Soapbox: Automation profession, reborn

The automation profession, despite its technological excitement and many career opportunities, suffers from a lack of awareness. Here's a cure. See model diagram.
By Dean Ford June 27, 2011

Dean Ford, CAP, business unit manager at Wunderlich-Malec. Courtesy: Wunderlich-MalecThe automation profession, despite all its technological excitement and many career opportunities, suffers from a lack of awareness, something I never would have considered possible when I began my career 20-plus years ago. If you look at the sheer number of job titles an automation professional can have, you see the problem almost immediately. Job titles include instrument tech, technologist, systems engineer, control engineer, instrumentation and engineering (I+E), maintenance, calibration, and the list goes on. Couple this with the broad meaning of many of these titles and we quickly get lost in ambiguity.

After the meteoric rise of professions like project management and information technology, one has to wonder what happened to us. Why didn’t the profession of automation experience the same prestige as others? Nothing can be manufactured or processed today without automation professionals. The other day I took a moment to look around my home office determined to find something that was made without automation. The only thing I could find was a hand-carved eagle I bought from a guy on a beach in Cancun. So, with such a mission critical profession such as ours, what gives?

In hindsight, could the leaders who came before us have made a more pronounced statement planting a definitive flag for the profession, and if so, could it have changed our position, respect, and credibility today? Was this on their radar screen? If not, why not? If so, why was more success not realized? As we look to the future we must answer these questions and commit to the responsibilities we have to enhance the overall understanding for and reputation of all those involved in any aspect of automation.

Engineering promotion

I will be the first to admit that technical people have a hard time selling themselves. Many just want to solve problems all day. Reaching out to the government or the public to promote what we do is often looked upon as a waste of time. Unfortunately, we are probably the only profession that has not had a government relations group (until recently) advocating for us, and we have gone too long without a voice that focuses outside of the profession.

Fortunately, over the course of the last decade, leadership has changed and so have attitudes. Under the leadership of the International Society of Automation (ISA), the Automation Federation (AF) was formed as an organization of like-minded organizations with stories to tell about automation and the professionals who perform these mission critical jobs. This was a call to unite where previously we stood divided. This was a challenge to elevate group thought to the highest strategic levels. The AF represents you as automation professionals, as the voice of automation. Using the principles of TEAM (together everyone achieves more), we represent 10 international organizations representing more than 225,000 members and give our profession a growing voice. Committees on government relations, communication, workforce development, and other committees serve to target our message outwardly and internationally.

The AF partnered with the U.S. Dept. of Labor to finally define the automation profession and feature the profession in their publications. Work started back in 2007 using commonly accepted tools for defining occupations. In 2009, version 1 of the completed Automation Competency Model (ACM) was released. The model represents the collective thoughts of our industry’s top leaders including end users, vendors, and implementers, globally. These are people who have actually done this work for the past several decades. The model encompasses the spectrum of automation professionals, addressing job skills needed for all automation careers. From installing instruments to maintaining systems, implementing and managing the people, and marketing the tools, the model outlines the necessary skill sets.

The model serves as an evolving reference point for a wide variety of groups to build upon. It serves as the foundation for job descriptions, skill evaluation programs, training plans, career paths, and curricula planning. The model also provides a way to help measure, evaluate, and grow within our profession, similar to the control loop: sense, decide, and actuate.

Help with training

Many large and small companies have already implemented the model into career planning and training for employees. Several community colleges and universities are in discussions with the AF to build curriculums around the model. Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC, has already developed an Automation Center of Excellence using the model.

The online version of the model is interactive. Hovering over individual blocks provides descriptive text. For example, hovering over “Automation Fundamentals” reveals “Systems, processes, applications, and standards supporting the design and application of automation.” Clicking on this block takes you to a detailed description outlining the critical work functions, technical content areas, and related model resources.

Automation Federation’s AutomationVets program gives military veterans the opportunity to pursue new careers in automation. The program maps the technical skills veterans acquired in the service into the model, and helps to identify the knowledge and experience gaps, combining them with mentoring from current automation professionals. The resulting program allows veterans to make the transition to a lucrative automation career. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs has offered its support to help make the AutomationVets program a success.

Even though the ACM spans the automation profession, it treats all careers within the automation profession uniquely by addressing the specific skills needed for a particular job. The model is designed for the user to pick individual requirements to fit a particular job while allowing flexibility to customize specific skill set requirements.

Model use example

Model of the career path for an automation professional. Courtesy: Wunderlich-Malec

For the purposes of this example, let’s develop a career path for an automation professional.

  1. Personal Effectiveness / Academic / Workplace Competencies covers core foundational competencies all effective and successful automation professional should demonstrate.
    1. Ability to work well with others
    2. Initiative to get things done
    3. Reliably commits to and completes tasks
    4. Lifelong learning to stay relevant and current
    5. Have high levels of skill in reading, writing, math, science
    6. Ability to listen and understand what others are saying while being able to get one’s point across
    7. Think through problems and develop solutions
    8. Adaptive to changes in scope, schedule, and technology
    9. Plans well and stays organized while working
  2. Industry Wide Technical Competency covers fundamentals that an automation professional is expected to have competency in, as it relates to the person’s industry.
    1. Design and development
    2. Production operations
    3. System maintenance
    4. Health and safety
    5. Quality assurance
  3. Industry Sector Technical Competency focuses on the automation topics specific to the industry sector.
    1. Fundamentals
    2. Sensors and control devices
    3. Control techniques
    4. Communication protocols and networks
    5. Process safety fundamentals
  4. Occupational Specific Competency tailors the competency required for the specifics of this career. Example documents include:
    1. Automation technician
    2. Control software engineer
    3. Control systems engineer
    4. Enterprise integration engineer
    5. Automation network engineer
    6. Automation sales-marketing professional

Questions about the model or suggestions for improvements should be sent to the AF. The model is going through a review and revision in June 2011.

And finally, if you are active in supporting your profession, thank you. If you are not, please get involved and contribute. We have a lot of work to do, and we will all benefit by getting it done. Join and become active in any one of several organizations promoting our profession. It is an exciting time to be an automation professional, and we have a wonderful story to tell the world. Let’s come together and tell it so the future can be even brighter than the strong heritage of the past.

– Dean Ford is a certified automation professional (CAP), business unit manager at Wunderlich-Malec, a system integrator, active in ISA and Automation Federation, and was in the Control Engineering Leaders Under 40, Class of 2010.

Edited by Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

See the Automation Competency model