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Future Imperfect

Aug. 30, 2007
Will automation engineers go the way of buggy-whip makers? Will they become the English majors of technology? Or are they way too important to be dispensed with? What’s the future of the profession?

By Nancy Bartels, managing editor

Like the man says, it’s the best of times and the worst of times—for automation professionals anyway—and it’s going to be that way for decades to come. That’s the conclusion of a survey of 163 Control readers and conversations with the some members of our editorial board.

We asked nine questions, all focused on the general issue of what process automation will be like in 10 to 20 years. Among our readers, while we found a fair amount of FUD—fear, uncertainly and doubt—there’s also a good bit of optimism about the future.

Outsourcing is still the Monster under the Bed in manufacturing, and therefore, in process automation. A full 30% of those surveyed say they think the outsourcing of manufacturing operations will make automation jobs nearly non-existent in the U.S. within 20 years. Another 21% say they aren’t sure. With 67% of companies outsourcing professional and engineering services last year, according to Control’s June Salary Survey (See “Payback Time,” p. 43, June issue)  the concern is hardly an idle one.

Outsourcing—How Big a Threat?

Those surveyed are divided on the question. Just under half (49.1%) don’t think outsourcing will kill off the process automation profession in the U.S. , but a full 30% think it will, and another 21% aren’t certain.
But these numbers still leave 49% of those surveyed seeing a more positive picture. In reality, outsourcing is not going away, but the picture is a nuanced one.

“Manufacturing is not all going to move to China,” says Dan Miklovic, research vice president at Gartner Inc. and Control editorial board member. “We’re going to see a shift of a lot to other parts of the world, but at the same time, we’ve discovered that the world is a dynamic place. As soon as the energy costs went through the roof, [we’ve seen] that economically it now makes more sense to do some manufacturing here.”

Don Allen, vice president of corporate communications for Incuity Software thinks we can handle the outsourcing threat. He said in his response to the survey, “While I see individual roles changing, I think the U.S. will become more competitive again in the global economy. The low cost labor of other countries won’t be as significant a factor. It’ll get back to being smart about manufacturing and making sure the entire enterprise is well run.”

As Miklovic sees it, the problem is not one of cost, but of supply. “A lot of the design and engineering will move to other places because we just don’t have enough people here. There’s an engineering shortage here, and people will go other places to get the automation skills they need,” he says.

Young people here in the U.S. just don’t enter the field like they did in the past. Part of the reason, beyond the general sense that manufacturing doesn’t offer the opportunities it once did, is that many young engineers don’t understand the value of automation engineering. “They all want to write software,” says editorial board member Larry Wells of Georgia-Pacific.

He adds that over the years, manufacturers have often been bad at selling automation engineering jobs to the generation coming up. “The single best way to do this is through co-op arrangements with schools,” he says. “How do you get them into engineering school in the first place? The single best way is to let them spend part of the time in school and part of the time in a real job. Companies and schools used to do a lot of that, and now they don’t.”

Miklovic sees the solution on a larger scale. “It’s not too late, but the problem of renewing our country’s engineering skills base has to be addressed at the highest level. There’s nothing you or I or Jeff Immelt [CEO of General Electric] can do. This is something that has to be done between the government and industry. Back in the 60s, the space race invigorated manufacturing. If something like that reinvigorated engineering—maybe biofuels or renewable energy—that would help.”

Another editorial board member, Mark Wells, validation manager for generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Novopharm of Canada, disagrees. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to spend your way into an economy and establish a dominant position. There are just going to be situations where overseas engineers will be practical. I’m less concerned with not having available resources. Market forces will adjust to accommodate that.”

Why Automation Engineering?

The outsourcing issue aside, the question remains, is automation engineering even worth pursuing as a career? Those we surveyed are divided on the subject. A full third think the gig was better 20 years ago, and another 14% are unsure, but that leaves 52% who don’t think the good old days were better.

Pushing the question to the future leaves the answers even more unclear. Forty percent think process automation will be a better career choice in 20 years than now, but, again, almost a full third (30%) don’t think it will be, and almost as many (29%) don’t know. 
Novopharm’s Wells comes down firmly on the side of the doubters. “There will be fewer automation engineers who work for end users than there are today. It’s not a growth career. Fewer and fewer people are needed to produce things, and that trend will continue.”

The graying of the workforce may be skewing the results, says Georgia-Pacific’s Larry Wells. “As an older person, I know that I’ll have work,” he says. “We talk about how we need people, but now we hire older ones. If we want a young person just out of school, that’s no problem, but if we want an experienced person, there’s a void in the middle, so we end up hiring the older person.”

Better Times Ahead?

Forty percent of those surveyed say yes, but 30% disagree and another 30% are uncertain.
And what about the future? “It’s a better choice now because so few people are going into it,” he says. “We’re paying in the low 70s for a young engineer just coming out of school. There are still good pay and good benefits. It’s a better choice because there are fewer people entering the field.”

Miklovic is the most optimistic of our board members. “The good news is that it’s not a dead-end career. There are going to be a lot of job opportunities, but they’re going to be in instrumentation, service and repair. My odds are better at getting a job at Anheuser-Busch managing beer-making controls than they are working for Fisher Controls designing new controls. A lot of that is going to be done in India.”

A Different Kind of Engineer

The nature of the job is also subject to debate. Many see the basics remaining. Editorial board member Jim Sprague of Saudi Aramco said in an email, “The basic function of a process control engineer—measuring and controlling the process—will be the same. The future will change the tools we use to do this, and will increase the number and type of people that look at the data, but understanding the chemical process and the physics of how to measure and control it will remain the bedrock skill set.”

Dan Miklovic adds, “Most automation people got there because they became process experts. They understood what they were making. For example, they had to learn how to make lumber and then how to automate the process. Being an automation engineer without understanding what you’re making is hard.”

But having said that, a whopping 84% of the readers we surveyed say the job of the automation engineer is going to be a different one in the future.

Convergence is the name of the game, says Miklovic. “So many things are now in the realm of IT that control people need to think about what they should give up and what they should keep. If we don’t break down the wall between control and IT, then we’re going to build up wasted investments. Control engineering should be focusing on the process and let IT worry about the computers. They already know how to do those things.”

Novopharm’s Mark Wells says, “The automation engineer is going to be taking on more responsibilities. [He or she] will have to know more technically, but will be more in charge of sourcing, purchasing and implementing through others rather than actually doing the work. Engineers will be more managers of resources coming from suppliers. Whatever application they encounter, they’re going to have to be able to source solutions, understand what’s technically available, make the best choice and manage the implementation.”

He goes on to say that “soft skills” such as project management, in addition to the traditional technical skills, will be increasingly important, and those technical skills will be “less in depth and more broad-based. They’ve have to know a little bit about a lot of technologies, enough to make educated decisions.”

The Sales Department

Nearly 70% of those surveyed see selling the benefits of plant-floor automation and optimization to the executive suite as a growing part of their job description in the future.
Georgia-Pacific’s Larry Wells adds, “The basic skills and understanding remain the same, but now you have more time to add value. Because we contract out more, engineers have to know who to call. [Engineers] will be facilitators—getting information to the higher-ups and making sure systems are implemented properly. Today you have to be more of a generalist. You have to have a bigger picture now that you used to.”

Being “bilingual,” both in terms of spoken and technical languages will be a necessary skill, says Miklovic. “This isn’t really new. The most successful companies have always been the ones where someone knew how to sell the business case for the technology. They had senior engineering people who could explain the benefits of adopting this type of control.”

What’s changed, he says, is the level of sophistication. “Twenty years ago, the average management person didn’t have a strong technical background. Today they all understand technology to some degree. The dialog is ratcheting up a level, and the sophistication of the person you’re talking to is better. Before you had to spend time on the technology. Now you have more time to spend on the business case.”

Our survey reflects this focus on the larger business as well. Almost 79% of respondents say that future engineers will have to have business process analysis skills, and 70% think that selling process automation to upper management will be a bigger part of their job in 20 years than it is now.

What About the New Stuff?

The last question in our survey asked readers to rate which of five technologies—wireless, nano-technology, alternative energy sources, increased computing speed and power and Internet-based monitoring and control—would change the automation landscape the most. Wireless and Internet-based monitoring and control were in a statistical dead heat, at 43.2% and 42.6%, respectively.

Larry Wells says they will all matter to one degree or another. “Each will change it in a different way. Wireless will make things cheaper. We’ll get more information at a lower cost. Nano-tech could change the whole world if it lives up to its advertisement, but it’s still very far in the future. Alternative energy will not change automation tech, but will create more job opportunities. The computer speed thing will change the landscape the least. We have Internet-based monitoring and control now. It will change the location of where we do some things, but won’t change what we do. No one thing will supersede or preclude the others.”

Keeping Away the Elephants?

Will the changing nature of the job cause automation engineers to morph into corporate drones, albeit ones with a better grasp of physics and chemistry than the average bear? Will the emphasis on “soft skills” and being “generalists” turn them into the English majors of technology−nice people, no doubt, but not really experts in anything? Should they just pack it in and get their MBAs instead?
The majority of those surveyed would answer a resounding, “No!” But the question is why.

Perhaps it has to do with Larry Wells’ elephant story. This is the one where the man pays a hunter with a big gun to keep the elephants away from his store. When it is pointed out to him that there are no elephants in the country outside the zoo, he says, “See. It’s working.”

“I use that story to explain why we spend money on automation engineers,” says Wells. “Why are we paying these people when the system is working on its own? It’s working on its own because you had the people there. It’s keeping away the elephants.”

Novapharm’s Mark Wells has a slightly more romantic take on the profession. He says, “I work with Nels Tyring, and he says, you don’t go into this for the money, but because it’s a really interesting career. Monetary rewards are great, but you have to love your job. There are the intellectual rewards. You get some interaction with things that move and go. You get varied projects. There’s a great satisfaction in performing these jobs, and a great sense of accomplishment.”

For the complete results of our survey, go to www.controlglobal.com/futuresurvey.html.

For a look at how women in the engineering workplace may change it see “Work/Life Balance from our June.

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