January 2008

Communication is our goal

By Ellen Fussell Policastro

Part 2 of a two-part article featuring an interview with ISA President Elect Kim Miller Dunn.

How has ISA changed as an organization, and how will it change in the next year? 

I think the really big significant change (in the words of Steve Huffman) is we are looking external instead of internal. We are trying to reach out instead of internalizing everything. That's huge. I can remember the days when talking about any kind of partnership with the government was totally taboo. Now we are going to meetings on Capitol Hill to see how we can further Congress' efforts to educate a technical workforce. And that is something that will build on itself.

There is probably no other issue that is more significant globally than workforce development. There simply are not enough technical workers to fill the jobs out there, especially with the Baby Boomer bomb getting ready to explode. That is across the whole technology spectrum.

When you look at control systems and instrumentation and process control automation, that whole umbrella, the problem is even worse because it is not a recognized profession like electrical engineering, chemical, and mechanical. I will keep moving all these initiatives forward. I know that sounds lame, but I think in this instance it is the right thing to do. Thanks to the efforts of my predecessors, ISA has a lot on its plate with globalization and workforce development, partnering with industry and government, as well as maintaining our five core competencies. The last thing we need is, just because I'm new, that I want to change the direction. We do not need that right now; we need to stay focused on what we are doing.

If there is one objective that I personally want to accomplish, it is to communicate more with our membership. Meeting and listening a couple times a year is not adequate. And that became obvious as we went through the name change that did not happen. There is always electronic communication, and people can pick up the phone. But as a rule, the leadership at ISA does not meet and sit face to face and talk to each other more than a couple times a year. One of the things I would like to do is to have an article or a blog, similar to Pinto's Points-the ISA president letting the membership know what is going on.

I would also like to see the Society become more technology-focused than geographic-centric. This does not mean sections are not important; they are. But if we focus on our technical interest groups (Divisions) and the content they produce, our sections will have more material available for presenting to members, increasing section and Society value to the average member. I hope we can ultimately develop a section programming guide that will enable sections to provide consistent messaging to all members. It is all part of think globally, act locally.

What plans do you have for ISA and the future of its membership? 

Number one, I would like to get ISA to a point where we do not argue over semantics of automation, instrumentation, control systems, and process control. It is all one big happy family and should be. One example is the name change that did not happen. You have got control system engineers and instrument technicians who do not think they are part of automation. Automation should be the one big embracing term, but unfortunately we have a lot of people who just do not think that. ISA needs to look forward and define our profession; it is what our members have been wanting for many years.

ISA and members of the Automation Federation are trying to say we are all about automation at the end of the day. We are trying to make sure plants can run without 10 million people standing there to manually do things. And our goal is to communicate that and define that profession, raising the awareness of who we are, not just the Society but the people who are part of it. As automation professionals we all feel under-appreciated in the companies we work for in that we do not get enough recognition in what we do and the important role we play. ISA needs to change that.

What are the biggest issues we face, and what is our best response? 

I think one of the biggest issues we face is a shortage of knowledgeable people working in industry and the Baby Boomer bust. Too many knowledgeable people in plants are getting ready to retire without transferring all their tribal knowledge. That is a huge problem in industry. Right now companies have to take reasonably educated people and train them to be automation professionals. This is expensive and time-consuming. ISA needs to help our industry to recruit people-convince the brightest and smartest that it is a good career path. And then we need to train them.

Governments have recognized the shortage of technology workers worldwide. And certainly industry has recognized that. So ISA needs to partner with governments to find a solution. Congress has earmarked millions of dollars toward workforce development. And our goal is to get our piece of it to develop courses and books-the tools needed to educate the industry. We want the government to recognize, when they are dealing with questions surrounding automation and industry, that ISA is the right organization to look to for answers. When they are writing regulations on safety standards in refineries, the control system is going to come into play. We have the people to provide them those tools.

What are some of our biggest strengths? How are we going to build on those? 

I do not think there is an organization out there with a better reputation of certification and education of its members and the entire industry it covers. This plays right into what industry and the government is looking for-organizations that can educate and train people. I think the challenge is keeping up with technology and making sure everything is relevant. That means adding courses. Pneumatics are not being bought and put into new plants today. But there are plenty of old plants that still have them. Nobody will learn about pneumatic control systems in school; it is dated technology, but it is still being used. It is up to ISA to provide retro-training as well as keep up with cutting-edge technologies of today.

What words of wisdom do you have for ISA members and leaders for the coming year?

There are two ways to answer that. For the bystanders, I would say "Watch out, and wait 'til you see what we're all about." To those that are more involved, I would say, "You have a lot of work to do." Because we need to get closer and higher in our user and vendor company bases to make sure ISA is fulfilling their needs … in particular in training, certification, and education. We have members on the ground all across the world, and they are the ones who have the contacts for us to get into those companies, talk to them, and find out what their needs are and how we can work with them. As an organization, we have a lot to offer, but so many companies have no idea this resource is there. Communication is our goal.