Are you qualified?

Peggie Koon

By Peggie W. Koon, Ph.D., ISA President 2014

The week of 23–25 April, hundreds of educators and professionals from government and public and private industry sectors converged on Washington, D.C., to attend the U.S. News STEM Solutions National Conference. The sessions covered an array of topics related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math); I had the honor of participating on a panel entitled “Customized Credentials Come of Age.”

After a brief introduction by Barbara Endel, Ph.D., program director for Jobs of the Future, I listened attentively as Cathy Sandeen, Ph.D., vice president of education, attainment, and innovation at the American Council on Education, presented the numbers. She confirmed that 30 million people in the U.S. have sub–bachelor of arts (B.A.) credentials. Thirty million! That’s a large number of folks.

Sandeen made the case for bridging the gap in the credentialing process, so students know how credentials stack up against a traditional four-year degree program; educators at local universities and technical colleges understand how to merge sub-B.A. credentials with traditional collegiate course work; and employers can gauge competency, proficiency, and skill level using all the credentials a student possesses. Credentialing and competency in STEM education and STEM careers were a huge part of the “buzz” at the National Academy of Engineering’s annual convocation of professional engineering societies (at which ISA was invited to participate).

The presentation on credential gaps flowed nicely into a hearty discussion of badges. Kyle Bowen, Ph.D., director of education technology at Penn State University, explained how badges allow students to maintain digital portfolios that include work experience, education, certificates, and certifications. Badges, in effect, allow a student to own and maintain a complete digital profile of both institutional and experiential learning, so employers know immediately if he or she has the specific competency required for a job. Bowen also discussed the need to define standards to give employers confidence that badge holders have the indicated competency.

When it was my turn to speak, I began with the question, “How many of you have heard of ISA?” The audience was silent. An estimated 50 people sat in the room to discuss credentials, and not one of them had heard of ISA. Furthermore, even after I explained ISA’s role in providing workforce development/training, professional development, and certificates, as well as certification programs for automation professionals, there were many blank faces in the room. The audience appeared to connect with me more as I related that ISA, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Labor and industry experts, has developed an Automation Competency Model. The model defines requirements for all levels of the automation profession, helping employers better understand what skills they should look for in an applicant.

Students can refer to the model to determine which courses, certificates, and certification programs are required for different automation fields or positions. And, finally, colleges and technical institutes can also use the model to build competency-based curricula.

Someone in the audience asked if there were any K–12 schools with competency model-based curricula. ISA’s collaborative effort with Project Lead the Way in schools in Raleigh, N.C., and Pennsylvania immediately came to mind. I also mentioned that programs like FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and Goldie Blox, supported by entrepreneurs, augment the traditional school system curricula while getting students excited and raising awareness of the importance of STEM education and project/competency-based learning.

Finally, I listed five “game changers” that are affecting STEM solutions and the automation profession. The game changers are:

  • Big data: More than ever before, companies today are relying on big data analytics to make strategic decisions, creating a demand for related STEM careers.
  • Coolest delivery: The next generation of STEM and automation professionals is techno savvy and technology enabled—a group that will expect STEM projects (content, data, and tools) to be available via the coolest delivery/technology available. Without the “cool factor,” the disparity that exists between the demand for STEM careers and the supply of STEM professionals will continue to expand.
  • Cybersecurity: The cyberthreat is real, and there is a concomitant requirement for STEM professionals in cybersecurity—people who understand how to mitigate and respond to the threat both in traditional information technology and from the emerging operational technology (OT) perspectives that are affecting our nation’s critical infrastructure.
  • Aging workforce: The current STEM workforce is aging. Many of the nation’s critical STEM jobs are filled by folks who are nearing retirement. There is a skills gap between retirees and those who are entering the STEM career workforce, creating a significant need for workforce development in this area.
  • MOOC and other new credentialing programs: Massively open online courses (MOOC) and other emerging credentials and badges will change the way students choose to learn and will trigger changes in college curricula and requirements for STEM and automation degrees. These innovative credentialing systems will challenge the way employers define “qualifications” for STEM jobs.

This last game-changing theme about credentialing made me feel that ISA should become more engaged in this conversation—to better understand and to be able to adequately respond to the changes that are occurring in this space. The conversation that followed the panel discussion confirmed my feelings. You see, I heard over and over again how difficult it is to properly convey a person’s work experience, collegiate degree and coursework, certificates, licenses, certifications, and any badges to determine appropriate paths for continuing STEM education and acquiring STEM careers.

What if every STEM career and STEM field had a competency model? Would that help solve the problem? Or would it create a new set of problems? At the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) board meeting, Jerry Carter, CEO of the National Council for Examiners of Engineering and Surveying, shared that Cathy Leslie, CEO of Engineers Without Borders; Mike Marlowe, managing director of the Automation Federation; and he recently visited with a team at the Employment and Training Agency of the Department of Labor to discuss a project to develop an engineering competency model.

It is anticipated that this will be a year-long project, but Carter told the AAES board that he thinks “this competency model will be a tool that will be useful to all of our organizations.” Carter credited ISA with having made him aware of the model. Once the engineering competency model is developed, all of the engineering societies will be able to follow ISA’s lead and use it as a template for more targeted competency models—so engineers will know if they are qualified for their respective areas of engineering.

This effort is not just relegated to engineering societies, but is extended to community colleges and universities as well. ISA and the Automation Federation are working with Cleveland Community College (CCC) and the government to develop mission-critical operations training programs that encompass STEM education for those who support mission-critical operations of a company, including industrial, operational, and information technology areas. This government-funded program will be piloted at CCC, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and other colleges to develop a template/competency model for this type of STEM education at technical, community, and four-year colleges across the U.S.

What should be the response from academia? Should the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology develop competency-based degrees that encompass both applied/experiential learning and specific course work? How early in the learning/development process should project/competency-based learning occur? If badges are adopted, how would they be verified and standardized? How else might industry, government, entrepreneurs, and professional organizations partner to address this very important issue?

Advocacy, innovation, partnership, competency models

The STEM problem in the U.S. is a complex, multifaceted issue, one that can only be solved by a very concerted and congruent effort from the four pillars of our nation: education, government, industry, and the private sector (entrepreneurs). And there are so many questions related to STEM. Those listed above are just a few.

“There is far more opportunity than ability.”—Thomas Edison

After listening to the various speakers at the convocation and those at the United Engineering Foundation’s Engineering Public Policy Symposium, I am very hopeful about the future of STEM education and STEM careers. Significant advances have been made in shale gas using new micro-seismic and geothermal technologies. Can related courses or certification programs be developed for a new set of STEM careers that will evolve from innovations in shale gas and unconventional energy resources?

The discussions about the manufacturing renaissance, the “maker initiative,” and cool new innovations in manufacturing, such as 3-D printing, provide new avenues for entrepreneurs to engage and to promote innovation. Who will develop standards for the products made by these new STEM entrepreneurs? And if grants are given for these new “manufacturing” hubs, how will applicants “qualify”? What will competency look like tomorrow, next year, and five years from now?

Are you qualified?


InTech Plus graphic with rounded corners

InTech Plus is a new mobile app from ISA that lets automation professionals rapidly access, scan, and consume a diverse range of technical and educational content. Learn more at /BZhBojAkQ-I.

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