Automation Companies Prepare Younger Generations to Replace Retiring Employees

How Targeted Programs Are Raising a Fresh Flock of Fledglings to Replace Retiring Engineers and Technicians

By Jim Montague

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Good help is hard to find, but it's much harder if you sit on your hands, and it's easier if you get out and go look for it.

For example, many of the oil and gas, petrochemical, chemical and other process companies along the I-55 corridor that runs southwest out of Chicago can't find enough new engineers, technicians and operators to replace their retiring, Baby Boomer veterans. However, some of these experienced engineers, managers and their firms aren't sitting still. Instead, they're taking active roles, not just in recruiting, but also in developing the talent and skills their replacements will require by educating them directly.

"We used to start hiring when existing operators or electricians gained experience and moved up into new positions, but this hasn't been enough," says Kevin Canaday, an analyzer technican at Aux Sable Liquid Products Inc. in Morris, Illinois. "We have about 25% of our staff that could retire now, so we set up an internship program with students from Joliet Junior College, and this past January, we hired one of our former instrumentation and electrical (I&E) interns as a rookie instrumentation mechanic after graduation in December. We still do three years of training after hiring, but JJC gives them a good foundation in the principles we need them to know."

Also Read "What Happened to the E and T in STEM?"

Likewise, Flint Hills Resources in Channahon, Illinois, is facing high numbers of upcoming retirees, but it's responding forcefully, according to Randy Winfrey, FHR's training and procedure coordinator. "We're turning it around by hiring more as others retire, but also by participating in JJC's petrochemical instruction courses," says Winfrey. "We're giving back, but we're also getting back."

Puncturing Prejudices

Clearly, the retirement brain drain is a common and widespread problem for control engineers, system integrators, control and automation suppliers, and their end users and clients in process applications and industries almost everywhere. However, even though everyone talks about the need to replace all the veteran engineers, technicians and operators retiring in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, it can seem at first like no one's doing anything about developing the next generation of rookies needed to replace them. The usual opinions are that young people only want to be sports and rock stars, they think factories are dirty, and they don't want to take the math and science courses needed to become engineers.

"Mid-skilled engineering technicians are in shortest supply, but it's been hard to get kids interested in these professions. Employers say this interest gap is real, and that it forces production to suffer and prevents their companies from growing," says Chris Paynter, dean of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. By combining many of its math, science, engineering and IT sections, the college established its innovative, multidisciplinary STEM operating unit in 2009. Paynter reports a total of 16 Charlotte-area firms run apprenticeships through CPCC, and a new Apprenticeship Charlotte program was started in 2012 to teach U.S. military veterans and other slightly older candidates. "We're really in favor of all the attention STEM has been getting," says Paynter. "It's critical for our region and nation to get these jobs filled, so we can have a diverse and competitive economy."

Luckily, while the Baby Boom brain drain is genuine, the perceived lack of solutions is fiction. There are plenty of high school and college students, recent graduates and mid-career workers looking to switch careers—and all are willing to learn and train. Many community college, university and high school programs are teaching automation and control skills, and many manufacturers conduct apprenticeship and training programs to develop the technical professionals they desperately need. Some colleges and companies are even coordinating their efforts to refine curriculums and focus more effectively on getting the best and most needed skills instilled in students quickly.

To give students technical instruction that has more of a point, STEM programs, such as FIRST Robotics, are multiplying nationwide. This is because STEM gives kids the same sense of purpose and accomplishment that veteran engineers have long reported valuing even more than high salaries.

Return to Class—Employers Too

Of course, the best way for manufacturers and machine builders to secure new engineers and technicians is to work with their local high schools, community colleges and universities. In fact, the missions of many schools explicitly call on them to develop courses that will serve the needs of local businesses.

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