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

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to get them to follow process and standards), those with 'baggage' (some non-team personality trait), and some with outdated skills (those that had a cushy job and let their skills get stale).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."

Recruiter Alan Carty says social networking has changed. "Years ago, when Internet job boards were fairly new and highly advertised, they were extremely effective," he says. "Today, things have changed. Social media is having a bigger impact on recruiting. LinkedIn currently has over 160 million registered users, and they are not all sales and management professionals as in the site's early days."

Andrew Scoby, director of engineering at NorthWind Technical Services in Sabetha, Kan., uses campus recruiting. "It is important to maintain a consistent presence on campus," he advises. "Graduating automation professionals recognize us better if they've seen us at the career fairs in past years when they've been looking for internships."

Some companies rely on specialists and their own employees. "We're finding that the most successful methods for us to attract talent include recruiters that specialize in automation, LinkedIn and employee referrals," says Jamie Diehl, vice president of finance and human resources at systems integrator Concept Systems in Albany, Ore. "We have an employee referral bonus award program where employees can earn bonuses for referring qualified hires."

Concept Systems isn't the only one using employee referrals. "Our most successful method of hiring experienced staff has been through referrals from our existing staff," says Titus Crabb, president of systems integrator Vertech in Phoenix.

But no matter the avenue of search, experienced automation professionals are thin on the ground.

Talent Shortages

One problem appears to be that there are plenty of people looking for jobs, but very few of them know anything about automation and process control, so those that do have the necessary experience are in great demand.

"Coming out of the 2009 recession, we found that while engineering graduates were in demand, we were able to find, attract and successfully hire the people we wanted. However, we are finding increasing competition to hire and retain top engineering candidates," observes Scoby.

Another integrator agrees. "In the search for mid-career professionals, it's very competitive between process operations companies, consultants and OEMs," says Merriman of aeSolutions. "So we're regularly left to hire new grads with no experience and begin the process of long-term development with them."

Even big brand-name suppliers have recruitment issues. "We have seen a shortage of automation personnel over the past 10 years or so, and we believe this will continue to be a problem," says Kimberly Murphy, HR director at AutomationDirect in Cumming, Ga. "There are simply not enough automation professionals in the pipeline to hire mid-level experienced personnel at this time."

Long-term development often means training, and more and more companies these days are hiring technical types with little or no automation background and training them.

Highly talented and experienced process control people can command top salaries. "Counteroffers are becoming more common," says Carty. "In the past, many companies viewed a candidate who accepted another job as someone they feared would leave again, so they resisted counteroffers. Today, though, those same companies know they could be several months without someone in the vacated position, so the counteroffer makes more sense financially."

With increased demand and limited supply comes higher pay. "We are finding that experienced personnel are able to demand much higher salaries than in the past.  We are also finding that the quality of personnel is not necessarily increasing with the salary demands," notes Crabb.

Firms are looking for folks like you, but how can you make sure you stand out from the crowd?

Increase Your Visibility through Personal Branding

When representatives from a vendor or systems integrator visit your plant, talk to them about possible jobs, maybe for a "friend" with a background similar to yours. If they know you and your capabilities, they could give you a referral and an inside track to a job with their company—and they might pick up a substantial bonus for bringing you on board.

Table 2You may want to contact a recruiter, preferably someone specializing in process control and automation.

Improve your skills by taking training courses. You don't want to be considered someone with "outdated skills," especially if your background is primarily on obsolete equipment. The sidebar "How to Find a Job" offers more suggestions on how to make yourself available, and prominent among them is personal online branding.

It's easy to measure the strength of your online brand. Just Google your name. If the results show multiple hits relevant to your professional activities, then you're in good shape. If not, then you have some work to do.

Join LinkedIn and create a strong profile that prominently lists your strengths as an automation professional. Quit Facebook or at least edit your personal page so that it's clearly not part of your professional persona.

Publish articles in magazines such as this one and other similar publications. They are always looking for input from end users and system integrators, in formats ranging from a single-page opinion column to a full-length technical article or case study.

If writing an article is too ambitious, just offer input when asked for articles written by a staff member at a relevant trade magazine. You can either respond when contacted or be proactive by perusing the editorial calendar of a magazine and contacting the editor in chief to offer input. Virtually every trade magazine has an editorial calendar online, including this one: Control's Editorial Calendar

On the Control editorial calendar, you can see that the November 2012 cover story will cover advanced control and optimization. If this is an area where you have some expertise or just an opinion, contact the editor in chief to find out who's writing the article, and contact him or her and offer to answer any questions they may have.

In this case, that writer is me, and I'd be more than happy to hear from you. The process is painless, I just email you a few questions and you email back some answers. The result is having your name in print and online, increasing your online presence and strengthening your personal brand.

After you accomplish a few of the above tasks, be prepared for not only job offers, but also for a counter-offer from your own present employer. With the current job market, your company might suddenly realize that you are a very valuable asset, one that would exceedingly difficult to replace.