There seems to be a wealth of articles detailing the problems the automation industry has finding and developing new talent. There are statistics that say there is a shortage of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students in our universities, that there are not dedicated degrees that focus on automation, and that the demographics in our industry will drive us off a resource cliff. The conclusions in a lot of these articles recommend large, high-level initiatives to grow interest in STEM degrees at the high school and college level and somehow change the macro-course of U.S. education.
Forget that. We can do better, right now, without sweeping changes to the U.S. educational system or some other long-term solution. This is our problem as an industry to fix, and we cannot afford to wait around for major changes to the educational system. As an industry, we are part of the problem and must be part of the solution.
Myth #1: Lack of candidates
There is no question that there is a lack of qualified, experienced automation professionals in our industry. A quick, unscientific search on Monster.com, using specific distributed control system (DCS) keywords, shows that for many platforms, there is an extreme shortage of candidates.
So the focus has shifted to how to find and recruit new graduates. There is a prevailing theory that the lack of STEM graduates is overstated by major information technology companies, specifically to ensure that low-cost H1-B visas are approved at increasing levels. However, if we look at the data, in 2009 only 64 percent of engineering and technology graduates were working in a STEM field one year after graduation.
This tells us that many STEM graduates are not finding quality jobs and are going elsewhere for employment opportunities.
Another factor is that the automation industry recruits a very small fraction of the total engineering graduate population. There is absolutely no reason we can't steal market share from other industries and grab great talent as needed. In our recruiting efforts in just two state universities, we routinely get more than 80 resumes of soon-to-be-graduating engineers with BCompE, BSEE, and BSChE degrees. If you can't find great engineering talent out of the universities, then there is a problem with your recruiting efforts. Begin by examining the level of your effort and investment, and adding a personal touch.
Myth #2: Lack of automation degrees
OK, so this one is not exactly a myth, but let's not blow the effect out of proportion. There have been very few attempts to pull together a B.S. Control Systems Engineer degree or something similar. In one example, Oklahoma State University developed an M.S. Control Systems Engineer degree program through a collaboration of their electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineering departments. The curriculum included advanced process control (APC), instrumentation calibration, DCS, and programmable logic controller programming, and other pertinent skills. On average, there were seven to eight graduates each year. The program was formed in 2001, but was cut in 2008 due to lack of funding and research revenue potential. Programs like these cost about $4 million annually, so without strong industry support, they are not viable.
The bigger problem in most universities is the undergraduate control curriculum. Most control textbooks still spend a third of the space explaining Laplace transforms and Bode diagrams. While a background in the theory is critical, these texts do not have the applicability to real-world problems. I consider it a bad sign when my first comment to prospective students is, "Have you taken your Controls class yet? Don't worry, the job is nothing like that class." It is one thing for the curriculum to not prepare the students adequately, but it is catastrophic when the curriculum actually turns off students from the opportunities in the industry. This is a spot for ISA to step in and identify some strong, applicable textbooks to push to the universities. In my experience, the professors know they need to update their curriculum, but have no one to guide them. An adjustment in the current curriculum is definitely needed, and an organization like ISA can offer recommendations nationwide to make moves in the right direction.
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About the Author
Chad Harper currently serves as the senior director of technology for MAVERICK Technologies, managing the subject matter experts for various control platforms. Chad has a background in advanced process control, DCS migrations, and operations management.