There is a quiet revolution going on. While the headlines are full of news about the big software and internet tech companies, technology has come to the manufacturing industry in a major way. Automation is on the rise. Walk into any warehouse, distribution center or factory and you’ll find computer-run machinery cutting, creating, assembling, packing, sorting and shipping product. Whether it’s food production, clothing manufacturing or car assembly, automation is making it happen.
Automation doesn’t mean less jobs though. While it has changed (and continues to transform) the way manufacturing looks and the way manufacturers hire, the biggest change is the skillset required in manufacturing roles. Rather than manual labor, manufacturers need more trained workers to operate, service and troubleshoot the computer-led machinery. In the end, humans interface with the computer to tell it what to do and to make sure it’s doing it correctly.
However, while automation in manufacturing is rising exponentially, the availability of skilled workers is lagging. Many manufacturing employers are desperately looking to hire experienced controls engineers, technicians, and machine operators but not enough candidates are available. This skills gap translates to opportunity for electrical engineers and technicians who are looking for a solid career path with good compensation. Could you be one of those people?
Opportunities in Controls Engineering
If automation sounds like an interesting career to you, there are several ways to enter the field, with or without an engineering education. First, let’s define what controls engineers do.
Controls engineers design and develop systems for manufacturing operations. This includes the setup, programming, testing and implementation of computer control systems used for production automation and industrial equipment design. They also evaluate performance and improve production efficiency. Working both in-house and with clients, they troubleshoot issues with hardware and processes and plan preventative maintenance. Most controls engineers major in electrical engineering or mechanical engineering. Employers typically want a bachelor’s degree in engineering or a relevant engineering-based field. For senior-level positions, they look for candidates with a master’s degree — for instance, a MSc in Control and Systems Engineering, Automation and Control or another relevant discipline — and several years of experience in the field.
Controls engineers also work closely with clients, troubleshooting both in-person and remotely. This requires non-technical soft skills like listening, asking questions and communicating professionally. It requires strong critical thinking skills and flexibility too. Problem-solving can be frustrating at times but most controls engineers will tell you that’s what makes the job interesting. There’s immense satisfaction in figuring it out and solving that problem. Many controls engineers also travel because they may have to go to a client site to troubleshoot.
Controls engineers have a variety of options for career growth. Many move into project management where, for example, you would plan the automation of an entire facility or a major upgrade, working onsite to set-up and troubleshoot issues. Others move up in management, overseeing other controls professionals.
If you’re an electrical engineer or currently in an engineering program and this sounds interesting, consider taking a course in PLC (programmable logic controls). Any experience you can gain at work or in school with major PLC programs like Allen-Bradley or Siemens will look great on your resume. Even online coursework will give you a solid understanding of these machineries and make you more attractive to employers.
There are other avenues to the controls engineer career. For instance, CNC machine operators oversee the CNC (computer numerical control) automated equipment to make sure it’s running properly and efficiently. For this position, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree in engineering or even an associate degree. There are, however, technical diplomas for CNC and automation equipment which will help you into a better entry-level job. If you do decide to earn an associate degree in electrical engineering technology, it will make it easier to transition to a controls technician position and then a controls engineer.
Even if you don’t have a formal engineering education, you can get into controls engineering as a maintenance technician. This role services the automation controls equipment specifically. As you become more experienced, you could move up the ladder, gain more education and move into controls engineering.
Automation is Growing Quickly
In its beginnings, the IT industry was small. It mostly involved hardware and software maintenance and networking. Over the past 20 years, IT has expanded into a huge field with many career paths and well-compensated employment. Automation is on a similar trajectory, albeit more quietly since it is happening in the background. Most consumers don’t even realize what automation has achieved in design, speed and delivery of product. When IT began to grow, people were worried that computers would replace workers and take away jobs. What we have seen — and are seeing in automation — is that the jobs have instead changed, shifting more manual, rote tasks to the machinery and leaving more complex (and less physically taxing) tasks to humans. The result is a quickly growing industry that offers good paying, interesting jobs.
by Michael Thomassen, Business Development Manager at Planet Forward
Photo Credit: Canva