March 2008

Automation IT

Know what you don't know

With Boomers hitting the road, DuPont embarks on competency assessment mission

Fast Forward

  • Internal team wanted to measure knowledge, skills of process control practitioners.
  • Through measurement, skill levels will improve.
  • Global expansion means the company will need automation resources in all geographic regions. 
  • Recruiting, training, and developing resources in local languages remain huge challenges.
By Nicholas P. Sands

Over the last 10 years, a team interested in increasing the level of automaton and process control competency at the DuPont Co. wanted to measure and improve the knowledge and skills of process control practitioners. 
From the beginning, progress was slow as the problem did not appear to be urgent. However, with the potential impending loss of the Baby Boomer generation, progress over the last five years has accelerated.  Following a Six Sigma methodology, the team defined competency, developed a measurement process, analysis tools, and implemented improvement plans. The results are starting to show. 
The process control competency (PCC) team felt knowledge, skills, and experience of the process control practitioners in the company was declining.  They identified five challenges: demographic shifts, geographic shifts, technology progress, the educational system, and local specialization.

The demographic shift is the most urgent challenge to maintaining and improving automation and process control competency. Experts, with deep experience in a wide range of skills, are retiring from the company. Despite that knowledge, there still seems to be a vague idea of its impact. To find some answers, the PCC team commissioned a survey.

The results showed over 25% of the process control practitioners will retire with five years, and over 50% will retire within 10 years. Time to step up the urgency to address the competency challenges.

A geography test

The geographic shift is a difficult one to address.  DuPont has been expanding in other geographical regions as demand for products in those regions grows.  The Asia Pacific, South American, and Eastern European regions continue to grow.  As manufacturing facilities go up in these regions, the company will need automation and process control resources. The ability to recruit, train, and develop these resources in local languages is a significant challenge to a global, but U.S.-based company.

The progress of technology remains an ongoing challenge. There is a constant flow of new technologies in the automation field requiring new knowledge and new skills. New technologies arrive, requiring competency in an ever increasing range of technologies.

The educational supply problem requires long term thinking.  Automation and process control is generally not a degree program in colleges, universities, and vocational schools, while there are some exceptions.  Today, development occurs with work experience, not through education. An internal estimate is that it takes five to seven years of on the job experience to develop a contributing automation and process control practitioner.
The last of the major challenges to the automation and process control competency relates to the way practitioners support manufacturing.  Because of the variety of systems and organizations at each site, the skills and knowledge required at one manufacturing location can vary significantly from those at another location.  The skills required at a site are not only a function of the systems at the site, but also the other site personnel and their skills.  The local nature of competency was a significant factor in the development of an operational definition of competency.

After understanding the five challenges to competency in automation and process control, the PCC team determined a competency assessment would be the way to go. The team focused on developing a competency measurement process, which would lead to improvement recommendations.  Repetition of the measurement through improvement steps provides a method to sustain or control the level of competency.  It was decided to apply the Six Sigma improvement process and follow the define, measure, analyze, improve, and control steps.

Defining the term competency was one of the first tasks for the PCC team. 

The PCC team settled on this definition for competency: Competency is the ability to satisfactorily perform the required functions of a job, usually defined in terms of tasks or skills.

Competency vs. performance: One concern that surfaced immediately during the discussion of measuring competency is it would be easy to misapply the information to rate performance. You can base performance on results, which includes factors not included in technical competency, such as people skills, communication skills, leadership skills, organizational skills, and work ethic.  The team limited the definition and the measurement of competency to the technical skills related to automation and process control. 

Competency vs. certification: One possible applied definition of competency is a credential or certification that an individual has the basic skills, knowledge, and experience.  There was an early suggestion the team use this approach and develop a certification program. There was, however, several barriers.

The cost involved in developing and maintaining an internal certification program is significant, and it may be cheaper to use external certification programs.  

A certification program establishes a minimum level of skills, knowledge, and experience across a defined range of skills.  While this is a valuable baseline and recommended for all practitioners, it does not measure the competency profile across a range of skills needed for a specific role or to support a specific site. By definition, the PCC team's definition, competency is the level of skill required for a specific job.  Measuring competency includes determining the desired skill profile in addition to a certification program that uses a minimum skill profile.

Competency measurement: The PCC team determined an absolute measure of competency was not as important as a relative measure of competency. The team determined competency gaps, skill or knowledge areas in which the ability of the individual or organization was not sufficient to meet the business needs, were to be the key measurement. Another way to explain a competency gap is a skill or knowledge area that, if the individual or organization had more ability, the business would benefit.  

The team reviewed past competency assessment methods and examples of external competency measurement methods.  Past methods used a short list of skills and three skill levels.  External assessments looked very similar to the process developed by the PCC team.  In the end, the team settled on an assessment that uses a 0-5 scale for competency levels.

The competency assessment process uses a defined list of skills, the defined skill levels, and a defined set of roles.  


Skill levels

To ensure consistency during the assessments, the team developed a skill level scale. The scale should reflect exponentially increasing experience and expertise.

The automation and process control skill inventory lists approximately 40 skills.  The team wrote skill definitions to be detailed enough to point to development needs, but generic enough to apply across multiple sites with different processes and different control systems.

In addition, the team developed a list of generic roles for automation and process control practitioners so the company could compare skill profiles from site to site.  During the assessment, the company only uses roles to identify individuals. That move ensures no one misuses competency scores as performance ratings.  This confidentiality helps to reassure practitioners and increases their willingness to provide honest answers.

Using the working definition of competency, the assessment measures competency gaps of the organization across the set of selected skills using a modified cause and effect matrix.  The matrix consists of the list of selected skills against the primary job roles of the individuals in the assessment.  The essential element is the intersection of a job role and a skill.  For each intersection, the individual provides a current skill level target and a current skill level.

You are then able to take the raw data from the assessment and combine it to generate skill gaps for each role/skill intersection.  Each skill gets a rating from 1 to 5 for its overall value to the business.  The individual data from each role/skill intersection combines generate some overall metrics.

A work group of automation and process control practitioners completes the assessment in real time. The results are available as soon as the assessment is complete.  During the analysis, the company can ignore any skill levels that exceed the target since competency gaps are the important measurement. As with most things, there are quite a few ways to view this information.

By itself the competency gap summary is not sufficient to develop an improvement plan.  The overall gaps are useful, but the skill level transitions can lead to a clear improvement plan.  The skill level transitions are the discrete improvements in skill levels that relate to the actions required for the transitions.  It takes significantly more effort and time to make the transitions from skill level 4 (very experienced) to skill 5 (expert) than it does to make the transition from skill level 1 (awareness) to skill level 2 (trained).

A skill level transition analysis will identify what types of actions, such as training or job assignments, need to occur to make the most significant improvements in the overall competency.  Some actions will impact groups, such as training, while other actions will target individuals that need to make transitions to the higher skill levels.  Those actions should be part of an individual's development plan.  The individual can also use this information for their own development.


Assessment advantages

The competency assessment process can have several benefits for a work group such as identification of new skills, team building as the individuals share their skill levels, and inspiration for individuals to set skill development targets.  To make the assessment process valuable, an improvement plan should address the competency gaps identified.

The improvement actions should be specific and assigned to an individual committed to completing the item. It should also have specific timing. In addition, the action should relate to a specific skill. 

This is no quick fix. It usually takes three or four years to implement a competency improvement plan.  After nearly five years of assessments, you can finally begin to evaluate the results. The first effect of the competency assessments was to identify specific skills, related to company standards, that needed development. As a result, the company developed several new courses to address these needs.

The second effect related to the assessment process.  The act of measurement, as is often cited, created a focus and interest that did not exist before.  The process control leaders for sites and businesses became engaged in the competency effort with a new energy.  Process control practitioners identified skills where they wanted to become experts.  For some, it was a surprise to discover they could become experts.

The third result of the competency assessment process was the comparison of assessment results for the same group three or four years after the original assessment.  On average, and only a few groups have been reassessed, there was an improvement in total competency of 8% and a 66% reduction in competency gaps.  Work remains to determine the margin of error for this measurement, given the nature of work groups with new people arriving and experienced people leaving.

There are significant challenges that may have a negative impact on the ability of automation and process control practitioners to meet business needs.  These challenges include shifts in demographics, shifts in geographic locations, continuing changes in technology, lack of an educational program for automation professionals, and the specific skills needed locally at a site.

While certifications are useful to verify a minimum level of knowledge and skills, a competency assessment process can determine the skill profile desired. The team was able to develop an assessment process using defined skill levels, a list of automation skills, and a set of practitioner roles.  The assessment measures the total percent competency and specific skill gaps.  Analysis of the data by skill level transition can lead to the development of an improvement plan.  A second assessment after completing the improvement plan, which can take several years, can lead to a significant reduction in competency gaps.

While the assessment does not address all competency challenges, it is a start.  The act of measuring knowledge and skills focuses attention on the development areas.  Competency assessment is one step a company can take to manage and improve the effectiveness of its automation and process control practitioners.


Nicholas P. Sands is a process control technology manager in chemical solutions enterprise, The DuPont Company, Deepwater, N.J. His e-mail is  

InTech Market Survey

Workforce development: Welcome to world of generalized engineering

By Gregory Hale

In a world where "tastes great less filling" are clear delineations of choice, today's automation professionals feel they have no option, as they need to have a broader understanding of more disciplines compared to a more specialized technical knowledge.
At least 72% of respondents think so, while 28% feel they need specialized technical knowledge, according to an InTech Market Study survey on workforce development.

Whether the automation professional specializes or is a generalist, survey respondents feel the future in this country is replete of engineering education.

When asked if they felt the U.S. education system (K-12) is properly preparing/training students to become engineers, 27% said yes, while 73% said no.

Taking it to the next level, when asked if colleges and universities are properly preparing/training students to become engineers, it is almost even with 51% of respondents answering yes, 49% no.
Gaining book knowledge at college is one thing, continuing education is another. 

When it comes to gaining the majority of their continuing education, 30% of respondents said from associations, while 29% said from third party vendors, 15% said from universities, and 13% said from their supplier.
However, when asked where respondents get the majority of their job-related training, 28% said from third party vendors, 26% each said from a supplier or other, and 17% said from an association.  


Work veteran, inexperience

Training on control systems seems to be the most important need for engineers with less than five years experience, with 35% of respondents giving it the top spot. Basic engineering, with 34%, came in second as a training need for industry newcomers. An interesting point: 9% of respondents said business education was an important training need for those with less than five years of experience, but for those with more than five years on the job, it was the top need, with 31% responding.

In this environment where the departure of Baby Boomers to rocking chairs and golf carts in Florida is imminent, there does not seem to be a system in place to tackle the issue.

When asked if their company suffered from a qualified worker shortage, 77% of respondents said yes, while 23% said no. But when asked if their company has a formal program under way to promote engineering disciplines in an effort to recruit the next generation of employees, only 37% said they did, while 63% said no.

In terms of finding qualified workers, respondents felt it was a team effort between the federal government, employers, universities, and professional societies, with 53% saying they all should have a hand in finding the workers. Individually, 19% said it was up to the employer, while 12% said universities, 5% said professional societies, and 1% said the federal government.

When asked if they believe there is a global shortage of engineers, 59% said yes, while 41% said no. When asked why they felt there was a shortage, 39% said it was because: The general public does not understand what engineers do; there is a negative perception associated with engineers; there is a negative perception associated with what engineers do; there have been no unified campaigns promoting the profession/industry.

That was from the global perspective, however, the numbers change a little when it comes to a North American shortage of engineers, with 82% saying yes, and 19% saying no.

When asked why they felt there was a shortage of automation professionals in North America, 37% said it was a combination of the public not understanding what engineers do, a negative perception associated with engineers, a negative perception associated with what engineers do, and there have been no unified campaigns promoting the profession.

When asked if they have had a rewarding career and have made a significant contribution to their company, 83% of respondents gave the thumbs up.

The only constant when it comes to technology is it is always changing. So, how often does new technology force workers to obtain new skills and refine knowledge? The top choice was once a year, with 35% answering. Quarterly came in second with 19%, followed by 17% each for monthly and weekly.


Gregory Hale is the editor of InTech.