Asset Management

Digitalization, IIoT demand current process industry personnel be retrained

Forget waiting for next-generation engineers. Digitalization, IIoT and other technologies are changing so fast that current process industry personnel must get retrained now.

By Jim Montague

Back to school, everybody! Not just the usual students or the hoped-for, next-generation of process engineers and operators. Everybody—including all veterans not yet retiring.

Future professionals are still desperately needed to replace their rapidly retiring counterparts. However, the well-known brain drain is being compounded by technical changes like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0, cybersecurity and other forms of digitalization, which are evolving and taking over so fast that no one has enough experienced personnel or rookies with the skills to keep up and apply them in their regular operations. Even Amazon reported in July that it plans to spend $700 million to teach 100,000 employees to write software and provide IT support by 2025.  

Consequently, where continuing education used to be a nice enrichment option for some process industry staffers, it's quickly becoming an imperative for all technical professionals. Everyone and every organization needs to identify their increasingly widening skills gaps, and learn how to fill them. Time to grow your own with what you've got.

Reinventing professionals

Luckily, many potential operators and technicians—both young and old—are also looking to gain new skills, and get hired by process industry companies with better pay and chances to advance than in their present or former jobs.   

"I'm usually a maintenance electrician, mostly troubleshooting motors and other equipment, but my cousin is a plant manager for Ingredion in Bedford Park, Ill., which used to be Corn Products International, and he recently told me to look into process instrumentation and control because it's where some of the greatest need is right now," says David Marcus, 45, who just started the Process Control and Instrumentation Technology (PCIT) associate degree program at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill.

One of Marcus' classmates, Christian Ceja, 21, adds, "My brother completed the PCIT program, and now he's working at Flint Hills Resources in Channahon, Ill., so I thought it would be a good opportunity for me, too."

The PCIT program had been limited to night classes if 12-14 students because its initial instructors had day jobs, mostly at process industry firms in suburban Chicago. However, it just began offering day and night sessions and staggered sections in August, and expects to double attendance to 24 students, according to new, full-time assistant professor/coordinator Joe Limon, who just retired after 41 years at specialty chemical manufacturer Stepan Co., also in Joliet. The two-year associate in applied science (AAS) degree's primary courses include electrical and industrial circuits, digital and computer electronics, industrial and programmable controls, fluid power, process technology, pneumatic and electronic measurement and control, control loop tuning and troubleshooting, analyzers, and industrial data communications. PCIT also offers a four-month certificate of completion (COC) program with five of these core courses. Just as grade school students often learn math concepts before using calculators, both the AAS and COC tracks began by introducing students to traditional pneumatic and relay-based controls before teaching them about programmable and digital controls (Figure 1).

"The PCIT program gets all ages because there are many guys working in warehouses or jobs where the pay isn't great, and they want to better themselves," says Limon. "Having the chance to go from minimum wage to $100K with overtime is a lot better."

Rethinking recruiting 

Just as operators and technicians must gain new skills, managers and company leaders must also develop new ways of attracting and hiring the people they require.

"We have a range of different needs and positions, but our approach to recruiting is different than typical system integrators," says Frank Riordan, president of DMC Inc., a system integrator in Chicago, and certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). "We generally hire new college grads. We target smart, hardworking candidates by only recruiting from the best engineering programs at tier-one universities. We also evaluate whether they'll be a good cultural fit.

"We recruited at 26 universities nationwide last year, and we usually interview dozens of candidates on campus and onsite for each one that we hire. We apply these filters to identify quality people. Academic performance is important because you can't have a top GPA and be lazy. We also seek personable individuals. We're not willing to compromise on one or the other; we want both. They have to be independent thinkers that can get things done on their own, but they must also be able to communicate, collaborate and work as part of a team. We strive to hire people that can work across that whole spectrum."

The demanding recruiting and hiring process at DMC requires plenty of time and expense, but Riordan reports it's a worthwhile investment that pays for itself because its new staffers can ramp up faster and are more engaged. The ability to get up to speed quickly is important because DMC gets involved several different industries with many technologies and processes, and is constantly learning new things and applying the latest technologies.

Office environment and locations are also important to DMC’s ability to attract its target workforce. The locations of DMC's offices in hip metro areas are intended to attract recent college grads, who typically flock to urban locations after graduation. DMC also invests in their workspace, providing amenities such as fully stocked kitchens, multiple collaboration areas, and even a dog-friendly office policy.

Chris Schleich, engineering manager at Enterprise Automation (EA), a CSIA-certified system integrator in Irvine, Calif., adds that, "Many water/wastewater districts struggle to hire and retain instrument technicians knowledgeable and excited about the trade, though at EA we don't experience that much on the system integration side. When we go to career fairs, the Google, Facebook and Apple booths are mobbed, but that hasn’t limited us from finding kids excited about engineering companies, too," says Schleich. "Computer science has drawn some students away from traditional engineering disciplines built on physics, so they don't learn thermodynamics, heat transfer, fluid mechanics, dynamic forces in motion and statics. These provide a helpful foundation for an engineer to help clients implement industrial processes in the real world. Still, we're not having a problem finding people that want to do what we do, but part of this is we've learned we have to market ourselves with a strong company culture, thorough training and drive towards excellence."

To develop and adopt these principles, Schleich reports Enterprise enrolled its leaders in Vistage executive and business coaching programs. This exposed them to best practices to improve leadership and define the values and mission behind culture. EA also created an internal training program to teach culture and engineering methods to all new hires so they start on the right foot from day one. The training presents the technology skills in a manner that helps automation engineers recognize the gap between information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) disciplines. He adds that Enterprise also uses Udemy online courses to train staff about SQL, Microsoft servers, and other topics not taught in traditional engineering   

"We learned that an IT person has a longer journey to be a functional OT person. I've found that someone who started on the OT side is more likely to be able to learn and build a system that supports the IT mission, and gain IT capabilities as needed, instead of the other way around" explains Schleich. "This is important because our engineers build technology solutions, but we must have people that can listen and speak in production terms with the client first to deliver truly excellent solutions."

Easing into digitalization 

Along with teaching essential control and automation skills, JJC's PCIT program also instills some of the healthy skepticism and less-helpful reluctance that process engineers have about too quickly trusting their applications to intelligent devices that rely on software, microprocessors, networking and/or cybersecurity that might not be sufficient.

"We're delving into smart manufacturing, too, but only for monitoring and maintenance or real-time inventory during custody transfers, but not yet for control," says JJC's Limon. "We're leery about it here just as we are on the plant-floor because no one wants to get hacked. Process controls previously went from pneumatics and electromechanical relays, and users were leery about PLCs and DCSs until they proved they could safely take over. A similar transition is going on now.

"The biggest advantage of process control and automation is it lets users make quality products consistently. However, there are two kinds of operators: nervous ones that turn valves when they're one point of setpoint, which can cause problems that affect product quality, and laid-back operators that assume their process will come back, which can also cause problems that affect quality. Automation with PLCs and DCSs can help both operators tune their processes better for greater consistency, and smart devices such as self-tuning valves can help even more by adjusting flow rates based on feedback to reach assigned rates. I know we'll adapt to using more smart devices and teaching about them, but it will be based on continuing coordination with local process industry professionals and manufacturers to address their needs that keep changing like everything else."     

Transition to teaching

Just as its students update and augment their skills for process applications, PCIT's curriculum was developed with input from control experts at Citgo, Aux Sable, Flint Hills Resources, ExxonMobil, Lyondell Bassell and others, who eventually pitched in to teach classes that would produce new employees for many of them. Filling skill gaps makes teaching—including teaching managers and leaders—another essential skill to learn.   

"I started in production and maintenance, and progressed to corporate engineering, but I've almost always gone to school during my career," says Limon. "I earned an associate degree in automated systems for electricians in 1990, and bachelor's degree in electrical engineering with a business minor from Purdue University by going to school part time during 2005-10. Many adults get business degrees, but the EE degree gave me more skills and flexibility when I went back to help manage my company's maintenance and production areas."

Limon reports that Stepan supported him by paying for his education, but later, when eight of its Baby Boomer instrument technicians prepared to retire in 2014, he learned about JJC's PCIT program from the ISA's Will-DuPage chapter, and offered to help teach some of its classes. "Teaching is a different world, and talking to a group can be overwhelming, but it's also similar to managing and mentoring coworkers," explains Limon. "Similar to any community college, we partner with local manufacturers, so what we teach will enable our graduates to step into available jobs, and handle the training they get from their new employers. That's why I'm also a big fan of co-op programs that give students a chance to work onsite because process principles learned in the lab can change in the field.

"But I'm no angel either, and we eventually hired six JJC grads at Stepan. Some later joined bigger fish in our local pond, but we also hired in from other companies, too. Much of this is about professional networking, of course, so our students are also asked to join a LinkedIn group that can help them see what's out there. We also put job opportunities on PCIT's LinkedIn page."

Another PCIT student, Jose Reyes, 38, adds that, "I usually work a body shop, but I knew Joe, and he just recruited me to come in." 

Employers must sell jobs, selves

To attract and retain millennial-age engineers and operators, many employers acknowledge they must adjust their traditional strategies and requirements.

"We have to be flexible on start times because they aren't anxious to punch a clock," says Sam Hoff, CEO of Patti Engineering, a CSIA-certified system integrator in Auburn Hills, Mich. "They also want interesting work, and will begin to disengage quickly if it's not available. There's much movement from job-to-job with young people, and much less implicit loyalty to any one company. At the same time, millennials want to know how their performance compares to others, and want to do something socially useful, so we hold volunteer days and participate in fun events like drag racing or dodgeball."

To boost its recruiting effort, Patti also attends college career fairs and gets to know professors it its fields. However, it's also important to recognize that frequent job changes are a reality that can also have an upside. "People aren't going to be in the same jobs for as long as before, but that's not necessarily a bad thing because former employees can be some of our best customers and best champions for us in those organizations," says Hoff. "Moving between jobs doesn't have to mean burning bridges."

Hoff reports many younger staffers are using tools like Glassdoor, which is a website where employees can post anonymous reviews of their companies, including good/bad assessments and positions in their different markets, which is another reason for employers to be more aware about promoting themselves. "The old-school mentality doesn't involve this kind of marketing, but that perspective misses the boat," says Hoff. "Whenever we or anyone else is interviewing young candidates, they've already examined your website, and probably check Glassdoor for online evaluations about you from employees. Employers have to address this, and we're already doing it."

DMC begins its recruitment with its online presence long before campus visits and interviews. "The website is critically important," says Riordan. "We ask ourselves 'who's our audience?' Our customers come first, but potential employees and partners are right there, too. We showcase our environment and culture for everyone, and we also promote diversity and inclusivity. We hope our audience says, 'I want to be part of that tribe.' We also use social media to highlight our projects and technologies."

After new employees are hired, DMC puts a tremendous amount of energy into their retention. "We provide ongoing opportunities for our staff to socialize and become friends.” DMC provides a monthly activity fund for employees to plan social events of their choosing from beer festivals to axe throwing. DMC also puts a lot of effort into creating career development options, giving people the opportunity to reach their full potential. Variety of work is another factor in employee engagement. “We keep their work challenging by deliberately working on new and interesting technologies, which helps with job satisfaction,” adds Riordan.

Excitement = retention

Because engineers and technicians like a challenge even better than a paycheck, it's vital for their employers to keep their workloads interesting and mentally engaging.

"Many of our customers need help retrofitting controls because even though most manufacturers have already upgraded, many have not, so there's still a lot of legacy equipment out there, such SLC 500 controllers, which are often maintained by veteran maintenance staff who are retiring. However, the younger generation isn't up to speed on these controls, unless they've been exposed to them, which is becoming more and more unlikely," says Ryan Wasmund, sales and marketing director at Concept Systems Inc., a CSIA-certified system integrator (SI) in Albany, Ore., near Portland. "We try to keep our new engineers working on projects they can be excited about, avoid killing them with long hours, and train on the latest and greatest technology like PLCs, robotics, data handling and some artificial intelligence (AI). This is useful because it helps engineers have a better sense of the progress they're making, rather than working on small portions of larger projects where the progress is more difficult to see and is spread out over longer times."

To inform a wider circle of potential candidates about its availability and priorities, Wasmuind reports Concept uses several strategies:

"Many of our customers are outsourcing, so we sometimes bring our people, and go to work as part of their staffs, which can be more interesting than just being the SI, where we handle the entire scope, for a single project," says Jim Ford, engineering director at Concept. "This type of business has increased steadily over the past 15 years, and it lets us work on projects from the design phase straight though to start up, and even help with their request for quote (RFQ) process. Most jobs that we and other SIs do are one-off control and automation projects. Some technologies get reused, but we keep things interesting because customers come our way with all kinds of different requests."

Beyond keeping their jobs interesting, Wasmund adds employees can be retained by addressing their personal growth plans. "This involves defining entry-level skills and senior-level skills, clearly defining the path between them, and tailoring a training/development plan specifically for them," explains Wasmund. "We also get granular with projects, so participants understand how their part, such as fixing particular SCADA screens, can help affect the larger problem we're trying to solve. Finally, we hold team-building exercises and events; set side some funds to learn about new tools like virtual reality (VR) goggles; and allow them to work on personal projects, as long it they can show it solves a problem for the company. Later, participants exhibit and share their projects, and we give out awards."

Servomex's Podolsky reports that organizations should identify the individuals they want to keep, and give them the flexibility to do external research, or address other key issues so they're less pigeonholed. "Retention begins with making jobs more rich and interesting both inside and outside their companies," says Poldolsky. "They should also use LinkedIn forums or other social media to let individuals and teams demonstrate their successes."

Can data take a shift?

Given recent advances in data acquisition and analytics, some users and developers are investigating whether better, closer-at-hand information can patch some of the know-how and experience gaps created as veterans are replaced by rookies.

"It's always hard to find new people to fill the shoes of those with institutional knowledge. This lack hasn't changed, but the Plan B these days is taking that knowledge and building more of it into controls, and using it and human capital to make operations more efficient," says John Tertin, sales and marketing director at ESE Inc., a CSIA-certified system integrator in Marshfield, Wis. "Even veterans did many procedures they didn't have to back when controls were more manual. Now we have automated data and IIoT, and they're letting us do integration projects that we couldn't do before, such as inter-company compliance between plants.

"For example, we worked with a natural cheese-maker that uses a very precise process that relies on institutional knowledge and written data, and were able to implement a paperless batch reporting system that gave its operators a lot more time in their day. We also worked with a salad dressing, ketchup and sauce manufacturer with many formulas that needed to integrate its inventory transactions with SAP software, and manage its MES layer and controls down to its pumps and valves. Both manufacturers use the same ControlLogix controls between their tanks and fillers, and we added ESE's flexible batch engine that combines PLCs and HMI screens developed with Rockwell Automation software, but we also integrated much of their institutional knowledge into their new batch sequences, including issues their experts would look for and procedures they'd perform for the best results."

Tertin reports ESE's batch solution includes enough best practices that today's operators don't have to be as expert as those in the past. "This can help a user's workforce at all levels. However, when we train onsite near the end of commissioning, it's all onscreen and functions just as millennials would expect, so the veterans can be more impacted than the newbies," explains Tertin. "We try to have clients understand that automation means operators don't have collect data manually or push as many buttons, but they still have to turn on their controllers to run more efficiently. In this case, one operator that used to run four systems can now run six. Unfortunately, automation still has to deal with the stigma that it causes jobs to be lost, which isn't true. Automation enables organizations to utilize their staffs in more value-added ways, such as optimizing production, responding faster to recalls or other incidents, and becoming advisors to more artisan-style processes, instead of frantically running around as they did in the past. Plus, digitalizing formerly written data means it's more accessible, so users aren't flying blind because they can easily see it on screens or upcoming augmented reality (AR) interfaces."              

To further support its clients, Tertin adds that ESE also recently developed a support gateway edge device, which includes a Microsoft Windows server and VMware hypervisor, which distributes SCADA systems such as Rockwell Automation's FactoryTalk View SE to users via thin-client interfaces. "This lets us know if the PLCs and servers are running, and enables remote monitoring SCADA via two Ethernet adapters or a cellular modem, which can take data to a cloud service or send discrete event via email," adds Tertin. "These functions can help thinly spread staffs, and frees them do more useful tasks instead of just sitting in front of a screen waiting for red lights."

Patti's Hoff adds: "We just worked with a client who has 200 manufacturing engineers, and 100 of them are eligible to retire in the next five years, so a lot of expertise is going to walk out the door. These guys have worked 70-80 hours per week to keep the processes running. They have also sacrificed a lot of home time putting in these hours. The younger generation generally will not work long hours in the facility. They don't mind getting on their smart phones, so we have to find ways for them to support their applications without being tied to them all the time."

In these data-rich environments, Hoff reports that users expect to do data analytics onsite, which can be a mistake. Patti helps with equipment analytics aided by artificial intelligence (AI), checks systems daily, and issues reports weekly. "I'm a baseball fan, so I know that pitcher Justin Verlander improved a lot after he was traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Houston Astros, and he said it was because of the analytics that the Astros gave him. In the same way, we ask how we can take data from existing processes and look at it in new ways based on problems we're trying to solve. For example, we can gauge wear on a cutting tool by monitoring and tracking current draw on the spindle. When the spindle starts drawing more current, we know the tool is probably getting dull. Previously, we'd monitor for fault over-currents, but not usually cycle-to-cycle. Putting data in the cloud means we can do more analytics with the data and help the person on the floor work smarter by helping him analyze his equipment through data.” 

Despite recent staffing losses and technical upheaval, Kevin Ross, account manager at Experitec, distributor and Impact Partner of Emerson Automation Solutions, agrees that workforces can be stabilized by using process control carefully. "They're not mature yet, but many apps are emerging for simple automation solutions, such as handling the electronics on pneumatic valves, instead of doing it manually," says Ross. "Field instruments are also getting intelligence and AI layers that can provide better alerts, focus on underlying problems, and find trends going in the wrong direction, but they all depend on users knowing what problem they want to solve.

"For instance, DeltaV DCS added advanced process control (APC) software to improve tuning, while DeltaV Mobile displays on a smart phone app. Tools like these can make a big difference for applications that used to be mostly manual, relying on people to turn valves, and suffering burned out motors when they made mistakes. DeltaV Mobile can also help personnel spread out between small, remote  terminals, which struggle to find people at the best of times, but still need to run 24/7 and have continuous monitoring to avoid overfills. However, these solutions can't help until users find them, which is why it's import to get out to users groups and industry events. We should also be open to trying new and potentially better methods, but we can't do everything at once, so we also have to decide which will be the most useful and deliver the best return on investment (ROI)."

Learn to program

To make the most of all the data their applications generate, it's becoming increasingly clear that process engineers are going to have to learn to write code and computer programs. Kurt Braun, senior sales and applications engineer and IIoT market specialist at Wago, agrees hiring new talent can't be the only way to fill skill gaps, so existing personnel must gain new, software-based abilities for their organizations to compete.

"When we're integrating IIoT, we also have to talk about cybersecurity, but many skills are lacking like Linux programming that lets IIoT applications grow up," says Braun. "Older controls on virtual private networks (VPN) could also be a security nightmare and risky due to open ports, but many of the these tools are getting easier, such as cloud-computing systems using MQTT with SSL/TLS encryption to bring in data from sensors and instruments in small JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) payloads that each device can publish or subscribe to."

Braun reports two new services for connecting to devices, gathering their data, and publishing it this include Amazon Web Services (AWS) IoT Greengrass and Microsoft Azure IoT Edge.

"Communities of edge devices can talk to each other as an extension of cloud services. This means an IIoT edge gateway such as a Wago controller can negotiate traffic from a process application to a network, and let local devices talk to the cloud via an edge gateway that can be onboard, and manage users' software keys for SSL/TLS encryption. This is where Linux can be helpful because, while simple applications can still use Ladder logic, aggregating data from hundreds of applications like well sites to the cloud needs an edge device and MQTT instead of previous PLC and DCS programming that are complex and costly. This is why users need to learn about IIoT and the cloud."

Braun adds Wago helps users develop these skills by offering webinars and in-person seminars about products and personal development topics, such as IIoT, cybersecurity and cloud computing. "More questions about these new technologies are coming up all the time, so even recent graduates might not know the answers," explains Braun. "Users can leverage vendors to learn, but there's a lot of information out there, including my personal YouTube channel that has 115 tutorial videos, more than 10,000 subscribers, and more than 2.5 million views. It has videos on controls and PLCs, but also on the cloud, IIoT and how I/O products can work with Raspberry Pi. It also features our PFC200 that's a like a Raspberry Pi because it runs on Linux OS and an ARM microprocessor, but can tie to real-world I/O such as our 750 Series that has a Modbus interface, and recently added support for Cirrus Link's Sparkplug protocol."      

Braun adds three online resources for learning to program are:

  • Codeacademy that offers free, interactive coding classes in 12 different programming languages, such as JavaScript and Python for JSON;
  • Scotch.io that offers courses, training, tutorials and a blog about coding and fun, practical web development; and
  • Node-RED flow-based development and visual programming tool for wiring hardware, APIs and online services for IoT applications. It also uses JavaScript, and has browser-based flow editor for creating JavaScript functions.

"Because developing new skills means learning by doing, users and organizations should start skunk works to help acquire the new capabilities they need," adds Braun. "For example, employees at Google can spend 20% of their time working on their own projects, if they can show it will add value to be company. On the other hand, we see many system integrators just redoing what they've previously done, which sells themselves short on capabilities they could add."

Soft skills essential, too

Apart from learning the technical principles of monitoring and managing process applications, it's also increasingly crucial for engineers and technical professionals of all ages to learn the soft skills of interpersonal communications needed for collaboration inside and outside their organizations.

"Many manufacturing and advanced technical jobs are going unfilled because it's hard to find people with the right skills, but there's also a gap in academic and workplace competency because candidates also lack the soft skills such as oral and written communication they need to solve problems and participate on teams," says Chris Paynter, dean of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C. "The pace of technical change means everyone must be continually learning, but developed skilled personnel is easier for companies that sponsor students and apprentices. Germany and Europe in general have long traditions in this area, of course, but when representatives of their schools visit us, they report that community colleges in the U.S. are doing a good job of blending technological and academic education."

More recently, local employers and CPCC faculty have jointly developed a critical core for soft skills, critical thinking and others, which the college can use to self-assess its courses based on how well students are learning the competencies they and their eventual employers need. "Soft skills are valuable because they help students communicate, solve problems and conduct interviews with their teams, companies and customers," says Paynter. "It's also important to learn these skills soon because companies often bring students in early in their academic careers as part of on-campus programs, apprenticeships or onsite co-op programs."

Paynter adds that soft skills can also help users and their organizations manage data, dashboards and informational graphics from IIoT and other digitalized devices. "We're even developing a curriculum to help students quickly analyze and visualize information from next-generation equipment," adds Paynter. "We're finding most members of this digital generation bring a strong work ethic, creativity and analytical skills. Plus, they know how to keep up with change, realize they won't be done when they graduate, and understand they'll have to be lifelong learners. This is another reason why it helps for them to encounter perpetual workplace mentorships and coaching cultures during their internships and co-op programs. Senior staff members at many companies want to give back and help the next generation, but management has to put programs like this in place."   

Apprentice lessons

Of course, some of the most instructive workforce development strategies are those carried out by employers, schools and governments in Europe and elsewhere, and they provide many examples that others can use if they're willing.

"Everyone's experiencing accelerating retirements with experienced individuals leaving and workload increases for those who remain. At the same time, customers are demanding more intelligent, faster and more powerful technologies, so it's more important than ever to have effective engineering and plant operations," says Joe Podolsky, director of business transformation and planning at Servomex Group Ltd., a global gas measurement and analysis supplier. "About 15 years ago, we crossed the chasm of using PCs and tablets. Now, users are pretty fluent with computers, but they're less savvy about using process data for better decisions, not to mention working with IT to maintain cybersecurity, especially at the device and instrument levels. The question is how to keep experienced people on staff and enrich their day-to-day interactions, and simultaneously attract new people with exciting, cutting-edge technologies that can make engineering sexy again." 

Podolsky adds that traditional apprenticeship programs in the U.K. and Europe have long given students training, practical work experience and careers after identifying skills needed and the ingredients to develop them. "Government promotes and coordinates most apprenticeship programs in the U.K., grants incentives for companies to establish them, and grows them at regional technical colleges," says Podolsky. "They were already well-established in the 1970s, but waned in the 1980s-90s, which was recognized before they were reestablished about 10 years ago. Students typically spend three or four days per week at a company's work environment and the rest of the time in class getting the technical background they need."

Podolsky reports that Servomex participates in its local apprenticeship system, which identifies technically talented students at a young age, later matches them with potential industries and businesses, and usually provides two years of baseline technical education, so they can serve in entry-level technical positions. "There's always a portfolio of people to choose from, but as they get further into their careers, it can get more challenging to develop and find those with more specialized skills, such as IT or software/firmware," explains Podolsky. "The shift to software and other technical changes are happening fast, so the refresh cycle on our products is getting shorter and customers want enhancements immediately. This is why we need people with the latest, updated skills, and give them the software and IT training they require either with us or with partners. This has to happen during the next two to five years because whoever doesn't do it is going to fall behind."

Amanda Beaton, U.S. program manager for Siemens Cooperative Education, reports it brought the global program to the U.S. about seven years ago, and it connects hundreds of schools like Georgia Tech, University of Toledo and Kennesaw State University (formerly Southern Polytechnic State University) with relevant, industrial, factory automation technologies to give students real-world, hands-on experience. "We're seeing more emphasis on getting these technologies into classes and labs because if students can learn them hands-on, then it's easier to onboard them when they're hired," says Beaton. "More schools are investing in curricula and skills-based learning  available through the  SCE program, and several have progressed into topics like IIoT, virtual machines, and digital twins."

Beaton reports that potential users and companies can find SCE partner schools at its Partner School Finder web-tool. If there isn't a school nearby, then Siemens can invite instructors to attend a free training events, and take home hardware and software starter kits to introduce the technology into a program. "New technologies can be intimidating for anyone, so we offer free introductions and instruction whenever we can online and in person. SCE's curriculum isn't limited to colleges. High schools, research institutions, and even union training facilities use SCE," adds Beaton. "Of course, there are many downloadable courses and projects, and they're often matched with available, deeply discounted hardware. There are also certificates of completion, digital badges, and a new open-source software platform recently introduced with the Siemens IoT2040 gateway. Even elementary school students can benefit from this type of easy-to-adopt technology. We're showing digitalization and automation concepts to a local Girls Who Code chapter in Johns Creek, Ga, where my two daughters attend school."

On the leadership side, Podolsky adds that Servomex faced its own workforce-related crisis following challenges raised by the 2014-15 recession in the hydrocarbon industries. It changed its leadership to focus on new ideas, and further transformed the organization over the past two or three years. “The management team is compassionate, engages with more people, breaking down former hierarchies, and is interested in knowing what challenges employees are facing and how to resolve them,” says Podolsky. “This makes a big difference in whether people want to stay or go elsewhere. Everyone wants to feel like they're part of a family, that they have a common purpose, and they can all contribute. If managers and leaders respect their staff and invest in supporting them, then they can all be successful.”

Critical thinking for optimization

Once all the technical, soft and other skills are learned, they can begin to work together, solve problems and optimize processes. This is how experienced engineers, technicians and operators have always solved new problems, and it's still true, even though IIoT and digitalization have been altering the technological landscape much faster lately.

"We're a 115-year-old company that's gone through several technological changes, and like everyone else, we're in the midst of yet another evolution where we’re seeing the convergence of IT and OT. We traditionally hired mechanical engineers and electrical engineers to produce hardware, but now our managers are looking beyond those traditional skills," says Shane Driggers, vice president of global talent acquisition, effectiveness  and diversity at Rockwell Automation, who joined the company to two and a half years ago after 20 years in the software industry. "One essential skill they're going to need in the next five to 15 years is critical thinking for problem-solving and collaboration. Culture is changing within organizations like ours, and people need to be more agile and able to be perpetual learners.

"The question is how to address future skill gaps with today's STEM students and how do we do it with our existing talent base? We’re addressing those questions by developing programs that attract STEM students and internal programs that up-level our own people's skills while they work. Rockwell Automation's corporate strategy is to bring the Connected Enterprise to life. In order to do that, there’s a strong software component, and aligning with it means finding the right people for the right roles that can fill our own skill gaps. I joined with the understanding that we're all in a foot race to bring in new talent from a few new areas, especially the software side. Also, we recognize the importance of diversity of thought and experience which challenges us to ask if we have the right balance between genders and ethnicities."

Driggers reports that, “Sure, there are other technology companies out there with more brand equity who, on the surface, might appear more attractive than Rockwell Automation, but when people come here, they see how innovative we are and that we’re solving problems that make the world work better, more intelligent and more productive. We also spend a lot of time and effort addressing and removing barriers our people face, so they feel more empowered instead of frustrated, and can take intelligent risks to address our customers’ needs and problems.

"It comes down to culture and the readiness of any organization to make changes, There's always a push-pull between wanting to replicate past successes that may no longer work, and balancing historical know-how against those challenging the status quo.

Sometimes people and companies must unlearn and throw out what they've done before to reveal what they can do and need to do. This is where critical thinking, looking at applications in different ways, and getting uncomfortable can push, stretch and drive people into new and innovative solutions.

"We're not asking new or experienced personnel to assimilate, think the way organizations traditionally do, or follow 20-year-old procedures because then they couldn't be their authentic selves to their jobs. Now, we’re asking them to acclimate, and build a relationship with the organization that lets their real selves contribute new thoughts and ideas."