Engineering-related skills, automation technologies to get ahead in 2023

Advice from the 2023 Control Engineering Career and Salary Survey included answers to artificial intelligent questions suggested by ChatGPT. Human answers provided automation-related skills and technologies needed to advance in automation, controls and instrumentation.

By Mark T. Hoske and Amanda McLeman May 15, 2023
Courtesy: Control Engineering research, CFE Media and CFE Technology


Learning Objectives

  • Learn from automation skills advice provided by peers taking the 2023 Control Engineering Career and Salary Survey.
  • Discern applicable advice from peers about technologies needed to advance in engineering.

Advice about skills and technologies needed to get ahead in automation, control and instrumentation were among the advice 2023 Control Engineering Career and Salary Survey and Report. Two write-in questions asked survey respondents for advice. Among survey respondents, 89 offered advice on skills; 74 provided technology-related advice.

To help update survey questions this year, on Feb. 17, ChatGPT artificial intelligence (AI) software was asked to provide “20 questions to help careers of control engineers and electrical engineers and mechanical engineers with automation, controls and instrumentation.”

ChatGPT responses were integrated into the survey questions about skills, technologies and advice needed to get ahead.

A sampling of each set of human respondent advice follows, lightly edited for style.

Skills needed to get ahead in 2023: Troubleshooting, communication, project management

The question asked: Please provide advice about skills needed to get ahead in your areas of responsibility today (Figure 1), including how and why.

Stay aware of technologies and technology innovation. Keep up with certifications and skills training. Cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI) expertise are absolute.

Initiate goal-setting techniques. Encourage all employees to function as a production team. Freely support all employees who acknowledge performance-related operational techniques.

Figure 1: Top skills to get ahead are engineering skills, communication/presentation skills, project management skills and computer skills. Courtesy: Control Engineering research, CFE Media and CFE Technology

Figure 1: Top skills to get ahead are engineering skills, communication/presentation skills, project management skills and computer skills. Courtesy: Control Engineering research, CFE Media and CFE Technology

PLC programming, automation design, troubleshooting

Learn the basics first. A good programmable logic controller (PLC) programmer should have strong knowledge of controls wiring and devices along with a basic understanding of tooling and design.

Troubleshooting is something that is constantly overlooked and needs to be addressed in this industry. That is why someone with experience should mentor people just coming into the industry.

Being able to communication ideas well to those above and below your position. Getting people to understand your ideas is one of the hardest tasks in industry today.

There seems to be an implied assumption an IT graduate can step into automation. Being able to work with software is only 30% of the job. Hands-on skills and familiarity with the actual automation components matters much more. Trade schools provide people who are better able to hit the ground running. They will learn the software as a part of doing the job.

Do not get stuck in technology. Keep learning. You can create cookie-cutter machinery, but then use the time savings to continue to research and implement better technologies. Be able to travel. You will learn four times more in the field under production than in possible in the office.

First, AI and machine learning (ML) have to be learned because they will lead technology transformation. Secondly, team building and soft skills must be mastered: No industry gets away with a loner mentality.

Project management, mentoring about automation, simulation

My current job is mostly project management, plus providing technical support for other teams. Team building and informal mentoring are the skills most used. Good relationships and effective communication are essential for big projects.

Training in problem solving and systems thinking. It is important to have mastery of your specialty, but also develop an awareness of other aspects of the project and product and how the fit together, even at the business level.

System simulation is critical to being able to design complex circuits and minimizing time required on bench prototyping and development. Becoming proficient in running these circuit simulations is an absolute must.

Learn the applicability of AI and cloud computing in process automation. Many applications are going to the cloud and using AI. Getting familiar with how those technologies affect and/or are used in the industry will help those in automation and controls to stay up to date.

Develop leadership ability to keep the team motivated and optimize resources and productivity.

Keeping up with market knowledge and new trends help to offer products and services adapted to the client´s needs. Technical capacities enable abilities to offer innovative and creative solutions, maximizing the return on investment.

Automation and control technologies that will help controls: Integration of AI/ML, analytics, cloud, edge

When asked to provide advice about technologies most likely to help in the coming year (Figure 2), including how and why, answers included the following.

AI offers the greatest door-opening opportunities by being able to analyze and combine various datapoints and datasets to see opportunities, trends and areas to address.

Practice the “keep it simple, stupid (KISS)” method to develop less complex and extensive data collection and reporting systems. Highly flexible systems can create an undesirable complexity that needs to be understood and is less helpful for most users.

Internet of Things (IoT) will help me to live and work smarter. IoT also enables the concept of a smart home to become a reality and to assist with a smart-city infrastructure.

Wireless communications is everywhere and is beginning to be introduced into older established technologies. The more you can understand, the more you can accomplish by moving existing products forward.

The need for Linux-based control systems will continue to grow for easier network convergence, data manipulation and reporting, integrated human-machine interface (HMI), programmable safety and servo system control.

Digital controls for processes, advanced operating sequences and a high-level of feedback provides accuracy to the process being controlled.

Figure 2: Best ways to advance skills are hands-on experiences and continuing education, followed by being mentored and industry publications. Courtesy: Control Engineering research, CFE Media and CFE Technology

Figure 2: Best ways to advance skills are hands-on experiences and continuing education, followed by being mentored and industry publications. Courtesy: Control Engineering research, CFE Media and CFE Technology

AI/ML, digital twins, attention to automation system hardware design

AI, digital twin realizations, edge computing and data analytics maximize the value of data prior to the cost of moving that data off the plant floor and into AI-driven supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems.

I believe there is too much focus on digital twins and analytics. We still need to design, build and operate equipment. While software may give insights into how to refine processes, it won’t make product. A return to focus on hardware and better means of integrating hardware into a design would help more than fancy terms and buzzwords about data.

The technologies that will most likely help me in the coming year are AI/ML tools because that is the direction my projects are headed.

The biggest advancements for me is software improvement. Faster configuration, more automation and automatic configuration will help our customers save money and execute faster.

I believe that 1) large-language model (LLM) generative AI applied to crafting baseline systems (PLC programs, etc.) will enable us to create much faster, raise the bar and remove the drudgery of initial systems creation and setup and 2) Learning about, using and integrating system security best practices is necessary.

Control systems with less human effort, more time savings

AI and edge computing are changing the traditional control model. It is no longer just controllers in a control room or disseminated over the plant floor, but some applications are moving to the edge. AI is just going everywhere.

Advance monitoring and control systems can run automatically with less human effort. These will make the work easier and more direct to get the result without too much dependence on humans.

Many companies are starting to embrace cloud solutions, and vendors are providing various degrees of cloud-enabled technology. It is important to understand these technologies as well as the security implications.

Continue improving your skills on how to do more with less. Automate to run more tests and make more improvements to processes with fewer personnel, less resources and less time.

Mark T. Hoske is content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, Amanda McLeman, director of research and awards programs for CFE Media and Technology, conducted the research and assembled the related report.

KEYWORDS: 2023 salary survey, career advice 


What automation, controls and instrumentation skills and technologies are you cultivating to advance competitiveness?

Author Bio: Mark T. Hoske is Control Engineering content manager. Amanda McLeman is the director of research and awards programs for CFE Media and Technology.