Lack of New Automation Engineers?

Eoin Ó Riain, owner of the Read-out Instrumentation Signpost website, blog, Facebook page (and much, much more) recently shared a tweet with his flock of followers (of which I’m a proud member):

LinkedIn (A&C) discussion on lack of young engineers in Automation and Control Engineering http://linkd.in/mfc1Ku #PAuto

The link he shared points to an Automation & Control Engineering LinkedIn group discussion that opens with the questions:

Do you agree that there is a lack of young engineers in Automation and Control Engineering? What do you think should change to improve this situation? Do you think schemes such as the 40 under 40 awards will help gather a younger interest in the industry?

As I compose this post, there are 64 responses and 10 people who “like” the thread to share it with all of their LinkedIn followers. I wanted to cull a couple of common themes I picked up to see whether you agree, disagree, or have additional views to offer.

A very common impression is that young automation engineers are skilled in programming and IT skills the but less so in the process being automated. This reflects the education that they receive through the engineering and technical schools and the focus on specialization. Understanding the specifics of a process takes time immersed working with the plant operations staff. Beyond learning just the actual process flows and interactions, you get a sense for the areas where problems develop, alarm patterns, and other nuances. Also, you learn about the stability of the process at different production operating ranges.

I recall a conversation I had with Modeling and Control blog author, Greg McMillan. Greg has written countless books on process control, some freely available as online ebooks. He noted that mentoring and significant investments in training played a big role early in his career in his development as a process control engineer. As a young engineer, Greg was teamed with more experienced engineers on projects through their project lifecycles from up front design through installation and commissioning. This practice greatly diminished as companies downsized their engineering teams and relied more on outside parties to perform this engineering work. New engineers largely learn the technical aspects of the control systems from the outside parties but don’t get the same opportunities to learn about the process.

The breadth of knowledge required is another limiting factor. One commenter noted that the perfect engineer has:

…a blend of process knowledge, electrical knowledge, logic theory, software development skills, instrumentation and IT knowledge. Someone with all of those characteristics is extremely hard to find.

This is a tall hill of knowledge to climb. Many of the young engineers on the thread posted about the lack of opportunities to gain this experience with companies seeking only those who have already attained this experience.

With the growing demand for automation engineers, as evidenced by sites such as the DeltaV LinkedIn group Careers tab, getting more new engineers into the profession is important. The requirements for experience may need to give way to the need to develop that experience and provide an environment where that experience wants to stay and prosper.

I hope you’ll share any thoughts you’d like to add on this topic over at the Automation & Control Engineering discussion thread or in the comment area below.

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Posted Thursday, June 9th, 2011 under Education.