Happy New Year...We Hope!

Jan. 10, 2011
If We Won't Steer Our Own Kids Towards STEM Careers, How Can We Justify Pushing Other Kids into Manufacturing?
By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

According to all the pundits, we should be recovering from the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. We can all fervently hope so. Revenues have been going up for automation companies, which means that asset owners and end users have been loosening the purse strings. Hiring of automation professionals is increasing worldwide and because there is a worldwide shortage of qualified professionals, wages and benefits appear to be going up in most places.

That's good.

What's not good is that we continue to kill ourselves with monotonous regularity. Last year, the ASM Consortium ( tracked process industry accidents and concluded that there were well over 100 of them, with more than 25 fatalities. The root cause of most of those accidents was the same: failure to follow proper safety procedures.

What's also not so good is the increasing reliance of both end users and automation companies on new employees, who are being asked to do more, but with much less training or experience than we have. This is a time bomb.

We can't rely on the existing types of control systems in plants if we don't have highly experienced operators and engineers who can run them. The board operator on the Deepwater Horizon had been trained what to do for every alarm she might face—but never trained on which alarms to concentrate on in the event of a total alarm cascade. So when it happened, she was paralyzed and didn't know what to do.

A few years ago, I proposed that the automation vendors get together and fund the development and distribution of an online role-playing game that I called "Process Hero." Such a game would help to do two things we desperately need. First, it would get young people to consider careers in process automation as they learn how to operate and manage a process plant. Second, it would give a whole new generation of potential operators that situational awareness commanded by the 30+ year operators who've been retiring in droves. I still think it's a good idea, and maybe somebody out there will turn up with enough cash to do the project. The technology is certainly available for the virtual plant.

The current situation—not enough young people entering the business—is one we can all help address. Encourage your children to follow you into a science, engineering, technology or mathematics career. If we won't do it for our own kids, how can we justify pushing other kids into manufacturing? Manufacturing is going to get very smart, and become even more high tech than it already is. It will be a fulfilling job and pay very well, with more stability than manufacturing jobs have had in a long time.

If we keep discouraging our kids from going into STEM curricula in high school and college and then working in manufacturing, all the young engineers and operators in China and India will need to be recruited for our manufacturing plants—and they will get all the high paying jobs because, in China and India working in manufacturing is a high-status profession.

It isn't up to the asset owners, or the vendor community or the government either. It is up to each and every one of us to see to it that manufacturing is alive and well in North America and Western Europe, just as it will be in South America, Eastern Europe and Asia by the time we retire. And those of you younger than the average age of automation professionals (about 45) will need to replace yourselves too.

Encourage your children, your relatives' children and even kids you meet on the street, for heaven's sake, to become engineers, scientists and technicians. That's a New Year's resolution we can all make and be proud of.