October 2008

Climbing competency lattice

How do you define automation? An ISA brochure says it is "the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production of goods and services." But what about engineers in the field or those interested in a career in automation? How will they know if they measure up? And how will employers know who to hire?

Automation obviously can mean different things to different people. So in September, experts from around the industry met with representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to actually describe the specific job duties and develop what DOL calls a competency model and career lattice for the automation industry.

The Automation Federation (AF) is interested in defining automation occupations and creating an automation career lattice to give workers an  idea of what is expected of them.

JBS International, a contractor for DOL out of Bethesda, Md., sent representatives as meeting proctors to help guide AF volunteers in establishing the automation competency model. Representatives reminded volunteers that a competency model is a resource as opposed to an end product. 

A competency includes identifiable, definable, and measurable skills or characteristics essential for performance of activity with a specific business or industry context. A competency model is less an assessment of how well a person can do something, but more a collection of competencies pulled together to define successful performance in a defined work setting. It is a description of an employee's knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform well in a specific job or industry.

The model appears as a pyramid with foundation competencies shown at the base and more specific industry-related competencies, followed by those that are more related to the specific occupation as you climb the competency tiers.

The Automation Federation volunteer team's task is to look at each framework and make sure they reflect major industry groups and reflect the major competencies. The volunteers also are responsible for adding and changing the tiers as they see fit, based on their experience in the automation industry. In some instances, characteristics under one tier could actually move to another tier.

Personal effectiveness

In the automation competency model, an employer would look at the lowest tier first, Tier 1, which represents interpersonal skills, such as integrity, professionalism, initiative, dependability, and lifelong learning.

One volunteer suggested the term "hygiene" be added to the professionalism section of Tier 1, especially because of requirements in the food and beverage industry. Other topics of discussion surrounding personal effectiveness included avoiding being too prescriptive. "It's easy to discriminate against creativity, which is coupled to employee diversity," said Dan Lilley, an account manager with the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at NIST in Gaithersburg, Md. "So if we become too prescriptive, we could cut ourselves off from creative people, who generally are not as concerned with precision as engineers tend to be. It might be more effective not to go in that direction and use this on a case by case basis," he said.

Academic, workplace competencies

Moving up on the competency model means getting more specific, looking at how employees measure up closer to their specific line of work. Academic competencies in Tier 2 include reading writing, math, science and engineering, communication, critical thinking, and basic computer skills. Tier 3 includes workplace competencies, such as teamwork, planning and organizing, problem solving, and working with tools and technology, to name a few.

The volunteers discussed the meaning of the words teamwork versus collaboration. Cultural differences play a big part in the meanings of words, said volunteer Dennis Brandl, president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C. "There is a cultural disconnect when people come in with different notions of what a team is," Brandl said. "In France, teamwork means supporting the leader. In the U.S., it means collaborating with your team members."

In establishing a model for automation, it is important to clarify the difference between industry-wide technical competencies and automation. So the goal was to broaden the scope of Tier 4, which focused on industry-wide competencies, such as manufacturing process and design, production, maintenance, installation and repair, supply chain logistics, and health and safety. Words such as process and discrete have specific meanings in automation that industry-wide engineers and other professionals might use in everyday circumstances.

Other discussions centered around the role of security in the automation technical competencies, which included principles of automation, measurement and actuation, control, electrical systems, communications, and process and equipment safety. Should security have its own block? Or should it be included within the automation tier with safety?

Meetings will continue to refine the model, which moves through Tiers 6-9, occupational specific knowledge areas, technical competencies, requirements, and management competencies.

Ellen Fussell Policastro (efussellpolicastro@isa.org) writes and edits Workforce Development.