Automation's Got Talent: STEM Programs Supply Rookie Engineers to Replace Retiring Veterans

Some Colleges and Companies are Coordinating Their Efforts to Refine Curricula and Focus More Effectively on Getting the Best and Most Needed Skills Instilled in Students Quickly

By Jim Montague

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Just like everyone else, Arpac couldn't find enough qualified engineers. Three years ago, the packaging machine builder and services firm in Schiller Park, Illinois, recruited, advertised, networked and posted available positions online, but all it got was a limited and inadequate response.

"We were doing all we could to recruit through the usual channels," says Howard Dittmer, vice president of engineering and technology at Arpac. "We even put a billboard up on the expressway, but that didn't work either. It could take a year for us to fill an engineering job. Finding engineers has become really difficult, so we decided to keep our traditional recruiting methods, but also develop some new ones.”

This problem is common and widespread for machine builders, system integrators, control and automation suppliers, as well as their clients and end users in manufacturing companies almost everywhere.

Even though everyone talks about the need to replace all the veteran engineers, technicians and operators retiring in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, it can seem like no one's doing anything about developing the next generation of rookies needed to do it. The usual opinions are that young people only want to be sports and rock stars; they think factories are dirty; and they don't want to take all the math and science courses needed to become engineers.    

"Mid-skilled engineering technicians are in shortest supply, but it's been hard to get kids interested in these professions,"says Chris Paynter, dean of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Employers say this interest gap is real,  production suffers, and it prevents their companies from growing. "By combining many of its math, science, engineering and IT sections, the college established its innovative, multidisciplinary STEM operating unit in 2009.  

Also Read: The Kids Are All Right: Producing Rookie Engineers From STEM Programs

Plugging the Drain

While the Baby Boom brain drain is genuine, the perceived lack of solutions is fiction. There are plenty of high school and college students, recent graduates and mid-career workers looking to switch careers—and most are willing to learn and train. Many community college, university and high school programs teach automation and control skills, and many manufacturers conduct apprenticeship and training programs to develop the technical professionals they desperately need. Some colleges and companies are coordinating their efforts to refine curricula and focus more effectively on getting the best and most needed skills instilled in students quickly.
To give students technical instruction that has more of a point, STEM programs such as FIRST Robotics are multiplying nationwide. This is because STEM gives kids the same sense of purpose and accomplishment that veteran engineers have long reported valuing even more than good salaries.
"Robotics programs like FIRST are a lot more hands-on,"says Adrian Choy, associate field services engineer at Rockwell Automation, who works onsite with metalworking clients, most recently on controlling their chemical treating lines. "When you design, test and build a robot that has your name on it, you have more of a sense of pride. You want to do better, especially at an event where you're competing in front of a cheering crowd. That's encouragement above and beyond a regular class.”

Choy graduated from Chicago's Whitney Young High School in 2007, where he participated in FIRST and its different robotic challenges. He earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan in 2012, where he participated in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Int'l's RoboBoat navigation and other competitions for two years. "Solutions to classic mechanical problems might look good on paper in a class, but if you don't take actual tolerances into account, then you're going to have serious problems," Choy says. "That's what we learned in FIRST. I work on a lot of mechatronic systems now, and we often have to find out if we're dealing with a programming error or a hardware error. Real-world forces usually require multidisciplinary skills, judgment and solutions, and FIRST teaches this as well.”

To bring STEM principles even closer to the controls field, Phoenix Contact established its Nanoline Contest in 2008-09. Middle, high school and college students use its mini-PLC controllers and software to program robots and equipment to complete a variety of tasks. Thirty teams signed up for the 2014 competition, 17 teams competed in two regional contests, and a team from Walker Career Center in Indianapolis won with its RoboDose automated, medical-pill-dispensing machine.

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