Them as Can, Do

June 12, 2008
Informing the Government of the Problem Is Good, but It Might Be Better for ISA to Spend Some Serious Money Doing Something About It
By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

We are facing a crisis of experience and personnel worldwide in process automation. I’ve been talking about this for years. Frankly, everybody has been talking about this for years. I’m tired of talking about it, and I want to see what people are actually doing.  Recently, at ABB Automation World, I moderated a panel with senior executives from Dow Chemical, ABB, Alcoa and DuPont, and what we were all interested in was what to do about the problem.

Each of the panelists outlined things that their companies were actually doing: projects to recruit young engineers and technicians; ways to make their younger employees want to stay; ways to handle work-life balance issues better; and ways to attract younger students, beginning in elementary school, to manufacturing.

In April, National Instruments announced that it made an in-kind donation valued at over $23 million to FIRST Robotics: NI and its entire supply chain will give all the components necessary to create the robots to each team for the next five years. NI will also continue to supply each team with LabVIEW programming software.

Autodesk also renewed its donation of design software to each FIRST Robotics team—another huge in-kind and in-cash grant.

Other companies, among them Honeywell, Rockwell Automation and AutomationDirect, are also helping attract young people to science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers through the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula.

Advanced Technology Services (ATS) in Peoria, Ill., is another shining example of actually doing something about the issue. ATS is a contract maintenance outsourcing firm. It’s growing very fast, handling maintenance, and especially automation, for many of the largest companies in manufacturing—so fast, according to Jeff Owens, the president, that ATS simply cannot hire all the trained automation professionals and other maintenance technicians it needs, in spite of being in the top 10 of the Department of Defense’s “Best Companies for Veterans” to work for.

So ATS has decided to “grow its own” automation and maintenance professionals. It has endowed a scholarship at Southern Illinois University for an Engineering Leadership Program and created a curriculum called the “Multi-Skilled Maintenance Technician” program at Illinois Central College, supported by scholarships. ATS hopes to hire some or all of the graduates of these programs.

Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to get down and actually do these same sorts of things if we want to replace ourselves when we retire—if they’ll let us retire. At one of the largest refinery and production companies in the world, over half the staff at the engineering center are called “annuitants”—retirees called back because there aren’t other workers available with their experience and expertise.

If manufacturing in the U.S. is going to survive, we need to do these kinds of things. You cannot hire just anybody to do these jobs. It takes years of training, both academic and technical, to make an automation professional.

In May, ISA organized a Congressional Fly-in. I and others were invited to come to Washington, D.C., and attend a cocktail party with a bunch of congressional staffers and maybe a congressperson or two. I declined to go. I appreciate ISA’s effort to improve the recognition of the problem at the governmental level, but it might be better if ISA just spent some serious money actually doing something about the problem. Compared to the things ATS, Dow, DuPont, NI, Autodesk, Rockwell, Honeywell, and others are doing, a congressional “fly-in” seems like small potatoes.

Just sayin’.