Reasons to start a career in industrial automation

The automation industry is facing a worker shortage, which stems from a variety of issues such as misperceptions and a lack of understanding of what a career in the industry looks like. Companies and individuals within the industry, however, are working on changing that with better name recognition, fun educational events, exciting technology applications, and opportunities.

By William Aja May 15, 2016

Outside of the new technologies and typical buzzwords the automation industry is enthralled with, there is a worrisome trend developing: there seems to be a shortage of experienced automation talent and interested college recruits. Increased efforts in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education fields along with exciting technology applications and opportunities may help.

There are always ebbs and flows such as the current influx of experienced oil and gas personnel on the job market due to falling oil prices. However, the available interested talent pool in the automation industry doesn’t seem to be meeting market demand. Although finding experienced engineers is definitely a must, recruiting new automation talent is just as important. 

Autowhat? Automation? Automotive?

One of the main questions we get during interviews with recent college graduates is "Why automation?" followed closely by "Why automotive?" The latter question, although humorous, speaks volumes to the need for college branding focused on industrial automation.

We always joke in the office about good-natured pranks we could play on recent hires like gathering around a whiteboard full of Laplace transforms straight out of a control theory textbook. In most cases, this would seem all too familiar for recent engineering graduates because that’s what most students learn about control. They learn the theory and equations and may even have a chance to fiddle around with proportional-integral-derivative (PID) loops on a data acquisition (DAQ) board.

Most, however, have never heard about programmable logic controllers (PLCs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, or distributed control systems (DCSs). Most think that Siemens is just a medical device company from Germany that also makes trains. Rockwell Automation doesn’t generally ring a bell, Allen-Bradley must be a law firm, and General Electric (GE) is a manufacturer of laundry machines and jet turbine engines. This situation can be said for almost every other automation vendor.

This problem with recognition, however, is getting better. Some companies sponsor First Robotics and other similar programs; some companies focus on introducing automation to engineering labs or donate equipment; some provide grants to universities and educational facilities.

It’s not just vendors stepping up. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), system integrators, and end users are also opening the door for more internships and co-ops focused entirely on automation. The work isn’t over yet, though. 

Increased focus on STEM education

In 2005, a group of research organizations issued a report titled, "Tapping America’s Potential," which called for a significant increase (doubling the current pool) in college graduates in the STEM education fields. This was a great catalyst for government programs and corporate coalitions that began the push for STEM outreach. This recent effort has been remarkably successful with more graduates coming out of college in the engineering field than ever.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report in 2014 that showed some interesting data related to the engineering workforce. Part of this was unemployment and salary numbers for engineers. Unemployment numbers for engineers consistently sit at less than half of whatever the national unemployment numbers are at the time, while also having salaries ranking near the top of all occupations. The study done in 2014, however, focused more on engineering as a whole rather than just focusing on automation. 

Reasons to pursue a career in automation

Research and Markets released a report titled, "Global Industrial and Factory Automation Market Analysis and Forecast," which laid out the growth for the automation industry through 2018. The report goes on to detail that by 2018 the industrial automation equipment and services market will grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 7% to reach a market size of $283.2 billion. Not only that, it had a higher estimated CAGR than any other U.S. industry except infrastructure. Vendors in both the hardware and service industries have responded by increasing factory production capabilities and expanding their services teams.

The enticing part of the automation industry lies not only in the numbers above, but in the well-rounded nature of the industry itself. In the section on college branding we focused mostly on the coding and software development aspects of automation, but the industry has a need for far more than coders. With the market increasing there will be a need for more sales engineers to service clients as well as marketing professionals to work alongside the sales teams. More management positions will open up, and HR teams and legal consults will also need expanding.

Companies won’t be able to survive on growth alone, so research and development (R&D) teams will be grown to provide market changing technologies for the sales and marketing teams to push. This will create more connected devices in line with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) movement, which requires more integration and data processing. The additional revenue will need to be managed so finance teams will expand as well as business units and operations. The need for industrial publications will rise as will the need for industrial journalists and editors. It quickly becomes apparent why the CAGR will be higher than any other industry and why the skill sets needed cover several engineering and mathematic disciplines. 

Why explore the automation industry?

The need for automation will always increase. There isn’t an ongoing trend of adding more physical labor to manufacturing processes, regardless of industry vertical, but there is a trend of adding more automation. As the industry gets older, technologies both obsolesce and advance. The advancements help build a case to migrate what’s obsolete and helps push life cycles forward. Technology advancements also increase efficiency and productivity and build a stronger case for increasing automation based on return on investment (ROI). The cycle is self-feeding, and the studies point to a very healthy growth supporting and expanding the engineering work force. And these are only the reasons based on numbers.

Due to the high amount of variances across manufacturing processes, every project brings new challenges, technologies, and lessons learned. There’s an inherent requirement for collaborating with cross-functional teams, and the potential for personal growth and development is extremely high.

Now is the time for all of us to help further industrial automation branding. Volunteer to speak at one of the local colleges. Take in people seeking mentorships or career guidance. Most of us have a huge passion for automation, and now is the time to share it.

William Aja is vice president of customer operations, Panacea Technologies. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

ONLINE extra

See additional stories about career advice for engineering linked below.