Would you want your kid to do this job?

Despite a shortage of young engineering professionals, most of us don't want our kids to grow up to work in the automation industry, but what is automation but applied information science?

Walt Boyes, Editor in ChiefBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

SINCE YOU'RE reading this magazine, it’s almost certain that you work in automation, either as an engineer, technician, operator, integrator or vendor. Surveys show that, when somebody asks you, most of you say you wouldn’t want your kids to grow up to be automation professionals.

When I was a kid, I did not want to work in automation. My father worked in automation. He joined Brown Instrument Co. in June 1940. I fixed recorders, chlorinators and other instruments for my allowance, and in summer I worked at his business. I knew there were other, more exciting things to do in the world. Yet, after a stint in theatrical production, television and advertising, I returned to the automation industry. Why?

In college and after, I became a fan of David Macaulay, whose books on technology include The Way Things Work. Summers, when I was a teenager, my father often took me to plants on sales or service calls. I visited canneries, early semiconductor fabs, wineries, glassmaking plants, refineries, sugar mills and chemical plants. Early on, I found I had a real desire to understand how things worked. By 1988, when The Way Things Work was finally published, I was deeply into my addiction to technology, and had a job in automation that allowed me to see how stuff was made all over the world. As, of course, I still do.

That’s why I’m an automation professional. My father gave me the desire to know how manufacturing is done, and the only way to be able to get into any plant, anywhere, is to work in automation.

Apparently, most of you aren’t as fascinated with the way stuff works as my father and I were. It could be the layoffs, offshoring and general beatings of the past 20 years have soured some of us on manufacturing.

There is a romance in manufacturing. The Discovery Channel, and the History Channel know this; just watch some of their shows, like “Modern Marvels.” My daughter has inherited my fascination with how stuff works. We often watch those shows together. She appears to be a bit unusual. Most of her friends want to work in information sciences. But what is automation but applied information science?

We’re already experiencing a shortage of automation professionals, both at the entry and senior levels. This shortage is only going to get worse, as Baby Boomers retire, and as younger people don’t go into manufacturing and automation. We’re not going to satisfy that shortage by importing young people from places in the world where the fascination for the way things are made is still strong, and where manufacturing is still seen as a valid career goal. Unfortunately for us, those places are developing economies that will absorb all of the trained professionals, automation and otherwise, that their schools can turn out.

So, it’s up to us, end-users and vendors alike, to try and explain the romance of manufacturing and the truly high-tech nature of process (and discrete) automation to our children.

See the February '05 editorial, "Institutional knowledge for the future."

If you’re an employee of an end-user company, please ask your company to bring the romance of making what you make to the grade schools in your locality. If you’re a vendor, remember that grade school and junior high (middle school) are the prime times to get children interested in automation as a career. Sure, they’ll change their minds, but this is when their attitudes toward work are being formed.

There will always be manufacturing in North America, and there will always be a need for automation professionals. Let’s feed that need.

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