Helping Employees Pick up More Skills

Helping Employees Pick up More Skills

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A number of trends are prompting many corporations in some of the largest global industries to beef up their efforts to train engineers and programmers, keeping them up to date or helping them learn new skills. High demand for skilled technical workers is a driving factor as fields like manufacturing and automotive move to digital technologies that require specialized software.

In automotive, demand for infotainment and connectivity, improved safety and autonomous driving are making electronic systems the differentiators in a field that once relied on styling and horsepower. In the manufacturing world, automation and connectivity are driving huge changes in equipment designs while also transforming the factory floor.

Companies in the automotive and industrial automation fields are struggling to stay at the forefront of their industries by adding electronic controls and using the cloud to collect data. That requires a lot of skilled workers. In a tight labor market, it’s important to keep existing employees at the top of their game. Major corporations are meeting their skilled labor demands by helping existing employees sharpen existing skills and develop new talents. Siemens is among those increasing funding for training.

“We’re investing $50 million annually to encourage our employees to pursue ongoing learning,” said Lisa Davis, CEO of Siemens USA. “We want people who can help us in areas like software, Internet access and cloud computing.”

ZF, the second largest Tier 1 supplier in the automotive industry, is also beefing up its training programs. Long known as a transmission producer, ZF is embedding more and more digital technologies, so software is becoming a more central focus for its future. It’s making an effort to make sure the technical skills for many of its 147,000 global employees remain fresh.

“Our training programs have definitely been increasing,” said Isabelle Behm, Manager, Global Technical Learning & Development, ZF Active and Passive Safety Division. “Our organization has put more effort into having a global program so no matter which region our employees are in, they get training.”

Siemens and ZF are not alone. They are part of an industry trend, according to Training magazine’s Training Industry Report for 2017. Total U.S. training expenditures rose at a sharp 32.5 % reaching $90.6 billion last year.

While there will always be a need for mechanical designs, the need to collect and analyze data is growing as global manufacturers link their products to the Industrial Internet of Things. Both cars and automation equipment are being connected to the Web, making it easier to mine the wealth of data that’s created by control and safety systems. For Siemens, connectivity and cloud computing are key components of an industrial trend called Industry 4.0.

“Jobs are evolving, with more digital content,” Davis said. “Some of that is tied to Industry 4.0, once data is in the cloud, it’s all about creating value from that data.”

As demand for new skills evolves, techniques for teaching employees are changing. Many companies have relied on their own employees, having specialists run seminars to broaden the group’s knowledge base. But the pressures of fast-paced industries have made it difficult for these technical authorities to reach enough employees.

“We found that using internal experts was no longer working, they can’t meet all the demand,” said Sophie Stepke, Training Manager at ZF North America. “We still use internal experts, but we’re doing a lot more with training supplied by vendors. We have agreements with MathWorks and National Instruments.”

In many technical fields, one key challenge is to learn how to get the most from new tools so engineers and programmers can efficiently get advanced designs to market. In other sections of large companies, shifting markets and the combination of mechanical designs with digital controls requires new skills. A growing number of engineers need to add programming to their knowledge base.

“We’re using LinkedIn Learning, they’ve been exponentially increasing the number of relevant courses,” Behm said. “They now go from basic programming to C, C++ and Java. A lot of these foundational software skills are great for people who want to augment traditional skills like mechanical engineering with software skills.”

This need to blend other engineering skills with programming capabilities highlights the huge shift that’s occurring as more technologies are controlled by electronics and software. That’s a major shift in the automotive industry. Companies that design seats and other interior equipment need to incorporate more digital technologies to meet consumer and safety requirements.

“We’re piloting a ready for future technologies program to take engineers from mature areas that are not as big a part of ZF’s future growth and letting them attend boot camps where, say, a mechanical engineer can learn to program. That’s pretty cool because people in areas that won’t see much growth can be retrained. We want to do more of that, especially with the tight demand for software engineers.”


Terry Costlow has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE TimesAutomation WorldAutomotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science MonitorLos Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.


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