Why is it so hard to find that ace employee? Is it a skills gap, interest gap, or pay and training problem? An Automation World survey reveals what readers think industrial companies and job candidates can do to fill open automation-related positions.
The third most commonly cited reason, according to 16 percent of respondents, as to why automation- and manufacturing-related jobs are going unfilled is a pervasive “lack of people interested in the jobs.”
“No one wants to work weekends or second/third shift,” said one respondent. “The social profile needs to rise for these jobs,” said another. Other comments included: “I believe that the perception of this type of job has been tarnished. The U.S. has driven hard toward the information age and created the impression that skilled trades jobs are unimportant and undesirable.”
As for manufacturing engineering in general, many responses echoed this sentiment: “The news for the last two decades has been full of stories about how we are losing manufacturing jobs. Why would anyone want to study some of the hardest majors when it looks like all those jobs are going to be gone? The reality is that engineers have good pay, they are in demand and over half of our engineering staff is foreign-born because not enough U.S. kids study engineering.”
Numerous write-in responses revealed additional reasons why skilled workers are hard to find. These included location, size of business, and lack of “glamour” compared with web design or working for Google. “Engineering and electro-mechanical assembly is a highly sought skill set in my area leading to a highly competitive hiring market. But we just don’t see enough people with the proper skill sets graduating in our area,” said one. “It is difficult to find people with technical skills in areas which suffered from erosion of manufacturing over the last 30 years,” said another.
The most frequent write-in response related to a perceived reluctance on the part of industrial companies to train people into the skills that are actually needed. “The skills gap is made worse by companies’ unwillingness to offer training for skilled trades, or to update the skills of existing employees,” noted one respondent. Said another, “I have yet to see an applicable ‘new’ candidate. Most have come from internal candidates that were sort of doing the job [where they received] half-hearted training, but [they] are the easiest to put in place.”
Automation skills needed
Engineering positions are the hardest to fill (61 percent of respondents have difficulty with those), followed by operator/technician (43 percent) and programmer/IT specialist (31 percent). Since automation-related jobs are so diverse, delineating specific technical skills can be difficult, but some respondents were willing to get specific. Students and job-seekers, take note of the following comments:
- “Typically [we have a] lack of skilled workers to match the job requirements. Controls engineering includes several specific niche categories of workers required: customer-specific specifications, application-specific specifications, willingness to travel, ability to lead, hardware design, software design, expertise, etc.”
- “Engineers with electrical power experience combined with computer control system experience are hard to find.”
- “The real problem comes from the lack of mathematical and physical skills.”
- “I jobbed out some simple plug gages recently, which took six months to get back. Then, when they came back, the manufacturer’s calibration certificate was incomplete (no measurements recorded) and didn’t include all of the dimensions on the prints that were sent to them. So these problems with basic skills like print reading and following an instruction are widespread through industry.”
- “A shift to the ‘app’ generation has left us with a workforce unaware of the fundamentals driving automation technologies to a large extent. Thus, finding people capable of truly understanding, troubleshooting or designing programs related to this area is a real challenge.”
- “SCADA and automation are a niche market that colleges don’t specifically address. Sure, there are controls engineering programs at the colleges, but technician programs fall short of programming, and computer science degrees teach programming, but nothing about SCADA/controls systems. People in SCADA roles seem to fall into them by chance and all their training is on-the-job.”
- “Applicants are asked to solve some basic mechanical engineering problems (gear ratio, torque, cylinder force) and model a two-part assembly in SolidWorks. Many don’t get the problems correct and/or didn’t use good 3D modeling practices.”
- “The education system has moved more toward using electronic gadgets without attempting to know how things work. Young engineers prefer to work on computers and prefer desk-type work rather than get their hands dirty in the field. The knowledge base is getting narrower by the day and may not be suitable for a wide variety of job needs… Society is disconnected from how the technology is delivered.”
Some respondents contend that the knowledge base of people coming into the industry is actually good, but it’s the experience they find lacking. Digging into the write-in responses, we found “lack of skills” often meant “lack of experience” within a particular industry, technology or machine. Companies want one to five years of experience, but seem unwilling to be the ones to provide it. Said one student, “As a soon-to-be graduate, I cannot come up with three to five years’ experience because I was a full-time student for the last 3.5 years!”
Many see this as a change from the way things were. “In my first engineering job in 1995, I found my BSME education was based so much on theory and not on real-life machinery, components and manufacturing. I didn’t know what a cylinder was, didn’t know there were other types of bearings besides roller bearings, couldn’t read electrical schematics. I had to learn all that on the job, and luckily the company I worked for was willing to hire new grads and allow the senior engineers and designers to help us newbies.”
Another respondent admitted, “It is a challenge to get both the proper degree and the appropriate occupational training for engineers. Most guys survive with a lot of motivated self-study after college.”
Companies that are willing to find or create on-the-job training (OJT) or mentoring programs are having some success. “OJT with a qualified instructor has proved to be the best way to train, [although] it is considered too costly by most companies,” noted one write-in comment.
One respondent explained the problem from the employer’s perspective: “There isn’t enough time/money to spend training people to take the job we need them to fill. Since they are not skilled workers to begin with, everything needs to be trained into them by people who are already short-staffed due to minimal budgets for personnel. At our shop, engineering and regulatory [functions] are spending substantial amounts of time walking operators through short work instructions—sometimes every couple months—due in part to the skill level [as well as] operator comprehension. For example, one operator conducting a test approved the test because he only thought the lower specification was important. [This led to] to nonconformance paperwork, corrections and additional training by engineering and quality, who are already putting in 50-65 hours a week.”
Fifty-seven percent of Automation World’s survey respondents say have had some success attracting applicants and finding qualified candidates that they could bring up to speed fairly quickly. See our discussion threads on LinkedIn and Facebook for ideas and strategies you could apply.