Minding the talent gap in machine vision
It’s that time of year when college commencement has wrapped up and young electrical and mechanical engineers are on the hunt for their first jobs. Unfortunately, careers in automation, and specifically machine vision and industrial robotics, aren’t at the top of recent graduates’ wish lists. And when they are, managers find that many candidates are lacking essential skills required of the job.
Leaders in the field of automation point to several fundamental problems responsible for the shortage in early-career engineers. For starters, a cloud of misconception envelops the industry. "When you talk to a student at engineering school about things like manufacturing or automation, they think of machines doing rote tasks in a factory," says Don Bromley, manager of the applications engineering department at Güdel Inc. (Ann Arbor, Michigan). "To a lot of engineers, that may not seem all that exciting."
A likely culprit for this perception: Engineering students aren’t exposed to the subject in any great depth. "There are no core classes that students must take that deal with fundamental automation and robotics concepts," Bromley says. "This industry uses very specialized tools and equipment that other fields just aren’t interacting with. It takes a while for someone right out of school to get up to speed."
Nick Tebeau, director of sales at LEONI Engineering Products & Services, Inc. (Lake Orion, Michigan), has been responsible for hiring machine vision and robotics staff for the last decade. Most of the candidates are recently graduated electrical engineers who, in their role with LEONI, are more likely to be working with existing electronics or control systems rather than developing new products. But current engineering education reflects the opposite, according to Tebeau.
"Students spend half their time in college learning how to design a circuit but maybe only take one class on troubleshooting existing systems," Tebeau says. "We have to teach electrical troubleshooting to all of our engineers."
The frustrations are felt on the academic side as well. Engineering professors report not having enough time in their curriculum to prepare students for the widening base of knowledge expected by employers. Furthermore, the "publish or perish" atmosphere of academia – where faculty face continuous pressure to publish their research in order to attain tenure and federal funding – leaves less room for educators who have relevant industry experience.
Beyond technical prowess
The challenges with recruiting entry-level engineers extend to the so-called soft skills, such as multitasking, time management, and verbal and written communications. Dr. Rex Lee, president and CEO of Pyramid Imaging (Tampa, Florida), identifies as his biggest hiring challenge finding recently graduated candidates "who have a sense of ownership to the job they are taking on and see themselves as professionals in the work they are doing."
That requires self-motivation and strong interpersonal skills – two characteristics often missing in today’s academic environment, according to Dr. Lee. "People who have gone to college certainly have demonstrated a capability of being motivated, but a lot of folks have become reliant on somebody laying out a detailed schedule or series of tasks for them," Dr. Lee says.
Self-reliance, but not at the expense of teamwork, helps drive a company toward success. Dr. Lee looks for candidates who can not only quickly learn how his organization works but also assist in improving the business processes within. "I generally find that a number of people just haven’t had enough experience to take in rapidly that kind of freedom," he says.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for early-career engineers, who, according to Dr. Lee, have a key advantage over their veteran counterparts. "Younger people have a higher energy level and haven’t been indoctrinated, so to speak," he says. "When you have a high-tech company where the landscape is changing all the time, you need employees who are hooked on that tech and willing to ingest as much material as they can. Many older folks we have hired just didn’t have the same thirst for learning.
"More on-the-job experience doesn’t automatically translate to being a more qualified candidate. "We are having trouble across the board finding people with vision experience, but when we do, it is experience within a limited world of one software package," says Tom Brennan, president of Artemis Vision (Denver, Colorado). "We’ve largely tried to hire for overall engineering skills in a broad area and then train the employee. Once people get familiar with the field, they really like it."
Attracting talent to the machine vision industry is only one piece of the recruitment puzzle. Companies must know how to retain their new hires. "Because automation is such a hot market, there are many companies that would like to lure away good talent," Güdel’s Bromley says. "So we have to make sure that we’re keeping the work interesting and providing training and advancement opportunities. You have to create an engaging environment where employees feel like they’re growing and doing meaningful work."
Employees appreciate a platform that not only allows them to share their ideas for improvement but also express anger or dissatisfaction without fear of reprisal, Dr. Lee adds. Giving employees access to continuing education also keeps them content in their careers.
As demand for automation continues to grow, machine vision and robotics companies must find ways to attract and retain quality engineering talent. "We need to put industry people in front of engineering students who are deciding what they want to do and show that automation is an interesting, demanding, and challenging high-tech field," says Güdel’s Bromley.
One way to accomplish this is to promote or even sponsor student competitions. Artemis Vision’s Brennan cites competitions such as RoboSub, in which students design and build autonomous robotic submarines that must complete difficult visual- and acoustic-based tasks. "Engineers who have exposure to those type of projects might not know how to program a commercial 6-axis robot, but they have been exposed to that way of thinking," Brennan says.
Brennan also believes that the industry needs to partner with more state colleges and universities to get machine vision on the curriculum. "A computer science department covers networks, databases, security, and many other topics, but machine vision doesn’t seem to make that list very often," he says.
Then there’s this unique approach from LEONI. A walk past the company’s booth at Automate 2017 in April revealed something unexpected: a "help wanted" sign. With a built-in talent pool in the thousands walking the show floor and attending conference sessions, the machine vision and robotics integrator saw a hiring opportunity too good to pass up.
As long as vision and imaging companies apply the same ingenuity in the systems they develop to the hiring process, the industry better positions itself for success with the next generation of engineers.
This article originally appeared on AIA’s website. The AIA is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Hannah Cox, content specialist, CFE Media, firstname.lastname@example.org.