Q&A: The Manufacturing Workers Of Tomorrow

The former president of the International Society of Automation discusses ways in which American manufacturing can remain competitive in a globalized marketplace.

Founded in 1945, the International Society of Automation is a leading, global, nonprofit organization that is setting the standard for automation by helping over 30,000 worldwide members and other professionals solve difficult technical problems, while enhancing their leadership and personal career capabilities. Based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, ISA develops standards; certifies industry professionals; provides education and training; publishes books and technical articles; and hosts conferences and exhibitions for automation professionals. ISA is the founding sponsor of the Automation Federation. Stephen R. Huffman was the 2007 President of ISA and also a Past Chairman of the Automation Federation. He is currently a member of the ISA Finance Committee.

Q: Our research tells us that the available jobs in the manufacturing sector right now (and going forward) require a highly technical skill set. Why is this occurring (in manufacturing, specifically)?

A: In order for the U.S., or any capitalistic industrialized economy, to compete in the global market against low cost labor, low environmental hurdles, and government subsidies, the manufacturing plant or process facility must be highly automated on the plant floor to maximize on-spec throughput, minimize waste, material costs, energy use, and equipment reliability. Additionally, the plant must operate with a goal of sustainability, security (both physical and cyber), as well as physical and system safety. Optimal supply chain management and integration of production control into enterprise operations management top off the needs to be competitive. Automation has always been recognized as a key to cut production costs by reducing labor costs, but few realize that a high degree of automation pervades all of the factors just listed as necessary to be competitive. Specific to your question, automation jobs ranging from technician to engineer require broader knowledge than technical jobs in the traditional vertical disciplines, primarily since they always involve more than one vertical. Practitioners tend to have received much of their automation knowledge from experience, mentoring, and supplemental training — rather than structured academics — since so few automation curricula exist beyond technician Associates Degrees, especially in the U.S.

Q: How might manufacturers recruit and retain these qualified people?

A: Manufacturers have several options to develop automation professionals, a mainstay of the technical workforce.  Technicians may be recruited by having a good relationship with a technical college with an automation degree program near the plant site. This may be a direct relationship, through a workforce development board, or a union. Technologists and engineers are a different matter. At this stage, most automation professionals are recruited as graduate chemical, electrical, or mechanical engineers, provided tutelage under existing automation engineers at the plant, plus provided ISA training courses to supplement their learning. Relations with universities having co-op or intern programs combined with process control or automation-related courses within the vertical help cut the development time from the minimum three years now considered average to make one of the aforementioned newly graduated engineers an automation engineer. Management, recruiters, and academicians would be well-served if they would consult and implement the Automation Competency Model (developed by Automation Federation in partnership with USDOL) as a means to identify, develop, recruit, and train the talent they really need. Once developed, the ACM can be used as a skill gap analysis tool to match talent with evolving need. Technically trained military veterans who have contacted Automation Federation or other transition agencies are also fertile ground for the next generation of automation professional. In terms of retention, management must certainly respect the contribution automation professionals make to their business and therefore the bottom line. In these days of technical skills shortages, a well-trained automation professional has the option to try his/her luck elsewhere.

Q: How might the unemployed move forward with a potential career in automation (or with a like skill set that would allow them to compete for these available positions)?

A: If an unemployed person has technical training, whether in the automation field or not, he/she may map their talent against the competencies or critical work functions of the aforementioned Automation Competency Model to determine if they have some transferable skills. If they do, they may be able to either rewrite their resume to be more effective or realize the skills they need to be more marketable. Automation Federation has a program now where this is done for military veterans with certain technical occupational specialties. In many cases, the skills gained in pursuit of the military specialty have no relationship to industrial automation and would not be recognized were it not for this program and the mapping these specialties against the Automation Competency Model.

Q: How is ISA working to advance the efforts to improve training in these highly technical areas?

A: ISA has developed two certifications and one professional licensure related to automation: CCST standing for Certified Control System Technician; CAP which is Certified Automation Professional; and CSE standing for Control System Engineer, a P.E. program administered by NCEES.  The domains of these certifications were used by Automation Federation to develop the technical tiers of the Automation Competency Model, now being used for curricula development by academia and talent assessment by industry. ISA has developed over 150 standards, not the least of which is for integration with manufacturing operations management, safety instrumented systems, and, most recently, control system cybersecurity. Of course, publications, training courses, and symposia have also been developed to extend and transfer this knowledge to practitioners. Automation Federation has initiatives called AutomationVET and AutomationSTEM, the former being the technical veterans program already mentioned, and the latter being a series of activities, partnerships, and advocacy dedicated to building the next generation of automation professionals. A strategic alliance with FIRST includes local mentoring of robotics teams around the country. Other K-16 workforce development activities are underway, and there is significant AF derived language in federal legislation for both veterans employment and also STEM. The hard work of volunteers and staff at ISA, its external focus organization (Automation Federation), and AF organizational members are all doing what they can to give voice to automation as a key element to competitive global manufacturing.

Interview by Manufacturing Business Technology

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