C’mon, vendors, let’s step up!

ISA has been trying for years to get employers in the process industries to support process automation careers, but it could do a lot more if it had the volunteer involvement it used to have from vendors.

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By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

I'VE RECEIVED MANY letters saying that the best advice to give to young people is not to be an engineer, and not to work in controls, because the profession is dying. Well, our profession isn’t dying. It is changing rapidly, just like manufacturing is changing. It could die, though, if something isn’t done. The average age of process automation professionals is over 40, and few young people are interested in our profession as a career. It isn’t just controls and process automation. Few young people are interested in manufacturing in general.

For years, ISA has been trying to get the employers in the process industries to support process automation careers again. Frankly, based on results, the attempt has been a failure. As ISA is getting smaller and smaller, its sections less active, and its leadership increasing in age, it is difficult to see how ISA by itself can be expected to overturn this trend. Vendors have been forced to step in with user groups and private trade shows with technical sessions, and these are well attended and successful. But increasingly few of us get sent to training courses in process automation subjects, or to trade shows, and even fewer of us get compensated for our activities with ISA or other professional organizations. Of course this has an impact on how we feel about our profession.

There’s something wrong with this picture. In less than 15 years, the majority of us will be retiring, with very few younger automation professionals stepping into our roles. Couple this with the undeniable fact that automation and integration with the business systems of the enterprise is now, and will be for many years, the “growth opportunity” for manufacturing productivity, and I see a looming problem. Lots of jobs, and nobody to fill them.

As Rich Merritt noted in our April cover story (“Expertise Lost,” p36), this is already happening. The only viable solution so far that has come forward is for vendors to take over as integrators and contractors while institutional knowledge drains out of the process industries. But Rich noted something else: the automation vendors are having a hard time finding all the technically competent people they need right now, let alone those they’ll need in the future as this trend continues worldwide.

So what do we do about it?
It is clear that the process industries have no vested interest in funding development for process automation professionals, as long as they have vendors to step up and provide stopgap and even permanent operations management services.

It looks to me like the only people with a vested interest in fixing this chronic and perhaps dangerous problem are the process automation vendors.

When I lived in Washington state, my daughter went to a public elementary school that was supported heavily by Boeing. Boeing engineers helped out with the school science fair. Third graders did the egg drop test, out of a helicopter that Boeing provided. Boeing provided judges for the fair. You think some of those kids might grow up wanting to build airplanes?

Exactly what are the process automation vendors doing to advance the profession among young people? Aside from hiring co-op students occasionally, and hiring engineers everywhere in the world, it doesn’t look like a whole lot.

I said ISA can’t do it alone. But ISA could do a lot more if they had the volunteer involvement they used to have from vendors, and if enough vendors gave ISA substantial donations to the ISA Educational Foundation, and if enough vendors start acting locally to support young people in manufacturing and process automation, and if enough …

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