September 2008

Navigating a career impasse in the process automation profession

By Venkat Subramanian

Recently, we have started hearing about the potential for shortage of Automation Engineers in the near future due to unavailability of young engineers to replace the automation engineering workforce on the verge of retirement.

There have been some efforts initiated and sponsored by ISA and others to support the development of formal curriculum in engineering schools for the process automation discipline.

Young engineers with degrees in chemical, electrical, or computer engineering choose the Automation profession fascinated by the significant benefit derived by automating the operation of manufacturing facilities and embark on a journey that begins with learning the fundamentals of process control engineering.

With the lack of widespread availability of formal university level education in the automation engineering discipline, young engineers have to develop most of the automation skills in their work environment.

After automation engineers gain three to five years of experience, they typically transition into roles that require cross-functional collaboration such as managing small to medium size automation projects, enterprise software integration with control systems, and the like. The barriers to develop and transition to this level are typically low.

After serving this profession for 10 to 12 years, engineers start to look out for opportunities to broaden their skill set such as functional team leadership, large-scale automation project management, and enterprise software integration. The barriers to develop and transition to this level are only moderate.

However, beyond this level, engineers with 15 to 25 years of experience who do not transition into a broader role may experience an impasse in their career path. They may feel the pressure to move to a broader role primarily because of the lack of sound career progression opportunities that will enable them to rise through the ranks in the corporate environment.

Moreover, unanticipated changes may occur in the organization or the industry that senior engineers serve, resulting in potential work force reductions in their organization.

Under such circumstances, even engineers with a lot of experience (15 to 25 years) and who cherish serving the automation industry may find it difficult to obtain jobs with salaries that are commensurate with their experience in the industry. This situation may force them to look for opportunities in other areas.

In my opinion, the opportunities for engineers in other disciplines to climb the corporate ladder are much greater than are available for automation engineers.

What are the implications of the career impasse in the automation profession?

The implications can be far reaching. Lack of opportunities for robust career growth may make the profession unattractive for mid-tier engineers who have been in the automation industry for 10 to 15 years.

This profession may become less appealing for young engineers who may want to explore automation engineering as their career choice.

What can the engineers and professional organizations do to improve opportunities for long-term career growth?

Engineers will need to increase their awareness of the business needs of the corporation and the value drivers that their business offers to the shareholders.

Industry leading professional organizations such as ISA can help to avoid such migration by promoting growth opportunities for automation professionals by making the CAP certification more popular among major corporations, offering networking opportunities and mentoring relationships, conducting career workshops and highlighting the enhanced value that automation professionals provide to the process industries.


Venkat Subramanian ( is a senior automation engineer with CAP, PMP, and Six Sigma Black Belt certifications.