Next-generation control engineer advice
Ask an engineer about the future of engineering and you are sure to elicit an intense and lively response. Case in point: an ongoing discussion thread among the LinkedIn Automation & Control Engineering Group for the past year. A query about the supply of and demand for young engineers in automation and control engineering unleashed a flood of comments, generating hundreds of responses from around the globe. Most participants agreed a problem exists to one degree or another. Unquestionably, each had his or her own take on the topic. A taste of the discussion, ongoing, is presented here. Read more opinions online under this headline at www.controleng.com. [Note: this online version is slightly longer than what appear in print.]
Brett Israelsen, a young process control engineer at Corning Inc., Oneonta, N.Y., with degrees in mechanical and chemical engineering, noticed there are not many others his age, especially degreed engineers, in this industry. "Even though some companies are trending more to IT, many understand the true value of control engineering and knowledge of the process. This means that there is still a need for competent control engineers and will be in the future. I am glad to see this discussion, although I am not sure there is a clear solution. Engineering students need to be interested in control. That requires programs and teachers that show how critical control systems are to industry and pass on the passion."
Although most felt that the shortage of automation and controls engineers is real, a few disagreed, at least in part. Will Wagoner, PE, president, Wagoner Consulting, process control engineer, Richmond, Va., said no, the problem is that "we have too many automation engineers who lack the background to understand what they are automating. Young engineers should get operation experience, field experience before launching into this side of the business because they fancy writing programs."
There won’t be any good automation control design without the engineer touching the process he or she is trying to control, added Veronica Ramos, procurement coordinator at International Consulting Group, Miami. "It doesn’t matter how good you are with PLC programming. When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, my mentor never considered having me get involved with the chemical engineering team or with other plant operators before starting the design. Educate the young generation of control engineers on the practice of going to the field first. Getting to know the basics of the process must be primordial for every company."
Dean Ford, CAP, VP, automation and information solutions at Glenmount Global Solutions, Baltimore, said the real issue is that the profession does not exist as a profession. "None of us on this thread have an automation degree because it doesn’t exist," he said, "and I would also bet that it is not what you entered the job market expecting to become. Another damaging component is that each industry sees itself as different from other industries. Although there are nuances to each, at our level it really does not matter what is in the pipes, it is the control that is important."
From a recruiter’s point of view, a shortage of qualified controls and automation engineers—entry level or seasoned—certainly exists, offered Michael Grillo, an engineering recruiter at City and National Employment, Waterloo, Iowa. "Companies often use integrators to fulfill engineering needs, and that generally requires a great deal of travel by the controls and automation engineer. And travel is perhaps a reason many do not join the forces. Recruiting a controls and automation engineer for a company is often not too difficult until I tell them they may have to work at different facilities across the country, or around the globe, for that matter," Grillo said.
Controls engineering is evolving with the times, said Dyana Rollason, project engineer at Emerson Network Power, Columbus, Ohio. "It’s not all relay logic to control processes anymore. It’s not even all PLC programming. There are communication platforms to learn, operator interfaces to design, address mapping between the interface and the PLC programs," she noted. "I didn’t learn 80% of what I do in college. Controls engineering is not a defined field; there isn’t a job description. That’s a big reason why there are few young engineers in this area. The current ones evolved into their current state, as I am doing now," Rollason said.
According to Scot Garner, PE, electrical and controls department manager at Industrial TurnAround Corp., Richmond, Va., the perfect controls engineer should possess a blend of process knowledge, electrical knowledge, logic theory, software development skills, and instrumentation and IT knowledge. "Someone with all of those characteristics is extremely hard to find," said Garner. "There is more to controls engineering than just analog process control. There is hardware design, sequential discrete logic, custom software development, motor control, safety circuits, and regulatory requirements. We don’t execute projects in a vacuum. Controls engineers, mechanical engineers, process engineers, IT professionals, and project engineers must work as a team to get projects done."
There is a lack of recruitment for our industry, Garner went on. "Automation companies tend to be small and don’t do a whole lot of recruiting from colleges. Fortune 500 manufacturing companies are downsizing and shipping jobs elsewhere, which is also contributing to the lack of young people in automation and control engineering."
Doug Brock, manager, Chattanooga territory at Kendall Electric, Chattanooga, Tenn., admits that at the time he graduated from college in electrical engineering, he had never touched a PLC from an automation vendor. "I was well versed in theory but had no industrial automation exposure. Fortunately, I found opportunities later and gained that experience. I think it’s harder for new graduates to find those opportunities now. Chattanooga has some neat partnerships between industry and area schools, but most of those are two-year programs. Until there is a concerted effort to team four-year programs with industrial leaders, factory automation manufacturers, associations, and end-users, it will be difficult to provide the quick assimilation that is required to pull young people into the industrial automation and process control fields," Brock said.
In the view of Chris Stergiou, mechanical and manufacturing systems, Boston, to ask if there is a lack of young engineers in automation and control engineering is a bit of an oxymoron. "There is no such field as ‘automation and control engineering,’" he said. "Automation and control engineering is simply the execution or integration of any to all of the conventional engineering fields. It represents a synthesis of process knowledge (so that we can know what we are trying to control), hardware knowledge (so that we can know what tools are available to us to monitor those control points), and a sense of algorithm development (so that we can devise an architecture that is simple, robust, and repeatable with well-understood and controlled internal reaction times). All of this takes time and experience to cultivate. Just as graduates from the most prestigious culinary schools start out chopping lettuce and learning from established chefs before they can truly become one, systems engineers are grown over time. They can’t come out of school that way," Stergiou said.
"The issue is obviously complex, added James Federlein, PE, an experienced industrial automation consultant and instructor in the Pittsburgh area and a member of ISA’s Standards and Practices Board."There are fewer young engineers today," he said. "Given that baby boomers are retiring in larger numbers than young engineers are graduating, there will be a lack of young engineers in all disciplines."
Automation is not considered a unique discipline by most colleges and some companies, he continued. "Young engineers don’t graduate with a degree in automation. Even if they had some control courses in college, they may not be aware of automation as a field. The level of college education in automation is in no way commensurate with the importance of automation’s and industry’s need."
Further, automation is defined in various ways, he added, "In this discussion alone, some say it is the same as instrumentation and control; others feel it is software and application programming; still others regard it as a focus for process improvements. When someone advertises an automation job or says they work in automation, what does that mean? Automation is all of these and more. The field of automation probably struggles to attract young engineers because they are not sure what it is all about. We need to take action to attract more young people to engineering and automation if we want to remain competitive in a global world."
Perhaps Rick Rice, applications engineer at Crest Foods, Ashton, Ill., summed up the topic best…and offered the best advice. He said, "I recently started mentoring a young engineer completely unrelated to my job responsibilities…and not even living in my state, let alone neighborhood. Why did I do this? Well, I remember what it was like for me when I first set out on the path of life that has lead me to where I am now. I was fresh out of college with plenty of eager enthusiasm for my chosen career. I was fortunate to have some very patient people place a firm but guiding hand behind me to steer me along the way. I made mistakes (who doesn’t), but the important thing is they made me feel like I had made the right decision in following this path. One told me there are no stupid questions, and that remark has stuck with me my whole life.
"To the young engineers out there: I hope you are fortunate enough to find yourself with a situation where you are allowed to learn your craft by doing and, yes, sometimes by making mistakes…but always learning.
"To the seasoned professionals out there: take what you read in this forum (and others like it) and make a difference in the life of a young engineer. Remember where you came from and how it felt to you when you first set foot on the path to your future."