Four myths and ideas about creating the next generation of automation engineers

Cutting through the hype and clutter, here are some things we can do here and now to ensure that we have the engineers we need tomorrow.

By Chad Harper, CAP, PMP March 26, 2013

There seems to be a wealth of articles detailing the problems we have in our automation industries with 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 can’t 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

Perhaps if we look at the overall state of engineering and technical education, there is a shortage of students in the U.S. However, 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 my recruiting efforts at just two state universities, we routinely get over 100 resumes of soon-to-be-graduating engineers with BSCompE, 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 your level of effort and investment.

Myth 2: Lack of automation degrees

OK, so maybe this one isn’t exactly a myth, but let’s not blow the effect out of proportion. There have been very few attempts to pull together a BS Control Systems Engineer degree or something similar. However, I don’t believe that specific degrees are the only solution, nor any college training for that matter. Universities and technical colleges should provide graduates with strong fundamentals, but teaching the specifics of our automation trades should fall to the employer.

The bigger problem in most universities is the control curriculum. Most control textbooks still spend a third of the time explaining Laplace transforms and Bode diagrams. While a background in theory is critical, these texts lack 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.” 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’re doomed by demographics

This one is actually true unless we start to re-evaluate 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 to that 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’s too late. Changes in education and training will only help so much, so we need to re-evaluate 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 that remained. During this “will work for food” phase, senior consultants were developing HMI screens, doing basic I/O configuration, and loop tuning. 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 off-shored to save on costs.

While this is a decent business model for now, and results can be cost effective, it’s breeding potentially disastrous consequences. As an industry, we’ve off-shored 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 being installers and SAT (site acceptance test) technicians to verify work done elsewhere. Furthermore, the project teams and tasks are so segregated that we are not transferring the intellectual knowledge of our senior resources effectively. 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 send off-shore. While it may be the most cost-effective solution now, are you robbing yourself of a key training and development opportunity for new grads? 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 hadn’t figured it out, the answer is yes.

This post was written by Chad Harper, CAP, PMP. Chad is the director of technology at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support, and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from PID controller tuning and HMI programming to serving as a main automation contractor. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.