December 2008

Executive Summit offers steps to automation success

The 2nd Annual ISA Automation Executive Summit in October gave automation experts the chance to share their experience with executives on what they see as the future of automation.

One discussion focused on the most strategic issues the automation profession will face over the next decade or more. "We are trying to assemble a common vision and mobilize efforts to realize a brighter future," said ISA Executive Director Patrick Gouhin. He asked for attendees' continued support in contributing to the vision of the automation profession. "Together we can accomplish more than any of us (or our organizations) can independently," he said.

Education and government relations and broadening international awareness were among last year's initiatives. The objective of this year's meeting was to engage corporate executives in a meaningful discussion to positively impact the automation profession over the next decade or longer.

Participants expressed concerns and challenges ahead that will help ISA in its future plans. Here are some concerns and comments the group discussed:

With so much effort going into recruiting young automation professionals, what's the industry doing for older professionals who might need development?

A transition plan is key for the work place to help professionals transition from one industry in the automation field to another or from another profession into that of automation. We might need to facilitate additional training and examine re-training of returning veterans as part of any workforce development effort. Creating a transition plan for military veterans to enter the automation profession is just as important, as is formally communicating opportunities and skills they might need down the road.

Statistics show the U.S. needs 15,000 new automation professionals every year for at least the next decade simply to remain at productivity levels of today. A few corporations are at half capacity of experienced engineers, surviving with continual over-time of employees. Universities might find this story compelling enough to adopt an automation program to ensure high placement rates and high salaries for new graduates.

What will the automation professional of the future need to know?

The requirements of the workforce change quickly, and we need to be able to project competency requirements in the future. We need to be able to link these requirements back into the educational curriculum. Corporations are losing trained employees at twice the rate they can replace them.

The Automation Federation and ISA are working with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to define additional skill categories for the automation profession. The Automation Federation is looking across the entire spectrum of automation profession levels to help create a competency model.

Do those in the field get the respect they deserve, making others aspire to similar careers, and does the academic community support the profession?

One way ISA promotes the automation profession is by defining broad automation profession categories with the DOL; yet automation is more complicated than manufacturing. Business schools currently have more appeal than engineering schools. However, the sheen is currently coming off IT careers due to increased publicity surrounding IT out-sourcing.

The message to send universities is how exciting a career in the automation profession can be. Universities do not yet have classes labeled "automation," nor do they receive significant funds for automation research. High-school students need to know quite a few chief executives started with a degree in engineering.

Today's financial crisis points to the importance of marketable skills, such as engineering, which is more valuable at present than those of a financial analyst. "For years, students and young people have sought finance and business degrees in the hopes of being a CEO, or Wall Street guru when they grow up," said ISA President Kim Miller Dunn. "Many of those who traveled down this road are now finding themselves in dire straights as markets crash, companies go under, and in general there is now a flood of MBAs on the market looking for jobs," she said.

In the manufacturing sector-those who seem to succeed often start with a technical degree followed by an MBA or finance degree coupled with good experience in sales, marketing, manufacturing, and finance. "Having those across-the-board skills seems to lead to better opportunities and better leaders overall," Miller Dunn said. "In today's environment, demonstrating a clear understanding of the entire business picture trumps pure finance knowledge."

China is a good example of a country that currently offers automation as a discipline under engineering in its universities.

Other suggestions included targeting universities to adopt automation programs and soliciting corporate funding. Corporations could make jobs and on-line training materials available through co-op work programs. Or building a school dedicated to training automation professionals might be another solution. Automation suppliers in the U.K. fund a program for universities offering different modules that lead to a Masters degree in automation to help train their next generation of workers.

Young people might not know what automation means and what careers to pursue.

Along with helping to establish an automation competency model, publishing a definitive Automation Body of Knowledge (Autobok) book, and defining an Automation Engineering curriculum with two- and four-year versions, ISA has the materials in hand. But we need to offer opportunities to corporations to sponsor outreach programs to help boost university adoptions of an automation profession program.

The 3rd Annual ISA Automation Executive Summit will take place in Houston at ISA EXPO 2009.