Growing Automation Professionals: Developing Skilled Labor Improves the Economy

Growing Automation Professionals: Developing Skilled Labor Improves the Economy

By Bill Lydon, Editor, Automation.com

It is a simple fact in today’s industrial environment that the world needs more automation professionals. The rapid advances in technology, combined with increasing numbers of engineers reaching retirement age, have led to a number of positions going unfilled, due in no small part to a lack of skilled candidates. Closing this skills gap has been a well-documented priority for a number of organizations, as a result.

While, attending National Instruments’ NI Week, I had the opportunity to sit down with physics professor Sam Samanta Ph,D, who has developed a very successful industrial automation, instrumentation, and controls education program at Finger Lakes Community College, Victro Campus Center, in Victor, New York. The enthusiasm which Professor Samanta has – both in making a difference in the lives of students, as well as providing them the tools they need to be successful - was obvious in our discussion. 

Dr. Samanta, in close collaboration with businesses as well as workforce and economic developers, has successfully taken on the challenge of training individuals crucial for rapid innovations across all sectors of high-technologies in the Greater Rochester Region (NY) area and strengthened the learning community of students and educators.

Given this topic’s vital importance to the automation industry, I had many questions for Dr. Samanta, his insightful answers to which are detailed as follows:

 

Question: What do you believe are high-tech workforce challenges?

The following diagram summarizes the issues involved, further articulated as six major challenges narrated below.

Robust Educational Pathways for Manufacturing at all Scales


1. The Need for Adaptability

 The regional high-tech ecosystems have profound diversity of industries, and multitudes of businesses of medium to small size businesses. Each business often needing a unique combination of skills in a single technologist who is adaptable to changing requirements at that particular business.  The existing academic degrees (electrical, mechanical, electro-mechanical, IT), apprenticeships (construction, automotive, electrical, mechanical, CNC) and training certificates (CNC, Solar, Wind) do address needs in well-established job-functions; but are not up-to the challenge posed by need for adaptable technologists because the needs are so granular and intermittent that no educational institution or training provider could afford to create a viable training program. 

Our proven solution over the past five cohorts has been to understand requirements at an individual business and match a co-op who may bring say six high-end adaptable skills out of nine skills/attributes a company is looking for; and then over the duration of brief (270 hours) paid co-op, company is able to assess if the person has potential to deliver on the other three skills/attributes – businesses help create the “Unicorn” they were looking for.

 

2.  Improving Algebra and Calculus Results

The requirements of two courses each in mathematics and physics contribute to a sharp drop-off in retention rates in technical degree programs – estimated to be 50% within the first year.  Reducing the requirement to one course each may be adequate for certain programs, but not adequate for advanced technological industries wherein data acquisition and data analytics are becoming increasingly important for industrial R&D and quality improvement. We have used methods and created resources to help students visualize algebra and pre-calculus.  This right-brain approach helps all individuals more easily internalize abstract concepts and rules, especially through the use of MS Excel and National Instrument’s LabVIEW software.  Exposure to these make it possible to integrate physics concepts and skills through applications of high-end data acquisition.  It also allows system modeling through normalized coordinates (exponential decay, resonance) to help individual understand and leverage universality in the diversity of physical phenomena towards emergent high-tech applications.

Our AAS degree completion rate in 2 years is 75% - national statistics are less than third as much.

 

3. The Work/School Balance

The scheduling of degree programs and certificate programs does not usually allow individual to pursue work and education/training concurrently- neither for the incumbent worker nor for new student who may need flexible scheduling for pursuit of a paid co-op earlier in the educational timeline. Since the inception of the curriculum seven years ago we had scheduled sophomore courses after 4 pm, once it became clear that for majority of individual businesses co-op needed to work during the day-time.  Beginning last Spring semester we moved even the first year classes to start after 4 pm and moved two courses each semester to Saturdays, thereby allowing first year students to start co-op/job earlier; as well as allowing us to recruit students who could not afford to quit day-time jobs to enter an academic program.

After completion of the brief co-op almost all businesses either asked the student to continue part-time or offered a full-time job; thus students did not need to choose between earning livelihood or earning a degree – they could do both.  The technical and workplace skills learned at individual businesses help increase student’s resolve to focus on academic performance, thus contributing to increased completion rate mentioned earlier.

 

4. A Lack of Skilled Labor

4. Over 500k jobs are going unfilled whereas about 45% of baccalaureates in age group 22-27 years old are underemployed.  Among the reasons these jobs are going unfilled are the skills gaps, geographical mismatch of personnel and skills. Technical staff needs to be home-grown, rarely recruited from out of the region or the state.  Programs such as certificates in solar or wind technology usually require individuals to move after the training, as the local needs are quickly addressed in the first few years.  The increased emphasis in developing apprenticeship programs are unlikely to scale adequately due to aforementioned granular/unique combinations of skills needed for intermittent hiring in each industry segment.  Currently there are 500k individuals in apprentice programs, averaging 20/program; however the completion rate of apprenticeship has stood at 2/program over the past decade – thus only about 50k apprentice complete the program, consequently it is unlikely that we can increase that number drastically over next decade. 

Through our program we have been able to transition individuals with baccalaureate degrees in other disciplines, or with significant work experience, from full-time day job to better paying high-tech jobs with growth prospects for professional careers.

 

5. Staying Relevant with the Latest Trends and Technology

Now that we have entered the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, there is urgency to educate/re-train individuals who can effectively contribute across all scales of cyber physical manufacturing: nano (semiconductor, nano-biotech), micro (semiconductor, MEMS, sensors in general), meso (smart devices, sensorified feedback controlled electro-mechanical systems), macro (larger mechatronic systems, remote controlled, smart-transport), and mega (smart-cities, smart-rail, smart-grid, smart-space system and emergent Hyperloop). 

The skills taught in our program are shown in following word cloud with sizes reflecting actual usage at co-op and/or jobs.

The requirement of paid-coop partnerships with businesses is critical – this requires educators who value staying in constant touch with individual members of regional high-tech ecosystem and adapt teaching and mentoring to best match current and emergent needs.

 

6. The Cost/Benefit Analysis of Education

Most educators and administrators in governmental and educational institutions do not adequately understand and communicate quantitative estimates of economic impact of high-tech education.  The local publicity generated through individual student stories of transformation of life and career is powerful; however, the decision making for investment of resources and time in high-tech programs could be even more powerfully impacted through realistic modeling of yearly and cumulative economic impact. 

Economic impact model of even small technical program such as ours wherein we have graduated above 9 students a year over past five cohorts; shows that approximately $200k/year/graduate economic impact translates into $25 million of cumulative economic impact in the region by the time the fifth cohort completes a full-year of regular income after graduation.  Our quantitative model can be easily adaptable for graduates of other programs (wherein either average income, or minimum and maximum income, are well estimated).  The cumulative economic impact scales as the square of the number of years (even if number of graduates/year were not to increase); hence in our case when we complete five more cycles of graduations the cumulative economic impact will rise to $100M.  Starting with estimate of economic impact of $200k/employee; with close partnership with regional high-tech ecosystems we can place 200k individuals in hard-to-fill positions across the nation, increasing yearly economic impact by $40 billion/year. Requiring paid experiential co-op is critical not just for high-tech majors, but for all educational programs if the academic enterprise across the nation is to become sustainable.

In summary, programs similar to ours adapted to regional ecosystems, can help leverage over a billion dollars of resources invested in curricular/program/training development over the past decade across the country. 

Through partnerships with stakeholders we must marshal resources and public support to thrive on challenges of preparing high-tech workforce for hard-to-fill jobs; if we are to sustain our free market economy along with productive choices for individuals and organizations.

 

Question: You refer to developing, “Adaptable Technologists for High-tech Ecosystems” as a core concept.  How do you describe this?

An “Adaptable Technologists” phrase refers to a technical individual who is well adapted to unique set requirements at an individual business and continues to thrive on challenges that arise from disruptive innovations using skills adaptable across the whole high-tech industrial spectrum – skills such as communication, teamwork, troubleshooting, “Lean Six Sigma,” CAD, data acquisition, data analysis, quantitative modeling, and automation control.  

“High-tech Ecosystem” acknowledges an empirical observation that Size Vs. Rank (or Frequency) distribution of businesses in a high-tech region shows quantitative signature (Inverse Power Law, also known as Pareto Distribution in econometrics, popularly known as so-called 80/20 principle) of self-organization signifying robustness of actual ecosystems against internal and external disturbances/catastrophes. The CEO of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson, as a former editor of Wired magazine wrote an article titled “Long-tail” in 2004 and published a book by the same title in 2006; wherein he pointed out that then brick-and-mortar stores like Borders could only stock best-sellers, popular books that ranked low on the horizontal scale below whereas newcomer Amazon could sell high ranked less popular books as well, and was able to capitalize on the unserved/hidden customers in the Long-tail.

 

In the academic counterpart of Long-tail business distribution the head of “dinosaurs” correlates with conventional STEM degree program whose graduates are hired by dozens by large businesses and put them through extensive in-house training/incubation period before assigning specific job responsibilities. Medium (few hundred employees) and small businesses (a few dozen) in the Long-tail usually cannot afford extensive in-house training and have needs too diverse for any regional academic institution to be able to address – however, requirement of brief co-op such as ours makes it feasible for these Long-tail businesses to quickly grow their unique Unicorn to address multidisciplinary adaptable workforce needs.

The graph below shows distribution of Size of business (employees) Vs. Rank among high-tech businesses partners in our region; which is of course a subset of over thousand high-tech businesses in our region.

Each small high-tech business has a unique set of technical skills requirements, some very specific to the individual business.  Even a small technical team in a medium or large business often can budget for only a single technician, who is expected to wear different hats as the occasions demand – troubleshoot, do software updates, interface automation hardware, do quality improvement work, be able to make business case for a technical solution etc. Unlike a very large business with a cadre of people with different technical skills who can address emerging problems in timely fashion; small businesses often need a few adaptable individuals who can address whatever problems arise and thrive on capitalizing on the disruptive innovations that can drastically change the business model for that specific business.

 

Question: Are there jobs for people that enter this field?

Yes – we have 90% job placement rate for graduates, thanks to close collaboration with businesses.  I visit each individual business and understand their specific needs and match the right individual as a co-op; which often results in part-time or full-time job while student is completing the program.

 

Question: Is this simply a defined set of course for students to take or is it an integrated program?

Although students take defined set of courses, these courses are integrated in how skills and knowledge are leveraged across the whole program.  Skills learned in concurrent mathematics, physics and computational courses are leveraged into broader insights and abilities in quantitative modeling. Those quantitative skills help accelerate learning in courses in electronics and automation control.  Skills learned in writing and speech courses are practiced throughout other technical courses; students are required to write journals on visits to high-tech businesses and they do a public presentations about their co-op experience in an celebratory end-of-semester public event where the community at large is invited along with partner businesses to increase awareness of opportunities for education, jobs and careers in high-tech ecosystem.  The co-op requirement is also serving as a personalized capstone project that brings together skills developed throughout the curriculum and at a particular business.  Students communicate and teach each other the lessons learned at co-op/job, thereby helping capture the experience and knowledge about a particular co-op/job for the local economic and workforce developers and educators at the college and area high schools who attend these public presentations.  We help create networks to strengthen the whole high-tech ecosystem; which in turn helps the program fulfill its mission.

 

Question: Does this program strictly focus on technology that exists in industry today without teaching fundamentals?

No, the fundamentals are crucial for increasing effectiveness in the current and emerging industries. Conceptual/quantitative fundamental such as normalized coordinate visualization of Exponential Decay, are critical for seeing universality of diverse phenomena such as discharge of a capacitor, radioactive decay, quantum tunneling / absorption of light or sound with respect to thickness of barrier.  A Normalized coordinate representation of Resonance is likewise important for understanding RF tuning, mechanical resonance, MRI, MEMS devices etc. Without the deeper understanding of the fundamentals the world of now and the future ends up being intimidating barrage of unrelated phenomena and events, reducing one’s ability to comprehend the diversity of existence and severely limits one’s creativity. There are practical fundamentals too, such as understanding heuristics of troubleshooting and actually learning from each experience of troubleshooting which increases effectiveness in challenges.  Understanding socioeconomic process of Diffusion of Innovations helps one model cycles of product development, roll out and eventual sun-setting.

Throughout human history technology has advanced exponentially, but we have kept up with it through modularizing technology at all scales and deeper understanding of fundamentals at appropriate scale of technologies (nano, micro, meso, mega).  In large part current difficulty in training enough number of people for degree programs (associates and baccalaureates) arise from the refusal on part of academia to leverage modular software advances and approaching higher mathematics (i.e. calculus, differential equations), using software so that we can enable students with just algebra and pre-calculus to solve problems using methods of numerical calculus.  Very few practicing engineer or technologist solves differential equations “by hand” for optimizing product design – they all use FEA software, so why overwhelm students at the start of undergraduate programs with calculus and calculus based physics and force them to drop out of the workforce pipeline?

 

Question: Can students be expected to learn how to solve problems and troubleshoot systems in this type of program?

Yes – we practice these skills in context of almost all courses, and especially courses involving electronics, data acquisition and automation control.  Hardware integration troubleshooting involve systems that incorporate electronic chips, optoelectronics, electromechanical components, sensors, microcontrollers; and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) which are evolving into programmable automation controllers (PACs).

 

Question: You believe co-op programs are essential for student success. Are there enough co-op programs around and how do you convince employers to fund co-ops?

Co-op programs are critical for student success they show them how curriculum relates to work; and motivates them to focus on timely completion of the program.  The co-ops are highly customized based on the need of individual business and available position within business – for example start and end dates are based on need of business, not dependent on academic calendar even though students do register for the Technolgy Co-op course typically in either Fall or Spring semester.

Visits to the business and/or business visiting our program is planned with the understanding that we will focus on jobs that are hard-to-fill, due to requirements of a very specialized set of skills.  Employers are often receptive because they are very aware of costs of successful recruiting.  A particular employer (owner of business or a manager with HR staff) may detail nine skills/attributes required for a particular position.  I draw an analogy of looking for a “Unicorn” that is hard to find.  I share resumes of few students, some of whom have other degrees and significant work experience in other domains, who would best match six out of nine skills employer is looking for and say that the co-op duration of 270 hours (7 weeks FT, or 15 weeks half-Time work) will be long enough for them to assess if the co-op fits well within workgroup and has either learned the other three skills specific to the job/business, or has good potential to develop those skills/attributes in a reasonable timeframe once the co-op is hired into a full-time position.  After six years of approaching diverse employers it has become easier to recruit employers, due to our record and now some employer hears about us from others and approach us.  I regularly scan local business journal (www.rbj.net) to identify new prospective employers.  I take every opportunity to meet economic and workforce developers who in turn help make connections.

I insist on paid co-op opportunities; I terminate relationship with an employer looking for free interns.



Question: What are some examples of hands-on learning in your program?

Besides the hands-on lab work in several physics and electronics courses, students do project work for automation control classes involving microcontrollers, PLCs and PACs mentioned earlier.  Sometimes we engage in “fun” activities such as creating interactive activities for Halloween to reinforce skills learned in automation control courses.

Hands-on learning at diverse high-tech co-ops and jobs is priceless!

 

Question: How do you engage students to generate interest and enthusiasm? 

When high school students visit us we show them interactive demos illustrating the power of new technical skills and how it relates to regional high-tech ecosystem. We have done other activities like supporting STEM Camp at our college, and showing up to off-campus venues with interactive demos such as a seven-degree-of-freedom robotic arm. We show them how easy it is to learn math and other skills to enable them to pursue careers that they may not have heard about.  I point out that they could possibly earn $3k to $60k while they complete a 21-month program.  I have the same message for an incumbent worker who cannot afford to leave their current day-job – they could get started with first year classes in evenings and Saturdays and then transition into better paying jobs in matter of months, and then continue earning while they finish the degree in 21 months.  The message of empowerment of students of all ages is very effective in generating interest and enthusiasm for embarking on unfamiliar journey, when they see that we will provide support necessary for them to succeed.

The multi-prong approach which shows how much students can do with tools and skills and how they can accelerate learning of mathematics using visualization tools, using LabVIEW, an intuitive graphical software.  Assure them they can do homework for my eight courses as teams, so that they can avoid solitary frustrations at home – especially if they do not savor challenge of tackling difficult problems on their own as they embark on a new educational journey.  I want them to acclimatize to unfamiliar content and different ways of learning over the first two semester, to encourage them to persist. 

Students talking to each other about their co-op or job, creates an economic force and assurance that the degree program’s goal is not just a job but a growth career which opens doors for further education while they continue earning more than a typical person with a baccalaureate in a non-technical field.  Three graduates have successfully transferred as junior in a regional baccalaureate program in Technology Management; and one who graduated last May has started pursuing the baccalaureate degree remotely; using an on-line option, while she continues a good paying job at a local technology company where she is also advancing in field of learning technical sales.

The past graduates are invited to the public presentations of the co-ops, where they update their own record for fellow students and others interested in our program. 

 

Question: Why is it important for local community colleges to have these programs?

Community colleges are accessible to students where they live and provide requisite support for the underprepared – individualized attention that students may not get at large educational institutions

Community colleges are more responsive to needs of small and medium businesses; who are often ignored by research institutions, since they do not contribute significantly to their budget

Economic developers have finally convinced community colleges about their role and responsibility in local economic development.  The visionary industrial policies of the Ontario County, NY, and especially the support and guidance of the Economic Developer of the Ontario County, NY has been instrumental in development and continued success of our innovative public-private partnership.

Baccalaureate and research university graduates are essential for high-tech ecosystems; however, most of the graduates do not stay in a semi-rural region. Besides the selective cohort of students at these colleges are going to be successful no matter how little value some of their teacher add to their education

The programs which contribute to local economic sustainability in turn increase sustainability of national educational enterprise in view of unsustainable growth in national student loan debt ($1.3 Trillion).   Public support of education will decline as more tax payers are asked to pick up the tab for unpaid loans.

 

Question: How can local community colleges be sure they are meeting the requirements of industry in their area?

Work with existing industry-education partnerships (www.nyfame.org for example). If none exists then create one with help from local economic developers and workforce developers.

Identify local clusters of businesses and work with their respective organization.  However, we must not ignore the Long-tail of diverse small high-tech businesses (who may not be part of well-defined industry cluster) whose needs are unmet and often not clearly undefined, because they may have given up on finding the Unicorn – serving their needs will serve the students and incumbent workers.  Hence, do not just pay attention to help-wanted ads; because most of these jobs are not advertised.  Upon completion of a successful co-ops, often a business creates a position that they may not even have planned for; once they see how a versatile/adaptable co-op can greatly enhance capability of the existing technical teams.

Visit individual business to really understand the unmet needs and mentor students towards relevant education and careers based on their experience and talents. Talents can be developed!

It is necessary to have a feedback mechanism to continuously monitor how the industry needs are changing and whether graduates are indeed making strides in expected roles

Listen to contrarians and understand their perspectives; which educators may miss because of their own biases

Arrange visits of students to the businesses in the first semester of the college (or even when students are in high school) so that they can visualize how they could be part of one or more businesses and prepare for roles which may be more multidimensional than what a typical degree may suggest on the surface.

 

Question: Are there any financial aids students?

The federal Pell grant and state education grant (TAP in NY) cover most of the tuition. 
Now there is an Excelsior Scholarship program in NY which cover any remaining tuition costs if family income is less than $100,000.

There are Scholarship programs funded by individual benefactors and industry-education organization.
Most businesses reimburse tuition for full-time employees; and a few reimburse tuition even for part-time employees.

 

Question: Are these programs only for new high school graduates?

No.  The average age was in mid 30s at the inception of program at the height of the recession; now it is in the mid-20s.  (I have had a few home-schooled students, one of them graduated last May and one 15-year-old will start classes this Fall)

A new P-TECH High School was launched two years ago, with whom we collaborate on ICTech related courses. These P-TECH students will finish most of the first-year ICTech courses by the time they graduate from high school.

 

Bill’s Thoughts & Observations

The programs and results Sam Samanta and his team along with enlightened school administration, local economic development people, and business support is significant and should be celebrated. The creation of this local ecosystem to support innovation and growth is an inspired model that can be duplicated if people put their mind and energies into it. 

Sam told me he’s never worked harder in his life but loves it and is energized seeing the difference it makes in people’s lives.

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