program, as well as answer questions and simply ‘be there’ for the new employee,” says Greg Jerrehian, vice president of sales for Phoenix Contact.

This concept of pairing new employees with veteran employees is perhaps one of the most compelling and effective ways to ensure that there is a transfer of knowledge, and that the know-how of earlier generations is blended with the fresh ideas of young people.

“For the first time ever, we’re going to be faced with recently retired professionals who still wish to work—they’re healthy, they’re young and have great knowledge,” states ISA’s Gouhin. “We need to tap into that resource and make experts available to disseminate the knowledge they’ve learned over a 30-year career and share it with the students.”

Challenges Total Process Machine
Replacement of skilled employees 45.0% 44.5% 45.7%
Keeping up with new technologies 42.8% 43.4% 42.0%
Budget restrictions 32.0% 31.7% 32.4%
Justifying new technology investments 30.7% 29.1% 32.8%
Growing or shrinking company 29.9% 27.8% 32.8%
Differentiating ourselves from the competition 26.0% 25.6% 26.6%
Asset Management 19.9% 22.0% 17.0%
Source: Reed Research/ Control Engineering, 2007

Online Extra:

Greatest Challenges: The Next 12 Months

The‘skilled employee’ challenge jumps to first place when the timeframe is ‘next 5 years.’

Challenges Total Process Machine
Budget restrictions








Keeping up with new technologies








Justifying new technology investments








Replacement of skilled employees








Differentiating ourselves from the competition








Growing or shrinking company








Asset Management








Source: Reed Research/ Control Engineering, 2007

According to a recent Control Engineering survey, respondents indicated that they anticipate being challenged by more pressing issues in the immediate future. However, when the timeframe for the question is pushed out from 12 months to five years, skills gap concerns top the list. Regardless of when industrial organizations believe they will feel the full impact of this problem, the time to act is now. Today’s students will become tomorrow’s engineers, so focusing on youth-oriented programs will help to turn the tide.

As referenced in the article above, FIRST is one of the many organizations leading the way in creating a genuine sense of excitement for science and engineering-related topics. Founded in 1989 by Dean Kamen, serial entrepreneur and creator of the Segway Personal Transporter, the FIRST Robotics Competition is billed as a "varsity sport for the mind." Unlike any other varsity sport, however, the competition emphasizes sportsmanship as much as winning. Students are rewarded not just by scoring the most points, but by the quality of their design and the quality of their character throughout the competition. A core tenet of the program is "gracious professionalism," a practice which encourages competitors to treat each other with dignity and respect.

"Seeing a competition live is amazing," said National Instruments’ Andy Bell. "The teams are wearing uniforms, singing team songs and, best of all, if someone’s robot breaks down you’ll likely see five other teams jump in to donate parts and lend a hand. They’re so excited about their work and what they’ve accomplished… it really is rewarding."

Another innovative program which is working toward rekindling a sense of wonder and adventure among adults and students alike is the Google Lunar X Prize ( Recalling the heroic days of early Apollo missions, Lunar X is aiming to have the next mission to the moon helmed not by NASA, but by private citizens. The competition calls upon teams of private citizens – folks like you and me – to land a craft on the lunar surface, roam the surface for at least 500 meters and transmit a data package back to Earth.

As of the writing of this article, Google has received more than 300 requests for registration materials. The $20 million in prize money certainly helps to spark interest, but the sheer notion of being part of a team that rekindles mankind’s fascination with – and exploration of – the lunar surface is the driving force behind the early success of the competition.

These are just two examples of programs which seek to educate, inspire and engage, now we would like to learn about what you’re doing to help raise the next generation of engineers. Let us know by clicking on the "talkback" link on this page.

Author Information
Marc Moschetto is editorial director of Control Engineering. Reach him at .

Organizations helping to close the gap

While certainly not an all-inclusive list, here are a few of the organizations that are helping to train and inspire tomorrow’s engineers today.

The STEM Education Coalition is composed of advocates from more than 40 diverse groups, representing all sectors of the technological workforce, dedicated to ensuring quality STEM education at all levels.

NASA provides formal and informal educators with access to unique resources designed to capture the imagination of students, encouraging them to become the scientists and engineers that we’ll need in the future.

Discovery Education provides engaging digital resources to schools and homes with the goal of making educators more effective, increasing student achievement, and connecting classrooms and families to a world of learning.