January/February 2013
Workforce Development

A horizontal approach to automation

By Mitchell Sepaugh

In the September/October 2012 issue of InTech, Rick Zabel's cover story, "Automation profession outperforms economy," had a very positive report. The gist of the article is that, as automation professionals, we are generally in pretty good company. However, professional complacency is a knockout blow to the industry. Here is the one-two punch of complacency: Many companies are dealing with a skills gap and a lack of properly qualified employees, while simultaneously losing experienced automation professionals to retirement. Potentially half the experience in place now will be gone in ten years. So how can the skills gap be closed before it is too late? The simple answer is education.

Almost no one in automation and control started out with the intent to become an automation professional. Most individuals started on a different path, such as electrical, mechanical, chemical, and other areas of technical or engineering education, which led to automation. That process took time to mature, and this was acceptable because the industry was developing and changing around us. At the time, these circuitous paths were fine; however, that is no longer the case. In the November/December 2012 Workforce Development column, Dr. Terri Helmlinger Ratcliff spoke of the difficulty of developing the right person for the job because industry expects the skills gap to be closed at hiring and for someone else to do (or, better still, have done) the training. Rick Zabel posted the challenge to academia to modify curricula to address this gap. At Cleveland Community College (CCC), we are working with ISA and the Automation Federation to do just that.

Using the Automation Federation's Automation Competency Model (www.automationfederation.org/Model) as a guide, a new associate in applied science (AAS) degree in automation engineering technology (AET) will debut this fall. Students in the AET program will have an opportunity to study a range of topics, from programming PLCs (programmable logic controllers) to safety to robotics to process control, and more.

Regardless of whether an automation technician is working with process controls in pharmaceuticals, motion control in robotics, or facial recognition in security, there are certain fundamentals common to all automation systems. By taking a horizontal approach to automation, AET students have exposure to a broad foundational set of skills that can then be refined either on the job or by transferring to a university for completion of a bachelor's degree in engineering or engineering technology. If you already hold a bachelor's degree in an engineering or engineering technology field but would like to expand your skill set to a new field ,or perhaps update your practical skills, that can be arranged as well.

If you do not have time for (or need) the full AAS, credit for courses can lead to certificates and diplomas en route to the AAS. These intermediate steps can be obtained independently of the AAS, and, in most cases, coursework can be applied toward the degree should you decide to continue later on.

If you can come to campus for classes, we would love to have you. However, if you cannot come to campus, perhaps campus can come to you. The Internet and cloud computing offer opportunities for telepresence utilized in industry every day. At CCC, we use that same technology used to control a robot on another planet or a plant on another continent to hold class.

In technical fields, such as engineering and engineering technology, there is a certain amount of hands-on time expected to be spent learning the technology. While online learning has proven successful in a number of areas, typical online simulations and discussions do not allow the requisite hands-on time for skill building. Combinations of synergistic distance learning methods, each proven successful independently, can provide both the individual's hands-on experiences and the convenience of online learning.

Cleveland Community College, located in Shelby, N.C., is a comprehensive public community college that offers more than 70 associate degrees, diplomas, and certificates. The college currently serves over 8,000 students annually by providing a wide variety of credit and non-credit programming options. CCC provides diverse and accessible learning opportunities critical to the needs of the citizens it serves, while delivering workforce development and training for local business and industry. For more information, please visit the CCC website at www.clevelandcc.edu.


Mitchell Sepaugh (sepaugh@clevelandcc.edu) was an OEM Control Systems Integrator before joining Cleveland Community College, where he serves as discipline coordinator for the Automation Engineering Technology program and as department chair for Industrial Services.