Job Hunting in a Tough Economy

Are You Ready to Re-Enter the Automation Job Pool and Compete with Other Professionals Just as Qualified as You? Here Are Things You Can Do to Stand Out from the Crowd

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This article was printed in the CONTROL's March 2009 edition.

By Katherine Bonfante

Nobody’s escaping today’s tough economy. Veterans and newbies alike are nervous about their jobs. Every day, multi-billion-dollar companies and small privately owned businesses make personnel cuts. Whether you’re working for a historic business icon or new kid on the block, it doesn’t matter. Now everyone’s job is at stake.

The U.S. Dept. of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that manufacturing had 871 mass layoff events, resulting in 105,402 initial layoff claims in December 2008 (www.bls.gov/news.release/mmls.t01.htm).
Now more than ever, veteran automation professionals and youngsters just starting out are competing for the same jobs.

In July 2008, ISA reported layoffs of more than 35,000 workers in the auto industry, including related auto parts manufacturers. Business News reported that last September, Rockwell Automation froze hiring, shortened work weeks at various facilities, stopped salary raises for the year, and laid off 600 people. (Recently, word on the street is that Rockwell’s hiring freeze has thawed somewhat.)

In December 2008, Dow Chemical Corp. announced it would shut down 20 plants in the U.S. and Europe and lay off 5,000 employees. Meanwhile, the recent shutdown of the 90-year-old General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., along with several nearby suppliers, created a loss of 4,000 jobs.

It wasn’t always this way.

In the not-so-distant past, the automation industry had low employment turnover rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics  reported that employee separations for manufacturing, meaning employee turnover resulting from all voluntary and involuntary employment terminations, has not fluctuated greatly over the years. From 2001 through 2006, the annual employee separation percentage changed by less than 3.5 percentage points from year to year.
But that was then. This is now.

As an automation professional, what would you do if you lost your job tomorrow? Are you prepared to go back into the job pool? Are you ready to compete with other equally qualified professionals?

Qualifications and Job Skills

Are your qualifications and job skills the desirable ones? In today’s economy, cross training is essential, but knowing how to do multiple jobs isn’t even enough. Having the certifications to prove that you qualify to perform different jobs is key.

For the automation professional, the choice between obtaining a PE or CAP certification is complex. Both certifications have their virtues, and some believe that having both is an advantage. PE licenses are state-specific, and were established to ensure the safety of public works designs. PE certifications require automation professionals to obtain a formal education, such as a university engineering degree in civil, electrical or mechanical engineering. The ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP) designation is a relatively new certification program that helps define control systems professionals. The CAP is open to individuals with a four-year technical degree. While a PE certification concentrates on process controls, CAP targets a wider range of automation topics. Both licenses are intended for people working at the highest levels in their field.
[Read more about these two programs in “PE Registration Versus ISA CAP Certification” by Paul Darnbrough, Control, October 2008.]

Re-Education Programs

The process industries rarely undergo technological changes. This lack of industry technology change has caused industry professionals to disregard the importance of cross-training and having multiple industry certifications. The necessary skills an automation professional needs to succeed in his or her job may not be as current as they could and should be as a result of this disregard. However, the current economic crisis and its massive industry layoffs have motivated individuals to pursue additional training, additional certifications and/or a higher education degree. Universities across the country are currently seeing an increase in enrollment numbers.

Queensborough Community College in Bayside, Calif., has increased its student enrollment by more than 12% this spring semester. Bakersfield College in Bakersfield, Calif., enrolled 18,000 students this spring as well. This is the first time in more than 30 years for Bakersfield College that enrollment numbers have reached that number.

“Projections of Education Statistics to 2011” from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, estimated the total college enrollment number to grow from 14.8 million students in 1999 to 17.7 million by 2011, an increase of 20%

A survey done in early 1990s by the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C., association of 1,700 colleges and universities, shows that the quick growth in enrollment for two-year community institutions was due to the return of people to the workforce who wanted to strengthen their job skills.

ISA prepares individuals to become better automation professionals through its various certification and training programs (see sidebar "ISA Certification Programs" below).

Companies such as Rockwell Automation also offer their own training courses, which are open to the public. Rockwell’s courses cover subjects such as communications, drives, condition monitoring and visualization among others (www.rockwellautomation.com/services/training/techareas.html). Other organizations, such as the Fieldbus Foundation and the OPC Foundation also offer training in specific automation technologies.

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