Consortium Tackles Internet of Things Skills Gap

Consortium Tackles Internet of Things Skills Gap

BY Terry Costlow Posted: 4 Apr 2017

The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to transform workplaces, particularly industrial operations that can benefit from communications between machines and from operators who are in remote locations. It will also transform personnel requirements as more employees need to understand firewalls, security and other aspects of networked devices.

When managers list the many benefits of IoT connectivity, many cite its role in helping them find skilled personnel. IoT lets managers log in from a remote computer, so they no longer have to walk into the facility to control equipment. That’s a huge factor as automated industrial systems become more complex, making skilled workers ever more valuable.

“We have to leverage the knowledge of our experts, we need to address the shortage of people,” said Terri Lewis, Digital & Technology Manager, Energy & Transportation, at Caterpillar Inc. “One way is to let experts live where they want to live and let them control operations remotely.”

Remote management isn’t really the driving factor behind the trend to connect all corporate operations to the Web. A primary driver is that it’s easier to manage production, ordering, sales and other factors in a more holistic way. Most companies haven’t yet made the leap to IoT, but many are considering it.

“Only around 14% of manufacturers have their operating technology (OT) networks connected to the IT networks,” said Dave Vasko, director of advanced technology at Rockwell Automation. “There’s a huge opportunity to derive value by linking the two. Bringing OT to IT is more in demand, people have assets in manufacturing that they want to bring into their networks.”

While IoT lets companies hire remote employees, it also raises the ante for plant managers and operators. Finding personnel with IoT-related skills is among the roadblocks that must be overcome by companies that want to join the IoT. Employees will have to understand many factors related to networking while also knowing how to manage automated equipment.

Vasko’s Rockwell is among a growing number of companies that are teaming up to help train workers in the ways of the Internet. Cisco, General Electric, Microsoft and Rockwell helped create the IoT Talent Consortium in 2015. It’s expanded as MIT Sloan School of Management, Walt Disney Co., New York Academy of Sciences and the State of Illinois have joined in the effort to build a human infrastructure for networked companies.

Demand is expected to soar in the near future as more companies start linking their office and production networks. Utilities are leveraging the Web, as are home products like thermostats. Factory automation is expected to be a major beneficiary.  A Cisco study showed that about 40% of manufacturing companies are working on digital plans for manufacturing.

“Many of these companies have control engineers -- there are about 117,000 globally -- and 90% of them are experienced workers,” said Sudarshan Krishnamurthi of Cisco. “When they’re asked about cybersecurity and predictive maintenance, most have no clue about this, to them those jobs are on the IT side. We want to make sure these people learn about security and other IoT technologies.”

The IoT Talent Consortium includes universities, but its primary goal at present is to reach people who already work in fields like manufacturing that will be connected. The challenge is not small. Once companies expand with Web connections, several other technologies may come into play.

“We’re looking at a revolution with artificial intelligence and data automation. It’s also likely that flexible manufacturing capabilities can become more prevalent,” said Peter Hirst, the MIT Sloane School of Management’s consortium representative. “The boundaries of people’s skill sets are moving into knowledge work.”

Many factors come into play. Security and communications knowledge must be added atop existing knowledge in manufacturing equipment and processes. Connections to front office IT systems can mean employees need more understanding of business factors like supply chain management.

“There’s definitely a shortage of people with interdisciplinary skills,” Hirst said. “That’s especially important in manufacturing, a big part of the story of IoT is that it requires a fundamental transformation of the company’s operating tactics. A lot of people don’t understand how profound the changes are, not just in manufacturing, but in areas that manufacturing supports. People also need to look at how the supply chain changes.”

Employees who are already busy trying to keep up with today’s challenging workplace environments aren’t going to be able to tackle all those topics in a short timeframe. Instead, most workers will probably determine what topics will help them perform better immediately, then continue to expand. Those tasked with helping employees learn face many hurdles. Figuring out where to focus their limited training resources is among them.

“Nobody has a descriptive path for people to take,” Krishnamurthi said. “We want to help future-proof employees by looking at job requirements in the future. We’re looking at the top in-demand jobs and saying here are the ways to learn the skills that are needed.”

Many technology companies are offering coursework in these areas, supplementing the consortium’s coursework. Those courses, available in a range of formats, go beyond the foundational skills that are typically taught at universities.

“The things we see as valuable are very specialized skills, for example how to set up different types of equipment,” Vasko said. “Being able to configure a network and a firewall are important skills. They augment the foundational skills taught in schools, we help people bridge the gaps. Trainers can come to company sites, people can come to our offices, plus they can take online coursework.”

Protecting corporate data and equipment will play an important role in IoT Talent Consortium efforts. When industrial equipment is connected to the Web, these networks will become larger targets for hackers. Layers of protection are recommended as part of a defense-in-depth strategy.

“Security job openings don’t just require people to secure the networks from outside attacks, they also need to protect the equipment in plants when the first line of protection is breached, that’s where the skill gaps are,” Krishnamurthi said. “Some estimates say we’re two million people short, mostly in the areas of detecting and mitigating threats. If you think of a power plant, a security breach can be catastrophic if it isn’t detected and mitigated.”

In many industrial sites, breaches may not always come from the outside. Networked equipment must be protected from staffers who unknowingly connect an infected computer to the industrial network, creating an attack from inside the firewalls. This highlights the need for employee training as well as for security experts. 

The consortium is expanding its offerings as it begins to reach beyond manufacturing. Some technologies, like cloud computing and big data analysis, will be important for workers regardless of the industry they’re in. When several pieces of sophisticated automated equipment are transmitting data on a number of parameters, the volumes of data will accumulate quickly.

“The consortium started with manufacturing, now we have circled around and put in courses in areas like cloud computing and data analysis. Data analysis is very important, there’s a lot of data to understand,” Vasko said.

While most of the IoT Talent Consortium’s efforts focus on employees, members generally agree that top executives must also have a working knowledge of IoT programs, or at least understand the benefits that can be gained and risks assumed. When support for the many factors needed to develop a comprehensive IoT strategy comes from the top, success is more likely.

“CEOs, CIOs and CTOs all need to provide support for this,” Vasko said. “Companies that approach this as implementing IoT won’t be as effective as those that ask what problems they need to solve. Support from the top is a big factor for success”

Terry Costlow

has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE Times, Automation World, Automotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.

Connect with the author

Comments Comment Policy

No comments yet. Please sign in to add comment.