Workforce Development: A Millennial View on Closing the Automation Skills Gap

Hi, my name is Emily Skoglund, and I am a millennial. Yes, I admit it. Most of the time, I am completely normal, except when responding to abnormal situations. During those times, I am pleasantly persistent, respectful yet direct and work toward the goal of quickly resolving the situation.

Seriously, it’s an exciting time to be a millennial with many opportunities to learn and grow, especially in the process automation and control space. As technological advances flood the automation market, manufacturers look to update or migrate their legacy control systems. With change, however, comes some growing pains and workforce development challenges.

Many industrial manufacturers face workforce attrition and retirement, which places additional tasks on existing automation engineers who already have heavy workloads. For millennials fresh out of the engineering gate or those who are already well on their automation career path, what better time to get real-world, hands-on technical experience and training? We are perfectly positioned to help bridge the seemingly indomitable skills gap.

Now, if you’re among the baby boomer generation and are the go-to expert for everything automation, you might be thinking, how can this millennial species possibly fill my shoes and even understand what I do?

Good question.

We can’t possibly fill your expert shoes exactly, and it can be difficult to understand all you do. But we can – and do – learn.

We know you’re looking to eventually pass the industrial automation baton. Perhaps you prefer to consult on the side or enjoy your favorite hobby rather than spend time explaining advanced process control basics or demonstrate how to tune a loop – not to mention passing on the many other pearls of wisdom you have gleaned over the years.

We get it.

To us, you are a rare species with your incredible knowledge. We are ready, willing and eager to learn from you. It all comes down to good old-fashioned, one-on-one communication and mentorship and, of course, one rare commodity – your time.

I’ve been on the receiving end of that expert advice and have been fortunate to work with leaders / mentors who have a vested interest in my career. It has helped me understand the value of mentorship and the importance of sharing knowledge and experiences with others. So, here’s my automation and control story.

Sink or Swim

I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering at the University of Arkansas. Fresh out of school, I began my career at MAVERICK Technologies as an Engineer I, which was exciting, rewarding and challenging all at the same time. The MAVERICK culture and motto “work hard, play hard” inspires learning and growth with its technical educational university and mentoring programs embedded in a fun and exciting work environment. I soon discovered, however, that what I learned in the college classroom did not adequately prepare me for this new workplace reality.

Yes, I struggled with my first project. My mentor was a true engineer with a sink or swim mentoring style, so I quickly found myself in the deep end of the automation pool. My assignment working in my new role on the team was to figure out how to build human-machine interface (HMI) graphics. As a recent graduate in chemical engineering, I had never touched HMI graphics, tagging or networking before – I mean, not at all. Once the entire project was completed, however, I had learned a great deal about graphics, troubleshooting and project work in general.

From there, I had the opportunity to join a MAVERICK team working on a midstream pipeline project. My mentor on this project was a senior engineer who had been at the company for more than 15 years. His approach was to put me to work on the project and then help me learn from my mistakes.

My first assignment was to immerse myself in various products and platforms we used on the job. He had me take an old project file from a programmable logic controller (PLC) program and copy its format and file structure over to a new project file. This taught me the formatting, orientation and setup of each task and group in the project file. After verifying my work and assisting with anything I didn’t understand, we then moved to a global object-based HMI application where he showed me an example of a motor operated valve (MOV) function block logic / code, as well as the associated ladder logic for it. He had me figure out how the ladder logic connected the function blocks to the physical I/O in the field.

After I understood the networking of the MOV, he then had me manually code 57 individual MOV devices. After I had completed all 57, he showed me a tool / macro that could be used to do it more quickly (kind of like learning exponents [2x2x2x2x2] the hard way until you’re shown how to use the caret symbol “2^5”). He then used the same process to teach me pumps and digital and analog points as well.

Our newfound mentor / mentee relationship was not all smooth sailing, however. We had a bit of miscommunication when it came to HMI graphics standards. As a new engineer, I didn’t understand the importance of the standards. For instance, when creating text for a navigation button, I wanted to lower the font size 1 point to view the descriptive text better. “No, you can’t do that,” he said. For some people, that would be the end of the discussion. This millennial mind, however, needed to know the reason why. “We must adhere to strict customer specifications and HMI graphics standards,” he explained.

I challenged the status quo and questioned whether we had room to innovate while adhering to the standards and meeting customer requirements. We then worked together and looked at other options. The result? We changed the size of the navigation buttons across the board, which allowed for more descriptive text but also kept the original font size. I learned so much from his mentorship that I was considered the HMI lead on the next project and excelled from there.

Engineering with a Twist

At this point, I was on the career path to become an Engineer II. Instead, a new opportunity presented itself to join the Inside Sales team, which was both exciting and scary. A real leap of faith. I had never cold-called or been in sales before, but I was excited about the challenge, and my mentors believed in my abilities, so I tackled it head on.

In my new role, I use my engineering experience to help understand our customers and their automation needs. But I had to quickly get up to speed on everything there is to know about MAVERICK and the multiple industries we serve. I also had to learn who to reach out to for help learning the various platforms we service, along with familiarizing myself with our many other automation services and solutions.

The senior leads generation manager led the way and shared examples of how he approached sales. He would say, “This is what I do in this type of situation, but you have to find your own groove, too.” This made perfect sense to me. A lot of what I do now for sales has roots in his mentorship and the life experiences he shares with me. Of course, I also put my own skills to work in my sales environment role. Leveraging his feedback and monitoring my own results, I have learned what works and doesn’t work. During the process, I also learned specific technical tips and company insight from other colleagues, who work tirelessly on multiple projects but still took the time to enthusiastically share their expertise or point me in the right direction.

Overall, I’ve grown as a person and have been able to experience and learn engineering and sales thanks to my mentors. I like to believe my mentors have learned something from me – a millennial who now has her feet firmly planted in automation. After all, as with any good relationship, it is give and take. A true mentorship program is not just one person making a difference. It’s an entire company or group of people who:

  • Are 100% vested in you as a person and your career
  • Instill confidence with their can-do attitude
  • Provide a collaborative, open-door environment where you can ask questions of anybody, including the CEO
  • Believe in a work / life balance
  • Take pride in working together toward a common goal
  • Offer diversity, flexibility, inclusion and open-mindedness

I am excited to see where the next new fork in the career path takes me. For now, I hope my story inspires others to take the time to pay it forward and share your knowledge. Together, we can accomplish anything, including bridging the automation skills gap.

Emily Skoglund

Emily Skoglund

Emily is a ChemE at heart who also loves the personable aspect of her Inside Sales role. She utilizes her past experiences as an automation engineer to connect with her clients and provide them with the best customer service and solutions possible. She values MAVERICK’s collaborative / open-door environment and the many talented people she has worked with over the years. She looks forward to continuously learning and, maybe, even providing mentorship to the next generation to enter the workforce —when that time comes.

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