This article is directed toward recent engineering graduates or other professionals who are new to automation or considering it for a career change. The author, Bryan Hellman, discusses the basics of automation and what specific skills employers in the industry will look for in candidates during the hiring process.
To be a competitive employee in the industrial automation industry, you have to master certain skills. Automation is changing the landscape of manufacturing, and the skills and qualities that made an employee stand out 20 years ago are very different from what they are today. As automation continues to develop, employees have to adapt to these developments if they want to be prepared as a job candidate.
There are many new jobs being created by the advancements in automation, but there is a lack of skilled workers who are ready to fill these jobs. This shortage of skilled workers is only growing as the demand continues to increase. The move away from tedious manual labor and toward skilled labor is leading to better pay and benefits for automation workers, but manufacturers are still struggling to fill these positions. 
How Automation Has Changed Manufacturing
In the past, manufacturing required quite a bit of unskilled labor in order to complete certain tasks. Things like material handling, assembly and welding all required humans laborers to perform them. These jobs were typically tedious and unpleasant, and often required workers to operate in unsafe working conditions.
Automation has replaced the need for humans to perform these repetitive tasks by creating robots designed to do it for them. This has increased worker safety, cut the costs of labor, and reduced the amount of human error involved in manufacturing. However, it’s also replaced the need for this type of human labor and thus required laborers to develop new skills.
The more robots there are performing these repetitive manufacturing tasks, the more of a need there is for skilled workers to help manage these robots. Human interaction will always be necessary at some level in manufacturing. As automation becomes more advanced, knowledge about electronics, programming, and troubleshooting become valuable skills for employees.
Current Necessary Skills And Qualities
The skills currently required for industrial automation workers are all mostly related to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The more experience an automation employee has in each area, the more attractive they are as a candidate. These are just a few of the current most sought after skills in automation:
Programmable logic controller (PLC) and robot controller programming
One of the most important skills needed to work as an automation & controls engineer is a mastery of PLC. Industrial digital computers are needed to control manufacturing processes and robotic devices, and employees who know how to use this software are incredibly valuable.
PLC programmers work with mechanical and electrical engineers to design the PLC for industrial plants, manufacturing facilities, oil refineries, amusement parks, and much more. They then write the computer code for the PLC to control the automation that’s desired. After that, PLC technicians are required to install and maintain the PLCs. These jobs exist in a variety of industries including manufacturing, automotive, food & beverage, and pharmaceutical to name a few. The career resource site Zippia rates PLC to be the number one skill for an automation engineer, with 16.5% of all automation engineer resumes containing PLC as a skill.
A 2016 study done by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) finds that electrical knowledge is another incredibly sought after skill. Participants in the study stated that a competency in electrical and electronic components and systems was needed. This includes knowledge of electrical power sources and their characteristics, the ability to select and specify electric motors, generators and transformers, and the ability to perform measurements to determine electric motor characteristics.
In this study, the most important competency was identifying electric safety devices such as fuses and breakers, as well as demonstrating knowledge of proper grounding techniques. A strong knowledge of basic electrical circuits and components goes a long way to be able to safely work in automation.
Automation requires more than just knowledge about programming and electronics, however. Participants in the same 2016 ASEE study stated the need for soft skills such as work ethics and customer services to be incredibly important. Effective communication and conflict resolution are qualities that automation employees need just as much as any other industry.
Time management and project management also play a large role in the automation industry, as the ability to deliver on time and without hiccups is highly desired. Systems integration requires a higher level of connectivity and increased collaboration than ever before. These partnerships require the ability to work with others and maintain a stable work environment.
Machines break down, and the ability for workers to deal with problems that arrive is a skill worth having. The most skilled troubleshooters are people who’ve learned on-the-job and are starting to retire and leave the workforce. Troubleshooting is required for manufacturers to stay competitive, but they can’t afford to teach these skills on-the-job over the course of several years. Community colleges and training centers are teaching troubleshooting expertise to workers to help them identify and fix malfunctioning machines.
The Future Of Skills In Automation – Cybersecurity
Automation is a continually developing field, with new skills and qualities replacing older ones every day. As technology continues to grow, industrial cybersecurity is becoming more important than ever. With the use of the Internet of Things and other smart devices communicating with each other in the manufacturing industry, factories are becoming more vulnerable to attack. New reports of hacking and other attacks on Internet data underscore the need for protecting industrial data.
The Automation Federation is developing competency models for cybersecurity and automation alongside the US Department of Labor. This is helping candidates prepare for job opportunities by educating them about the necessary skills to improve the security of online data. Some of these skills include the ability to design and configure networks in order to bolster the infrastructure and prevent online hacking.
Whether you’re currently working in the industrial automation industry or you’re a prospective job candidate, you need to understand the changing landscape of manufacturing. Automation has revolutionized manufacturing, and the most competitive candidates have a current knowledge of the skills and qualities that manufacturers are looking for.
About the Author:
This article was created by Bryan Hellman, a writer with DO Supply, Inc, who enjoys writing about Robotics, Automation, and future opportunities with AI.
Catch him on LinkedIn.