Developing automation talent

Implementing process-focused automation talent development can have a significant impact on the future of manufacturing in the U.S.

10/22/2012


The current shortage of skilled automation professionals in the U.S. is a problem the manufacturing industry can’t afford to ignore. Without bold action, this gap will likely continue to grow, and eventually reach the point of irreversibility. It is a vicious cycle: The lack of talent encourages outsourcing of work. And the loss of work encourages a lack of interest in the profession. 

But there’s good news. It’s not too late to reverse the course of this trend—perhaps enough to create a virtuous cycle that helps American manufacturing on the whole. 

“Talent is the key,” said Paul J. Galeski, CEO and founder of Maverick Technologies, a global manufacturing automation services firm. “Without the domestic talent to help U.S. manufacturers transform and compete more efficiently in a global economy, the jobs will go elsewhere. Or companies will fail and the jobs will disappear. Either way, talent is the linchpin in the potential American manufacturing renaissance.” 

Reversing this decline requires a thorough understanding of the underlying causes: loss of our current talent base and a lack of an established way to correct it. We’re losing the talent we’ve always had. As time passes, people retire. However, the trend toward implementing early-retirement packages as a cost-cutting measure is accelerating the natural attrition rate. Early retirees are the lucky ones. The talent that stagnated while jobs were cut during the economic downturn as well as the shift to sending work abroad further widened this skills gap.

Not only is there a widening skills gap, there is no established mechanism for developing new talent to fill that gap. The automation field is not well known and is often misunderstood by those with the aptitude for it. Historically, U.S. universities and community colleges have lacked effective automation curricula. Perhaps this apparent lack of knowledge—both academic and applied—can explain why these two- and four-year institutions fail to adequately promote the automation field.

Trade schools have addressed some of the training needs required to bridge the skills gap. While these efforts are gaining traction in some areas, those areas tend to be geared toward general, traditional industrial trade careers. Success in developing world-class automation professionals requires both knowledge and experience specific to automation, control, and instrumentation. 

Developing new talent and promoting the field of automation should not be left to mainstream academia. In fact, it can’t be if U.S manufacturing is to thrive again. However, by applying industry best practices to the process of learning, while avoiding the pitfalls, companies can begin to develop their own automation talent.

Process-focused talent development model

Creating and operating in-house employee development programs is not a new concept. Some automation vendors, OEMs, and technology providers run established programs to train employees on their proprietary technology. However, cracking the code on a new model for talent development can have far-reaching benefits across U.S. manufacturing. 

Figure 1: Instructor-led training is just part of the process-focused talent development model that MAVERICK University uses at its Atlantis learning center. Courtesy: MAVERICK TechnologiesThe importance of process must be emphasized. Learning is a process; critical thinking and problem solving are processes as well. Companies that aspire to develop their own automation talent must offer a curriculum that balances mastery of specific technologies with the ability to think beyond those technologies to find the best solution for the challenge at hand (see Figure 1). 

Application is the key. “We believe technology is important, but the real value lies in how it’s used,” said Chad Harper, director of technology at Maverick, an organization that has developed a process-focused program called Maverick University. “The ability to code a certain program is meaningless if you can’t make that program work. Manufacturers today care less about the ability to integrate one specific technology and more about the ability to produce great products.” 

Typically, OEM training curricula center on a specific technology platform. Instructors tend to promote platform advantages rather than focusing on solving real-world problems—regardless of technology. However, real-world applications involve multiple technology platforms from multiple vendors. Leaders specializing in the processes within an industry should drive the coursework. Training labs should provide insight into specific processes and applications, based on real-world projects and best practices. Balancing this process focus with courses delivered by champions who specialize in each platform will have a better chance for talent development success. 

Training flexibility

Lack of training program flexibility is another pitfall to avoid. Some companies offer traditional training programs only at certain times during the year—if enough people sign up. These limited opportunities seem to happen at the most inconvenient times. Employees who can’t attend are left without training. 

Also, the mixed-level nature of the classes encourages teaching to the lowest common denominator, which often proves to be a waste of time for engineers with higher-level skills. Many of these traditional programs are expensive and time-consuming; many cost thousands of dollars, require significant travel, and run for several days or even a full week, which means paid time off from work. 

“People just don’t absorb all the content when they attend these training engagements,” said Harper. “People still have questions when they leave, and when they get home they’re just overwhelmed by the work waiting for them. There’s no chance to digest what they’ve learned.” 

Training flexibility involves frequent offerings of a wide variety of courses, labs, meetings, and seminars. Delivery models expand this flexibility. Customizable e-learning materials can be made available in a variety of formats such as videos, webcasts, and podcasts, all of which are accessible 24/7 on desktops, mobile phones, and tablets. The one-to-one nature of these delivery models ensures that coursework and labs are targeted to the experience levels of the audience. 

Real-world application

Another pitfall is the failure to put learning into action. To ensure success and make this automation knowledge stick, coursework should be closely tied to plenty of experience on actual projects. “We firmly believe in the ‘use it or lose it’ philosophy when it comes to information this complex,” said Galeski. “Especially for the younger team members, applying what they learn really drives it home.” 

Figure 2: Hands-on experience enhances the knowledge trainees receive from mentors like Matt Sigmon, director of DCS Next at MAVERICK Technologies, shown guiding a student in the simulation lab at MAVERICK University. Courtesy: MAVERICK TechnologiesOne way to accomplish this is to leverage some of the low-level project work. Instead of outsourcing this kind of work to other companies or even overseas, keep it all in house. This way, new automation professionals can begin doing real work right away, learning about specific processes and industries on the job through hands-on experience and proximity to leaders who act as mentors (see Figure 2). 

“We choose to onshore these tasks and to be a leader in driving jobs back home,” Galeski said. “It’s a win-win situation—it’s good for our clients and great for our country.” 

Continuous improvement

Training is not an event, but is itself a process. Companies must continually work to develop talent over time, from one level to the next. While learning the technology and gaining hands-on experience are important, it’s also important to include leadership guidance in talent development programs. In addition to automation topics, training should include soft skills such as client interaction, conflict resolution, career advancement, and project management. 

Developing automation talent requires more than a significant investment; it also requires commitment. One way to leverage both commitment and investment is to maintain records. For example, maintaining a skills database that indexes trainees by industry, process, platform knowledge, and competency can help companies identify the right engineers for each job or project, track skills development over time, and identify areas for potential cross training. 

“If someone is skilled in one particular technology, it might make sense for him to go to the next level of that technology, or it might make more sense for him to shift educational focus to a similar technology, making himself more versatile,” said Harper. “With our skills database, we can make those decisions more easily because all the information on each employee’s level is at our fingertips.” 

Having a skills database can also enhance the performance review process and motivate employees to expand their overall knowledge base. Recently, HR departments have begun to encourage employees to work closely with their managers throughout the year, and touch base regularly about their performance on recent projects and their progress toward their development goals.

Access to outside resources

Not all training can—or should—be developed in house. It’s a good idea to frequently partner with outside organizations and associations to augment the curriculum offered through an in-house automation talent development program.

For example, the International Society of Automation (ISA) offers training programs that currently include a broad range of face-to-face, virtual, synchronous, and asynchronous training sessions. Face-to-face training opportunities range from contract training—where an ISA subject matter expert goes to a company and trains a large group of employees in its facility—to open-enrollment classes. In any format, ISA works to balance theory and hands-on lab work. 

ISA also offers two primary certifications: Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST). Third-party certifications such as these make an excellent case for supplementing in-house training with outside programs.

Automation talent development tips

To be effective, developing automation talent requires a new model, a new way of thinking about training that transcends conventional academic approaches. Understanding that learning is a process and not a destination is a good start. The following list provides tips for companies that are considering in-house automation talent development:

  • Focus your training curriculum equally on process and technology. The idea that technology is there to serve the solution, not vice versa, will be invaluable to developing real problem-solving professionals.
  • Invest thought and resources into creating flexible and convenient ways for employees to access the training. Libraries of digitally recorded lessons and online testing are great ways to leverage time and money while providing targeted experiences for different skill levels.
  • Consider keeping enough project work in house so your entry-level workers can partner with mentors and get real-world experience—ideally on a cross-section of platforms. The work itself may not be highly profitable, but it will pay you back in the experience your team gains.
  • Work with ISA or other such organizations to help define your curriculum, expand the breadth of your own training program, and provide trusted third-party certifications.
  • Promote your program actively to employees, candidates, and students. This investment should do as much to attract talent as to develop it.
  • Ask for (and listen to) feedback. Make sure workers at all levels have to access leadership so they can ask questions about their career path and offer suggestions for improvement to the training program—then take the suggestions to heart. 

Mainstreaming automation training

ISA is hard at work on an initiative that will standardize the types of programs discussed in this article for institutions across the country. With support of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, the ISA initiative began with the development of the Automation Competency Model (see Figure 3). The model’s levels represent all aspects of the automation industry, and it is based on ISA’s 67 years of documenting and archiving members’ expertise, which constitutes the automation body of knowledge. The model will help automation professionals identify where they are on the graphic, where they want to go, and which experiences and formal education opportunities will help them get there.

Figure 3: This illustration represents all known aspects of the automation industry. ISA has documented and archived the expertise of its members for 67 years—the automation body of knowledge. Courtesy: International Society of Automation

“The model is a critical building block for the future,” said Pat Gouhin, executive director and CEO at ISA. “It gives everyone in automation a common framework and language to reference, and that’s been missing since the beginning of time.” 

Gouhin said that the model was developed only three or four years ago, and that it’s a living document that will adapt to accommodate any changing or missing aspects of the automation field. ISA will use the model and encourage others to build on it as it continues to expand its training and certification programs, which are available to all automation professionals.

ISA training and certification

ISA’s extensive training and certification programs are good options for individuals and companies who want to expand their automation skills beyond what an in-house training program can provide. 

ISA’s training programs currently include a broad range of face-to-face, virtual, synchronous, and asynchronous training sessions. Face-to-face training opportunities range from contract training—where an ISA subject matter expert goes to a company and trains a large group of employees in its facility—to open-enrollment classes. In any format, ISA works to balance theory and hands-on lab work. 

ISA offers CAP and CCST. Both certifications require rigorous testing. If the certified professional can demonstrate continued professional growth and education, he can renew his certification after three years. CAP and CCST certifications make automation professionals more marketable and offer portability between industries/companies. They also level the playing field for professionals with unknown college degrees from unknown institutions. For example, a company might question the viability of a degree from an unfamiliar engineering school in another country, but if the candidate has also earned his CAP, the company can gain a clear understanding of his skills. 

Turning the automation competency model into curriculum

ISA references the Automation Competency Model as the basis for sample curricula for both four-year engineering programs and two-year community college technical programs. ISA has also put significant energy toward encouraging institutions around the world to adopt the curriculum. As they begin to do so, ISA will send evaluators to review the programs and work with the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology to help the programs gain accreditation.

“We play a very important role in this process,” Gouhin said. “And we hope to see more schools begin to launch automation engineering and automation engineering technology programs because, quite frankly, the U.S. is behind the rest of the world in this area. As one example from our neighbor up north, Canada has more two-year technical programs in automation and instrumentation and control than does the U.S.” 

Some large companies—ExxonMobil, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, and Shell, to name a few—have recognized the gap in the automation workforce, and have begun supporting community college programs based on their specific company cultures and ways of doing things. But ISA has urged these companies to not make these programs so specific that their graduates have only one employer option when they graduate.

“If the company experiences a negative business cycle, it won’t be able to hire those graduates or keep them employed, but they may not have skills or education that is readily transferable to another employer in another industry,” said Gouhin. “So we want to ensure that these programs are standardized and producing workers with broadly marketable skills, as we know the present and future demand for automation professionals is significant.”

Conclusion

In-house automation talent development can do more than produce well-trained engineers. This type of program can be used to attract talent as well. Instead of being just another stepping stone, companies that value—and nurture—their talent can become a place of long-term employment where people can grow and reach their full potential. “New college graduates tend to want to move around to different companies and decide which one is best,” said Ami Halloran, director of human resources at Maverick. “But we want people to realize that we’re it. We want a long-term mutually beneficial relationship.” 

It’s hard to deny the need to take action if we hope to reverse the decline of automation talent in the U.S. As an industry, we can continue to be frustrated by the gap in our workforces, or we can take control and develop that talent ourselves. However, no one needs to be alone in this struggle. Take advantage of resources such as those available from ISA and other organizations. Any program that helps develop this talent makes sense for us—and for the U.S.

Mike Gavin is the director of performance excellence at Maverick Technologies.



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