July/August 2010

Collaborating partnerships: Filling the pipeline with skilled workers

By Bob Crigler

One student loves tinkering with computers. Another enjoys fine-tuning electronic devices to control what they do and how they do it. Still another really likes graphical interfaces and the interactivity of electronic games. Will any of these students make automation, instrumentation, or process control their chosen careers? How can we reach these students with the message that technology careers are relevant, interesting, and available? Currently, many people and organizations have dedicated their efforts to working together to promote technology careers. This is a story of one regional partnership that has been successful and is being replicated across the U.S.

ISA has identified workforce development as a key initiative vital to the future viability of manufacturing. At the core of this initiative is the goal of building the next generation of automation professionals. ISA, through the Automation Federation (AF), is working to achieve this goal by creating a greater awareness among students (K-12) about the importance of math and science, and how proficiency in them can lead to a wide variety of careers in automation and technology fields.


AF has been working with the Piedmont Triad Partnership (PTP) through a U.S. Department of Labor WIRED grant on partnership solutions to address these manufacturing challenges. PTP serves a 12-county region around the Triad cities of Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem in central North Carolina.

The concerns in the Piedmont Triad area are quite similar to other manufacturing regions. The Piedmont Triad has been decimated by global shifts in manufacturing in its legacy industries, including tobacco, furnishings, and textiles.

However, while 250,000 of 800,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in North Carolina between 1997 and 2006, the value of the manufactured goods being produced has grown from about $60 billion to approximately $75 billion in the state.

What is happening is a combination of productivity gains and a shift from low to high value-added production. Thus, legacy industries are being replaced by advanced manufacturing segments such as electronics, biotech/pharmaceutical, and aviation. As an example, some former employees of the furnishings industry are now producing high-technology airline seating. For the remaining traditional furnishings manufacturers, productivity is high and niche markets are being found and exploited.

Although fewer employees are needed, including production staff, technicians, and engineers, the remaining high-wage, high value-added positions require higher skill levels. Even in these difficult economic times, employers are still clamoring for expertise in automation systems, lean manufacturing, quality control, diagnostics and troubleshooting, leadership, and communications skills at all levels to continue operations.

Design, build, move

A partnership approach taken to address this concern is Technology Career Days. This program was designed to showcase area careers and career pathways, as well as create a hands-on, exciting, and engaging display of technology. The key to the program's success was producing a partnership of education, industry, and professional organizations to expose hundreds of high-school students to technology they would not otherwise get.

The premiere Technology Career Days event was held at Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in March 2009. Coincidentally, the technology campus is located adjacent to a 1.5 million-square-foot Kmart distribution warehouse, which served as one of the program's first industry partners. They were approached to conduct tours of their facilities as part of the event.

The theme of the GTCC Technology Career Days was Design, Build, & Move. The program was expanded to include design and logistics industries, along with advanced manufacturing. These three areas represent industry segments identified by PTP as having substantial economic impact in the region.

Specific event highlights included:

  • Logistics: One-hour tours of the Sears Holdings/Kmart distribution center and warehouse. About 100 students participated. Some individuals had to be turned away due to capacity limitations.
  • Education: Tours of the Technology Education Center building at GTCC. This included PLC, electronics labs, and CNC machining labs. Students also witnessed instructor-led classes in progress. Four other educational institutions also exhibited.
  • Lean manufacturing: A simulation led by the North Carolina State University Industrial Extension Service office exposed students to real-world needs and applications of Lean principles.
  • FIRST robotics: High-school team representatives discussed their involvement with FIRST and encouraged students to test drive a robot on display. Both FIRST Technology Challenge and FIRST Robot Challenge robot teams exhibited, and a full field was installed for the event.
  • Automotive and transportation technology: Childress Racing, NASCAR Technical Institute, a Davidson County Community College (DCCC) project car and motorcycle, a GTCC Hybrid electric vehicle, and truck cabs from Old Dominion and EPES Carrier were also represented or displayed.
  • Machining technology: The GTCC machining facility, Kaydon Corp., Timco Aviation Services, and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills were represented.
  • Maintenance: Two private training organizations exhibited their offerings.
  • Technology: Cisco Systems, IEEE, and ABCO Automation had technical exhibits.
  • BioTech: Banner Pharmacaps, Olympus Microscopy, Wake Forest University Microscopy program, and DCCC Zoo and Aquarium Sciences program provided information displays.

Hundreds of students from 16 high schools took part in this two-day event, visiting 35 exhibits that highlighted automation and control technology and provided hands-on learning activities. The students took the opportunity to discuss design, manufacturing, and logistics careers in fields from product design, to automation, to transportation. At each exhibit, students were offered information to help them better understand the importance of math and science in the automation profession and technology fields.

Randolph Community College (RCC), one of the participants at the GTCC event, approached AF about holding the next event on its campus. RCC held Technology Career Days in October 2009. About twice as many students attended and took part in new activities such as video conferencing and hands-on projects.

Surveys from GTCC and RCC events showed strong approval and support for future career day events.

The broader mission

AF in its effort to build the Next Generation of Automation Professionals is continuing to develop innovative ways to reach out to young people about career opportunities in the automation profession. One event AF is planning is to present an Automation Career Day in Houston. Lee College in Baytown, Tex., will be the host site for this event for high-school students in the Houston area, which will provide an opportunity for students to learn about rewarding careers in high-technology industries.

Students will have the opportunity to attend an expo-style event featuring exhibits that will highlight automation technology and instrumentation. During this event, students will participate in interactive exhibits and have the opportunity to meet with subject matter experts in advanced manufacturing to learn about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and how it can lead to career paths in automation.

As part of the Career Day event, AF will be recruiting other technology-oriented organizations to take part in the event. These organizations will present their particular area of technology so the students will get a sense of the vast career opportunities in the automation profession.

AF expects this event at Lee College to be a successful one and then replicated in other parts of the country. AF will be working with ISA Sections who will want to sponsor this event and reach out to high-school students to deliver the important message about careers in automation.

Another event AF is again actively taking part in is iAU2M8.10 (I Automate). In its third consecutive year, AF will be partnering with ISA to introduce high-school students to the concept of automation and the many industry career choices available. The event will include an essay contest for students in grades 9-12, paper and poster presentations, a luncheon with keynote speaker, as well as additional knowledge opportunities. 

Finally, as part of ISA's Automation Week activities in Houston, 4-7 October, AF is planning to present details about the Alliance partnership with FIRST (For Inspiration And Recognition Of Science And Technology). Representatives with FIRST will be on hand at the AF exhibit to discuss the FIRST Competition and how automation professionals can reach out to young people to be mentors, volunteers, and team leaders as part of the Competition. FIRST will also be an active participant for the Automation Career Day at Lee College.


Bob Crigler is the marketing manager at ISA. He served as the Advanced Manufacturing Industry Cluster Manager for Piedmont Triad Partnership under a contract with Automation Federation.