Process Automation Jobs: Help Wanted

The Economic Doldrums May or May Not Be Over, but the Job Market in Process Control Is Booming. Is It Time for You to Jump Ship?

By Dan Hebert

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July 2012 CoverOverall, unemployment in the United States and worldwide is at record high levels. A study by the Associated Press says 53.6% of recent college graduates are either unemployed or under-employed. We see news stories about massive layoffs every day, and near-record unemployment figures dominate the news.

But in the process automation sector, the job market is red hot as companies large and small are rediscovering that better automation and process control can save money, increase production and preserve aging plants. So companies worldwide are automating, and they need experienced process automation professionals.

This strong surge in demand is coinciding with a very limited supply because young people have assiduously avoided the manufacturing sector for the last few decades in many developed countries. Instead, many have sought their riches in the financial and real estate sectors, two areas in particular that are suffering from a current huge oversupply of job seekers.

"It is beyond difficult to secure quality candidates," says Bob Zeigenfuse, president of systems integrator Avanceon in Exton, Pa. "There is an abundant supply of 'cowboys' (those who prefer to do things their way in spite of efforts to get them to follow process and standards), those with 'baggage' (some non-team personality trait), and some with outdated skills (those that had a cushy job and let their skills get stale). If you're looking for up-to-date skills, decent personality, no baggage and someone that will excel in a collaborative team environment—you'd be better off trying to find a needle in a haystack."

A big part of the problem for smaller companies like Avanceon is that brand-name firms are scooping up what little talent is available. Siemens, for example, announced in 2011 that it wanted to hire 3000 people in the U.S., many of them in process automation. To fight back, integrators and other smaller firms are discovering the power of branding as detailed in the sidebar, "The Automation PR Problem." 

"The demand for process automation professionals is high, and the talent pool is small and shrinking," says Alan Carty, president of recruiting firm automationtechies in Minneapolis. "System integrators, end users and process control product manufacturers are all seeking these people. I've been recruiting for 12 years, and I feel that current demand relative to supply is at an all-time peak."

Paul Shane, talent acquisition manager at Rockwell Automation, adds that, "There's a lack of tenured process automation professionals readily available in today's pool of job seekers. As a result, our company has expanded our recruiting and hiring focus to attract professionals with core transferable skills."

Everyone we asked about the job situation had similar comments. One pointed out that experienced Baby Boomer-era automation professionals will be retiring soon, creating even more job opportunities. Others said there are plenty of new technical graduates available, but few have experience in automation and process control.

And others pointed out that outsourcing—that is, hiring automation professionals from other countries to perform engineering remotely—is difficult at best. For more on outsourcing, see the sidebar, "Is Outsourcing Worth the Hassle?"

How Do They Find You?

Anyone who subscribes to professionally oriented social networks such as Linked-In knows that about half of the posts in groups relating to process automation describe available automation and process control jobs. But, posting on social networks is only part of the recruiting effort.

Table 1Brian Merriman, president of systems integrator aeSolutions in Greenville, S.C., uses just about every method there is. "To recruit employees, we use an internal recruiter, relationships with third-party recruiters, college campus recruiting, industry and personal networking, and participation in users groups, professional associations, codes and standards committees, trade shows, etc." Merriman says he does electronic recruiting through Monster, Career Builder and other online services. The sidebar on the right lists the primary ways companies try to find talent.

Endress+Hauser recently hired two on-staff talent acquisition professionals, according to Gillian Lyngh, talent acquisition manager at Endress+Hauser. "This team works with a network of professional recruiting resources across the U.S. to locate and engage the professionals we need for our organization," she explains.  "Our focus is on three main areas: recruitment, employee referrals and our internship program."

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