Lead the Horses to Water

Feb. 12, 2009
Students Might Not Even Know They’re Thirsty Unless They’re Exposed to Machine Controls and Engineering in the Schools
By Jeremy Pollard, CET

A while back, I wrote a column about how engineers are born, not made. While I still think this is true, I also think that if a young mind is introduced to the wonder and intrigue of factory automation, control engineering and process work, she or he might select one of these disciplines as a career.

We can train certain people to do certain things, and we can train some people to think. These are qualities needed to be successful in the automation world. But if we can’t get them to the watering hole, how can we expect them to drink?

In the 1900s, an engineer was paid more than anyone else. There was a reason other than passion to go after this career, which you would have had for your entire working life.

I ran into a software guy who used to work with an integrator. He loved the work, but it burned him out. Today he works at a shoe store.

Now, it almost seems that schools and career groups herd people away from anything worthwhile.

I had a conversation with Mike Colgin from Divelbiss, an Ohio-based company that makes PLC hardware and was the developer of PLC on a Chip. It also created a PLC-course-in-a-box.

It is a complete course on PLC-based control using EZ Ladder software and the PLC on a Chip technology. While the system might not be used to control a paper machine, the concepts remain similar. It certainly can be used at the elementary-school level to see if anyone wants a “drink.”

However, in doing a bit of research on the U.S. Department of Education’s Tech-Prep Education program, the amount of funding applied to technical courses has not changed in more than nine years.

I also do some technical-course teaching for an Australian company. The classes range from five to eight pupils typically.

A night-school course for Web design at a local college here has 24 people enrolled in it. I also taught night school. PLC courses here were cancelled from lack of interest.

And it is all about the money. Colleges get money for the number of students enrolled, and the number of graduates as well. They want to provide courses for the general populace, and that normally means they don’t have anything to do with technology.

While the Obama plan is to use local resources and local jobs, manufacturing has been pounded into oblivion in North America. It needs to be revived. If our legacy automation people go into the shoe-selling business, then what? Who will fill the role?

Divelbiss saw this and created the PLC course for everyone. It is very inexpensive, and the student can use it at home. The teacher doesn’t have to use any of his or her precious (cough) prep time to create the curriculum. So far—not many takers.

It’s time to do something for the good of the general populace and put manufacturing front and center in our schools, like English and math are. Most students might not know they are future engineers since no one has put automation in their sights.

When manufacturing comes back to North America, as it will for many reasons, we will need the people to deal with it. I am not sure we have the resources right now to handle the return.

Divelbiss is holding a contest in which one can win one of its learning packages, and Colgin says there have been few responses.

While it is unclear as to why the respondents did participate, it’s equally unclear why more haven’t participated.
I can’t help but to think that, if we as an industry put forth a better effort to bring the bait to the fish, we might help many create a rewarding career in automation.

When I was teaching for Rockwell in the ’80s, and even now, courses get done when there is money to do them. Most companies will spend the dough when it is subsidized to some degree by government funds. Retraining is a bit of buzzword right now. Let’s hope that a few good men and women are motivated by what they see when the obvious is presented to them.

Divelbiss is doing its part. Who else is?