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Developing a Career Pathway for a Mission-Critical Workforce

This article was authored by Mitchell Sepaugh, who has worked as an OEM control systems integrator and a program leader at Cleveland Community College.


Technology advances have allowed us to expand our horizons and create complex systems to automate the supporting fabric and functions of our daily lives. These are systems that we have come to depend on and, in some cases, take for granted. We reach for the light switch without thinking that the light might not come on. We pick up the phone and rarely ever wait for the dial tone, because it is "always" there. For centuries, we built our businesses and industries around dependable and reliable people. However, as technology becomes more dependable and reliable, we have started to shift the mundane, tedious, and repetitive tasks from people to technology. After all, technology can do things faster, more accurately and, in many cases, much less expensively than people can. Nevertheless, with all this dependable and reliable technology around us, what happens when it suddenly, picosecond suddenly, becomes unusable, broken, or-even worse-hacked? Now that core piece of technology your company relied on is offline or renegade. With the change in operating status, you start losing money or lives within the next picosecond. What do you do?


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Many industries have adapted to the rise in complexity of these systems, which are comprised of different technologies, with the advent of the systems integrator and a systems engineering approach. These integrators and engineers do a wonderful job taking the requirements of a given project and pulling the right mix of technologies from their vast resources to solve the puzzle of the project in the most optimal manner. This interdisciplinary approach yields a system that, when properly integrated, creates a synergy between elements that are derived from vastly different types of technology. Depending upon the solution, the system could have electrical, mechanical, and chemical components networked via a variety of transducers with one or more electronic central processing units for both automatic control and interface to human operators. To produce such a system, the systems integrator will employ specialists in each of the required engineering or technology fields (e.g., electrical, mechanical, and chemical as needed). However, once the system is designed and installed, the customer is left to the mercy of the nines of uptime unless it has a seasoned team of technicians with a broad foundation of training and experience to maintain these highly technical systems.

To provide a counterpart to the systems integrator who engineers the system, an operational technology team does the day-to-day upkeep and is essentially the technology's first responders when something goes awry. If that technology happens to be a vital part of your business model, then that operational technology is mission critical, and these technicians are on the front lines. These technology personnel must be highly skilled and well trained to perform under pressure.

Mission Critical Operations (MCO) is the name of a new project being funded in round three of a U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant. The MCO project will develop a career pathway to address demand for a mission-critical workforce able to anticipate, prevent, mitigate, and respond to mission-critical breaches. Cleveland Community College (CCC), located in Shelby, N.C., is leading an interstate consortium of schools to develop the MCO program that will produce a variety of offerings. Students ranging from those who are completely new to the field to those working in the field who need complementary or updated skills will benefit from a set of stackable and latticed articulated competencies. In addition to the academic offerings, new industry certifications will be developed. Consortium members are Nash Community College (N.C.), Wake Technical Community College (N.C.), Moultrie Technical College (Ga.), and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Industry partners in the project include ISA, the Automation Federation, 7x24 Exchange Carolinas, and numerous local employers.

The MCO program will combine course work from a number of traditional operational technology and information technology programs. The project will be developed and deployed over the next three years and will prepare students to handle a variety of situations in infrastructure maintenance; industrial cybersecurity; supervisory control and data acquisition systems; data analytics; automation; heating, ventilating, and air conditioning; industrial management; emergency preparedness; disaster recovery; cloud computing; telepresence; and more. Programs will be available on campus and via distance education from member institutions.

About the Author
Mitchell SepaughMitchell Sepaugh has worked as an OEM control systems integrator and an educator at Cleveland Community College, where he served as the project manager for mission-critical operations and industrial systems, and as department chair for industrial services.


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A version of this article also was published at InTech magazine.

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