Get 'em while they're young!

I had just received the following email from Lynn Craig, one of the founders of the batch standard ISA88 and the manufacturing standard, ISA95, when it came time for me to meet with Rockwell Automation Chairman and CEO Keith Nosbusch on Tuesday, here at Automation Fair.
Folks - I don't always agree with Walt Boyes, but I think he is on to something fundamental when it comes to the whole technical recruitment issue.  He recently said the following: "The problem isn't that companies don't recruit from and support college level engineering schools. Many companies do. Companies donate equipment, even complete control systems, to engineering schools. They make available software at vastly reduced prices to schools and even individual students. ISA is also taking a stab at this, but its program also concentrates on the college student. Unfortunately, doing all this is too little, too late." Let me make it clear that I do not believe recruiting at the college level is wrong.  The effort at the college and University level is needed and probably needs to be expanded.  Few Colleges and Universities even have the ability to produce Bachelor level Engineers who know much of anything about control.  I do agree strongly with Walt, though, that the course most college students follow is very often set before they get to college.  Almost nothing is happening at the high school (or earlier) level that can influence a young potential engineer to consider an engineering curriculum.  A year into a college program and it is essentially too late.    Many years ago there was an active engineering effort tied to "Engineering Week" or something like that.  Practicing engineers were recruited to talk to high school classes.  I enjoyed those opportunities and have had people tell me many years later that my talk had something to do with their decision to pursue a technical career.  We have, in the AF, the potential for programs and the people who could make a difference but we are also all struggling for funding.  It is hard to justify spending anything on a program to influence young people to our profession when we are scrabbling to squeeze the last drop out of each nickel right now today.  It would help a enormously if there were some sort of funding specifically focused on recruiting potential engineers (instrument, control and automation engineers in our case).  It is a national issue.  Could that - should that - become one of the thrusts of the Automation Federation workforce development initiative?  If AF can get that funding, WBF can spend some of it very efficiently and effectively.

I shared part of that with Keith Nosbusch, and pretty soon he was bouncing up and down in his chair, and I was bouncing up and down in my chair, and we were enjoying the pleasure of a shared passion. Nosbusch too, and thereby Rockwell Automation, shares my intense passion for getting more young people involved in manufacturing and in the automation industry.

And Rockwell Automation, financially, and through the volunteerism of its staff members, high and low, supports this strongly through its involvement in STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and the FIRST Robotics program.

Rockwell supports this so much that they've dedicated a very large part of the show floor at Automation Fair (and not way off in a back corner where nobody would go there, either) to the FIRST Robotics program.

Yesterday afternoon, I accompanied Nosbusch to the FIRST Robotics booth, where he met, chatted with, and did photo opps with the young people who were demonstrating the robots they'd built for their award-winning team. We met Julia Loeb, an "education intervention specialist" from Cleveland, who has been retired for the past two years from her teaching career, but who volunteers to lead and mentor a FIRST Robotics team anyway. We met Susan Lawrence, the regional director of FIRST Robotics, who walked us through how the program works. And we met Dr. Dennis Roberson, vice provost of new initiatives and research professor of computer science at Illinois Institute Of Technology, who is on the FIRST Robotics Board of Directors.

But what was especially interesting was a shy and self-effacing young woman with a RA Employee name tag on, Katie Hall, who was quietly helping to make the booth run, helping the FIRST Robotics team members work on their robots, and helping the rest of the Rockwell staff prepare for the Boss' visit. She was pointed out to me as a graduate of the FIRST Robotics program who now is a RA Employee. She works in the Quality Lab in one of the RA plants. We'll be interviewing her at length for an article next year, because she embodies everything Keith Nosbusch and I and the others like us are trying to do. I asked her if she liked working in manufacturing, especially as a young person, and her eyes lit up and sparkled. "Yes!" she exclaimed.

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  • Walt- Excellent post. I don't know if I ever told you this story. I will now. My wife and I are both engineers. Years ago, we were at our children's school. The valedictorian had decided to become an engineer. We were excited for him, and engaged him in conversation. What type of engiener did he want to be? Answer: He didn't know. He just was going to school. What type of htings did he like? COmputere? Electronics? Mechanical systems? Chemicals? Answer: He didn't know. At that point, my wife found ehr calling. The next year, she quit her engineering job (actually, she was "quit", but that's a whole nother story), and went to work as a teacher at that school. She only taught there two years. In that time, she delveoped a curriculum that offered a "physics" class for students bound for college. In that class, she taught the fundamentals of the four basic engineering disciplines- Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical, and Civil/ Structural. In the chemical part, they had to design a system to chloriinate a pool. She got them a field trip to an Exxon chemical plant in Houston. In civil, they entered the bridge building contest, where the saw whose bridge held the most weight. She did a field trip to another student's parent's office who was an architectural engineer, and they saw how buildings were designed. In the mechanical section, they had to design a transmission system to drive a vehicle to a certain speed. They had a field trip to my garage where I was rebuilding an engine, and they learned how an automotive engine works, and were able to install pistons. In electrical, they received assistance from National Instruments, and bread-boarded a system to automatically open a door. They then visited National Instrtuments to see how they built their products. Every one of those students except one went on to become engineers- all in different disciplines, and with their eyes wide open. The one who did not, indicated that though interesting, they learned that they didn't really want to be an engineer. Better to find that out then, rather than after their first year of college, don't you think? I've often asked Cathy to share her curriculum with the rest of the world, but she's been side-lined by an accident, and unfortunately is not in a position to bring it out at this time. We need more Cathy Apple's in the teaching profession. Despite the massive difference in income (a whole nother subject), it's rewarding to pass on to the next generation the great value we've received from our chosen profession.

    Steve Apple

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  • Walt:

    Regarding the postings about technical recruitment...Yes it is a serious problem. Yes it needs to be dealt with at many levels. And yes, we (the entire technical community) needs to take ownership.

    One of the big problems I see is that most of us (techno-geek engineers) are our own worst enemy. We do a very poor job of promoting our profession, if we do it at all.

    I have two sons 5 and 8 years of age. I make a point of going to their classes each year to talk about engineering. So far, I have yet to work with a teacher that has ever had an engineer come to class and speak. Some of these teachers are veterans of many years in the classroom! They get doctors, lawers, real estate developers, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, etc etc. but no engineers...Do we have a problem? You bet.

    Organizations like ISA and the Automation Federation can take steps in the right direction, but the most effective method to increasing the number of engineers will be at the grass-roots level. That one-on-one mentoring that we all can do.

    The easiest solution would be to convince Hollywood to make a really cool show about a group of engineers solving real world problems - saving the planet. Something along the lines of CSI meets industry.

    Maybe with the writer's strike we have a shot at selling the concept, but its unlikely. Since we can't count on Hollywood, we all need to take responsibility and promote our profession both internally in our companies as well as to the outside world. Nothing is worse than going to your spouses holiday party and responding to the innocent question "so what do you do" with "Please don't ask -- I don't want to explain".

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  • kdunn2's comment is right on target and very much in line with my own experience. I've been to my kid's elementary school for Math day to show them what I do with engineering. Showing a simple relay ladder logic program and then a few pictures of what it controls is as close as I can take them to showing them real thing: A working water pumping station or Sewage Treatment plant.

    Sadly, many of us work in environments which are now considered too dangerous or too secure to take a school class through. When industry was an accessible thing, kids were exposed to it and they could get excited by it. In the era of steam engines, they didn't bother with trying to hide anything. They showed off all the linkages, dials and adjustments. Everything was made to be accessible --even the dangerous stuff. Today, we hide it in places where only those indoctrinated from a secret cabal can approach this technology. They speak of it in reverent tones amongst each other.

    And then there is today's Dilbert cartoon: http://www.dilbert.com/comics/dilbert/archive/images/dilbert200711195248.jpg

    My answer to this is to try and bring in some equipment. Yeah, I know, a PLC isn't much to look at. But a PLC that does something cute with lights isn't too ridiculous. I've got to try calling on my local Rockwell or Siemens representatives to see if they wouldn't mind showing off some of their sales displays to a class. A robot arm would be really cool, but I'd settle for a few switches, relays, and perhaps a small VFD.

    But by far, the biggest thing I can do in front of a bunch of kids is to show my excitement and the thrill of working with this sort of stuff, talk about the things one can do to change the world, and how the math and science aren't an obstacle when those are the very toys you get to play with.

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  • Enginering is a great profession and opens up vistas to so many great careers (like technical writing). Unfortunately, I meet many engineers who have negative attitudes towards their work and their profession. Compated to sitting on a beach all day, engineering can be tough at times, but compared to most any other profession, engineering rocks. Spread the word!

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