Future Imperfect

Will automation engineers go the way of buggy-whip makers? Will they become the English majors of technology? Or are they way too important to be dispensed with? What’s the future of the profession?

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By Nancy Bartels, managing editor

Like the man says, it’s the best of times and the worst of times—for automation professionals anyway—and it’s going to be that way for decades to come. That’s the conclusion of a survey of 163 Control readers and conversations with the some members of our editorial board.

We asked nine questions, all focused on the general issue of what process automation will be like in 10 to 20 years. Among our readers, while we found a fair amount of FUD—fear, uncertainly and doubt—there’s also a good bit of optimism about the future.

Outsourcing is still the Monster under the Bed in manufacturing, and therefore, in process automation. A full 30% of those surveyed say they think the outsourcing of manufacturing operations will make automation jobs nearly non-existent in the U.S. within 20 years. Another 21% say they aren’t sure. With 67% of companies outsourcing professional and engineering services last year, according to Control’s June Salary Survey (See “Payback Time,” p. 43, June issue)  the concern is hardly an idle one.

Outsourcing—How Big a Threat?

Those surveyed are divided on the question. Just under half (49.1%) don’t think outsourcing will kill off the process automation profession in the U.S. , but a full 30% think it will, and another 21% aren’t certain.
But these numbers still leave 49% of those surveyed seeing a more positive picture. In reality, outsourcing is not going away, but the picture is a nuanced one.

“Manufacturing is not all going to move to China,” says Dan Miklovic, research vice president at Gartner Inc. and Control editorial board member. “We’re going to see a shift of a lot to other parts of the world, but at the same time, we’ve discovered that the world is a dynamic place. As soon as the energy costs went through the roof, [we’ve seen] that economically it now makes more sense to do some manufacturing here.”

Don Allen, vice president of corporate communications for Incuity Software thinks we can handle the outsourcing threat. He said in his response to the survey, “While I see individual roles changing, I think the U.S. will become more competitive again in the global economy. The low cost labor of other countries won’t be as significant a factor. It’ll get back to being smart about manufacturing and making sure the entire enterprise is well run.”

As Miklovic sees it, the problem is not one of cost, but of supply. “A lot of the design and engineering will move to other places because we just don’t have enough people here. There’s an engineering shortage here, and people will go other places to get the automation skills they need,” he says.

Young people here in the U.S. just don’t enter the field like they did in the past. Part of the reason, beyond the general sense that manufacturing doesn’t offer the opportunities it once did, is that many young engineers don’t understand the value of automation engineering. “They all want to write software,” says editorial board member Larry Wells of Georgia-Pacific.

He adds that over the years, manufacturers have often been bad at selling automation engineering jobs to the generation coming up. “The single best way to do this is through co-op arrangements with schools,” he says. “How do you get them into engineering school in the first place? The single best way is to let them spend part of the time in school and part of the time in a real job. Companies and schools used to do a lot of that, and now they don’t.”

Miklovic sees the solution on a larger scale. “It’s not too late, but the problem of renewing our country’s engineering skills base has to be addressed at the highest level. There’s nothing you or I or Jeff Immelt [CEO of General Electric] can do. This is something that has to be done between the government and industry. Back in the 60s, the space race invigorated manufacturing. If something like that reinvigorated engineering—maybe biofuels or renewable energy—that would help.”

Another editorial board member, Mark Wells, validation manager for generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Novopharm of Canada, disagrees. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to spend your way into an economy and establish a dominant position. There are just going to be situations where overseas engineers will be practical. I’m less concerned with not having available resources. Market forces will adjust to accommodate that.”

Why Automation Engineering?

The outsourcing issue aside, the question remains, is automation engineering even worth pursuing as a career? Those we surveyed are divided on the subject. A full third think the gig was better 20 years ago, and another 14% are unsure, but that leaves 52% who don’t think the good old days were better.

Pushing the question to the future leaves the answers even more unclear. Forty percent think process automation will be a better career choice in 20 years than now, but, again, almost a full third (30%) don’t think it will be, and almost as many (29%) don’t know. 
Novopharm’s Wells comes down firmly on the side of the doubters. “There will be fewer automation engineers who work for end users than there are today. It’s not a growth career. Fewer and fewer people are needed to produce things, and that trend will continue.”

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