Good Time to Be an Automation Pro

Demand for Talent Continues to Outstrip Supply

By Dan Hebert

After decades of waiting, machine and robot automation professionals have reached a position of strong leverage. This is because demand for talent is consistently outstripping supply, which puts qualified automation professionals in a good spot, while also making things very difficult for managers.

Evidence abounds to support this, albeit anecdotal because statistics for automation employment are virtually non-existent. Though there are reams of labor data, most of it applies to economies as a whole, and at best to very broad areas. Even more specialized data, such as engineering or high-tech employment, doesn't really translate to the automation industry.

Instead, we turned to the folks currently charged with hiring automation pros for insight. "There has been a longstanding and consistent deficit in engineering talent to meet our resource needs," says Brian Merriman, president of system integrator aeSolutions. "It's a result of lack of formal training and experience, and an aging workforce not being replenished by mid-level engineering talent. So we are regularly left to hire new grads with no experience, and begin the process of long-term development with them."

P.C. Romano, president of system integrator Avid Solutions, agrees. "Our company has been growing at an 18% or so rate for the last seven years, so we need to add staff on a regular basis," he says. "Combine our need and overall industry demand with fewer available professionals, and you have a very tight labor market."

Integrators compete with machine and robot builder OEMs for automation pros, as do vendors serving these markets. "Good, experienced automation professionals have been a scarce commodity for over a decade," observes Greg Bodenhamer, vice president for industry end user marketing, solutions and services at Schneider Electric. "With fewer and fewer technically degreed graduates, we anticipate this challenge will only get worse in the next decade."

With demand for automation pros exceeding supply now, and with the situation likely to escalate, the next question becomes what you should do about it. Basically, you have three main choices if you want to leverage your advantage.

The first is to ask for more money, the second is to change companies, and the third is to negotiate better working conditions. Asking for more money is pretty simple, and it could work if your company is experiencing strong growth. Instead of just asking for a raise, you might be more successful if you can negotiate a bonus based on company growth in revenue and/or profitability. That way, management isn't out more money for your compensation unless the company is in a position to afford it.

But the best way to get substantially more compensation is usually to change companies, particularly if your personal situation would let you pick up and move without incurring excessive costs. When demand exceeds supply, as with the current market for automation pros, there always will be a higher bidder for your services.

For many of you, the most attractive option is to negotiate better working conditions, and this option is often the most feasible for OEM management because, in many cases, it doesn't affect the bottom line. A number of firms in the automation industry already have adopted flexible work practices to attract and retain employees.

"When it comes to retaining employees, we've found that you can't keep employees simply by paying more, as there's usually another company that can outbid you," Merriman explains. "So we've improved our employee benefits, and we now offer time-off policy, telecommuting, flex hours and wellness programs that help us in recruiting and retaining our automation professionals."

If your company isn't on board yet with flexible work practices, and if the option appeals to you, now is the ideal time to ask. You just might end up with a much better overall job situation—one in which you're not only happier but also more productive, which would be a true win-win for you and your employer.