By Dan Hebert, PE, senior technical editor
Automation is but a narrow niche in the wide world of commerce, so there always will be a shortage of young job candidates with formal automation training. The best our industry can hope for is a sufficient number of two-year technical and four-year engineering graduates. Machine builders, system integrators and vendors have to take it from there.
To increase the supply of technical graduates, some machine builders start young and help introduce kids to math and science at the elementary school level. “We sponsor three elementary-school-level robotics teams as part of the nationally recognized FIRST Lego League robotics program,” says Ed Diehl, principal at system integrator Concept Systems in Albany, Ore. “We also sponsored a local high-school FIRST robotics team that competes in regional and national competitions. These programs stimulate interest among young people, particularly minority and underprivileged girls and boys, in engineering and technical careers.” FIRST is an acronym for “for inspiration and recognition of science and technology.”
Many elementary schools have Lego clubs and classes that help introduce students to basic engineering concepts in a fun environment.
The next steps are high school and then a two-year technical degree or a four-year engineering degree. This is where co-op programs come in, and it’s also where companies can provide material assistance in the form of hardware, software and direct funding.
Big Men and Women on Campus
Machine builders find co-op programs valuable if used correctly. “It’s difficult for us to find automation engineers with experience, so we use co-op and intern programs,” relates Chris Cote, manager of R&D electrical engineering at Goss International Americas in Durham/Dover, N.H. Goss is a global business that manufactures commercial and newspaper printing presses, as well as post-press finishing equipment. “Co-op programs are good, but only if the company is committed to making employment offers to these individuals when they graduate,” cautions Cote. “Otherwise, you’re spending time and engineering hours to train someone to be productive in another company.”
Remmele Engineering in St. Paul, Minn., designs and builds custom automated manufacturing systems for a diversified group of industries and has a well-developed co-op program. “Sophomore or junior-level EE candidates join one of our engineering teams full-time for eight months and receive hands-on control engineering training,” explains Tom Olin, control engineering supervisor of the automation division at Remmele. “Most students return for an additional three-month term between their junior and senior years. By completing the program, these students gain a full year of practical experience over and above what their peers possess.”
Remmele gets three bonuses from the program. “First, by the end of the third or fourth month, most co-op students have enough proficiency that a portion of their time can be charged to projects,” states Olin. “Second, most co-op candidates are self-starters by nature, and these types of individuals fare best in our engineering environment. Finally, we’re a small company by corporate standards, and recruiting for candidates against big companies at major engineering universities across the Midwest can be an onerous task. Our co-op-recruiting network in many cases introduces us to the best candidates before the big companies know they exist.”
Good Tools, good training
Figure 1: This hydraulics laboratory at Spokane Community College incorporates a Delta Computer Systems motion controller and related programming software.
Besides employment opportunities, suppliers also work with schools by donating money and equipment. “We encourage the development of relevant professional training in the industry by providing motion control hardware to the labs at Spokane Community College in Washington (Figure 1), Purdue University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering,” says Steve Nylund, CEO of Delta Computer Systems.