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.
  • http://twitter.com/doug_brock Doug Brock

    When I graduated from UT (the Knoxville one) I had never touched a PLC from an automation vendor. I was well versed in theory but had no industrial automation exposure. Fortunately I found opportunities later and gained that experience. I think it’s harder for new graduates to find those opportunities now.
    Chattanooga has some neat partnerships between industry and schools like the VW and Chattanooga State partnership (http://www.chattanoogastate.edu/about/abvw.html), but most of those partnerships are two-year programs. Until there is a concerted effort to team four-year programs with industrial leaders, factory automation manufacturers, associations, and end-users, it will be difficult to provide the quick assimilation that is required to pull young people into the industrial automation and process control fields.

    • http://www.jimcahill.net Jim Cahill

      Doug, Thanks for your perspectives. I agree that a concerted effort across process manufacturers, automation suppliers, and industry associations such as ISA could produce improved results.

  • Krishna

    I really Wonder what should be the real Qualification of a Process Control Engineer?

    Many a times I feel that A Process Control Engineer should be a Chemical (Process) Engineer who has a good Experience in Plant operations and a little Process Engineering Experience. With such a background, he should be trained in a DCS/ESD platform (Invensys/Honeywell/Emerson/Yokogawa/ABB/etc) atleast for a month or two. Then if such an engineer is used as a PRocess Control Engineer, Iam sure he can bring wonders on job as PRocess Control Engineer.

    • http://www.jimcahill.net Jim Cahill

      Hi Krishna, Thanks for your thoughts! You may be right that it’s easier to learn the operations of the DCS starting with a process knowledge background than to have electrical/computer skills and have to learn about fluid flow dynamics, thermodynamics, combustion, etc.

    • http://www.erinandaaron.com Aaron

      I think that’s the trouble – the right training depends on the role you take.  There’s a big difference in the skills needed to become a process control engineer vs a control systems engineer vs an instrumentation or electrical engineer.  In general, though, I think you’re right in that the best results (and most valuable results) probably come from understanding the process.  As control systems get easier to use (or if you have a good systems expert on hand), hopefully the technology gets out of the way and it gets easier to implement and refine control strategies.

  • enviRonmEntALIST

    Obviously reading this blog later than everyone else, but I think an engineer will always be lacking in some department. What matters for the controls engineer is that the process guys are around to explain the process if need be. Also the electrical guys need to be around to explain the electrical questions, too. What matters is that the controls engineer has built an appreciation for the process and the electrical and has a passion to learn both sides. Time is the limiting factor but passion can work wonders.

    For example, there are many process engineers who focus on pumps/pump stations. They are very intelligent. But they do not know the process. They are specialized. Even process engineers who have 25 years of experience may not have come across all parts of the process and will be lacking. What matters is that the controls engineer can learn quickly.

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/JimCahill Jim Cahill

      Tanks for your thoughtful comments, enviRonmEntALIST. I agree that the ability to quickly master new areas of knowledge and how to apply it will grow even more important over time!

  • Gary Mitchell

    Jim – maybe “America needs apprentices” !http://www.emersonprocessxperts.com/2014/02/america-needs-apprentices/

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/JimCahill Jim Cahill

      Gary, nice link back to your blog post with personal experiences on the subject!