January 24, 2013 by Kristina Urquhart
As a chemical engineer who graduated 30 years ago, I know that other than the basic skills I learned at university (which formed the platform on which I was able to develop a career) much of what I do today was learned post graduation.
Fortunately, the basic theories of physics, chemistry, etc., do not change and that forms the foundation, just like our education prior to entering post secondary studies forms the foundation on which our fields of specialization reside—it’s one big pyramid.
This pyramid is why we need to develop the next generation of technical folks today. If we don’t, not only will we not be able to retire, but our country’s economy will also pay the price.
But the time to get young people interested is NOT when they are about to graduate. Instead, we must reach them between grade 7 and grade 9, because that is when they will have a reason to do well in the core subjects necessary to become the next generation of technologists.
One way that we can all help is to become involved locally by mentoring young people and showing them that, despite being engineers, we are “real people.” Some obvious examples of good fits are FIRST (www.usfirst.org) and the better-known Lego League (with whom ISA has created a partnership), coaching a local sports team, mentoring, or any other way of interacting with young people so they can ask, “What do you do?”
Once someone has an interest in joining our exciting field of work, there are many opportunities for post-secondary development. In addition, we are fortunate to have an effective apprenticeship program here in Canada. However, as stated at the start of this column, once we have our degree is when we really start our education—learning not only ‘hard’ technical skills but also the important ‘soft’ people skills.
A common way of learning new skills, other than reading appropriate journals, is to participate in technical society meetings such as IEEE, ISA, PMM, etc. This is how I continued to develop my skills for much of my career and the following story pretty well summarizes the result.
When I entered the process analyzer business in the late ‘80s and went to ISA Analysis Division meetings, I was the “young guy” (only being in my early 30s). Everyone else was 20 years my senior, so they were happy to see someone behind them preparing to pick up the baton. Now I am the person looking behind me for someone to pick up my baton when I am ready to slow down and it does not look promising.
Another way to not only stay on top of developing technology but also to influence it is by participating in standards development activities. Here in Canada, doing so is free and can typically be done through the appropriate sponsoring Standards Developing Organization (SDO) such as CSA, ISA, IEEE, or directly through the Standards Council of Canada (SCC). If you are interested in learning how to participate in SCC or ISA, where I am active, please contact me directly and we will get you started. One of the conditions of becoming an ANSI accredited SDO is that membership must NOT be a prerequisite to participation so you can join any ISA or IEEE standards committee without having to pay annual dues.
Automation is unique in that there are few universities around the world that truly teach automation. Many teach process control, but that is not the same as the learning about the devices that actually connect to the process—all the more reason that we need to mentor new graduates and stay current ourselves.
Just like the technology on which we rely as automation professionals continues to evolve, so too must we continue to grow and develop our skills to not only remain relevant to our employers but also to remain competitive ourselves. Investing in yourself will always provide returns in self satisfaction.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.