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Where have all the instrumentation specialists gone?

Instrumentation has never been a sexy industry. Peter Veron and Bill Ebzery know this. However, it always used to be an industry that attracted a fair chunk of people – mainly males – to its fold. Today, trying to get people to take a course, or businesses to support apprenticeships, is becoming harder.

Veron is the chairman of the Institute of Instrumentation Control and Automation Australia’s (IICA) NSW Branch, while Ebzery is the senior lecturer for instrumentation and control at Sydney TAFE. Both have been around the industry for a long time, and they both know the knowledge needed to enter the industry. They have also seen worrying changes, especially since the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced.

Anybody who has studied the Australian manufacturing and process and control industries of late would think that the country’s best days in these arenas are behind it. But that’s a pessimist’s outlook. While there’s no denying cheaper labour pools in overseas countries are a beacon for locally based manufacturers to cut costs, there are still plenty of local-based jobs that need instrumentation specialists. Mining is one area. There are also petrochemical, pharmaceutical and a raft of other industries that need graduate. Also, existing plant still needs to be maintained. Finally, there is the growing renewable energy and robotics/AI sectors, which will need a whole raft of instrumentation and control specialists.

Who are the next generation of these specialists and where will they come from? A good question, said Ebzery. His instrumentation course currently has five first-year apprentices. Nowhere near enough.

“We’ve got seven in the second year, and eight in third year,” said Ebzery. “We used to have 36 going through, now we have less than 20. And that is going to drop off more unless we get industry involved.”

Up until 15-20 years ago, the apprenticeships would attract thousands of applicants and companies could cherrypick the best people for the job.

“It used to work like this,” said Ebzery. “If ICI needed 30 apprentices they would get 6000 applications for those 30 jobs. We’d head out to the Maroubra Town Hall and knock them down to 300 in one go. We’d give them a second go the following week and then we’d have our 30. Today, it’s more or less somebody’s mother’s uncle’s son who knows someone who gets an apprentice and they send them to us.”

Ebzery isn’t critical of the students he’s got. They’re mostly all very good, but there just aren’t enough of them. Veron believes one problem is that some of the decision makers don’t appreciate the different requirements between various courses, or don’t appreciate that one course can’t necessarily be merged together with another.

“People aren’t enrolling in the instrumentation course,” he said. “They’re doing an extra year tacked on to the electrical course. An understanding of instrumentation and control is different to the requirements of an electrician – it’s a different discipline altogether.

“There is still a need for instrumentation people on the ground in Australia because there’s always a need to fine tune or replace and repair plant equipment as well as regular maintenance to increase efficiencies. And if people don’t understand how a piece of equipment works in the first place, they’re not going to be able to maintain it properly.”

HECS also has a lot to answer for, said Ebzery. What used to be a $1,200-$1,500 course now costs anywhere up to $13,000. Ebzery concedes that the previous iteration was heavily subsidised, but now even somebody who has an interest in the industry – and may not even be an apprentice but is keen to do the course off their own volition – cannot afford to do the course. And Ebzery doesn’t even want to talk about the loss of interest some companies have putting people through now that the course costs almost 10 times what it once did.

“If you’ve got to pay $13,000 over two years to do this course, and you’re not in the position to earn that money to start with, no wonder the number of people wanting to do the instrumentation course has collapsed,” said Ebzery.

Now the problem is known, what can be done about it? According to Veron, bringing in overseas’ graduates is not the answer.

“You get a lot of people coming here with degrees from overseas,” he said. “However, one thing they all have in common is lack of practical experience. They might come here with several pieces of paper like MBAs and Masters. Yet, practically they don’t know what they’re looking at when they’re faced with an instrument or don’t know how to configure and optimise a process.”

Veron is disappointed that the government doesn’t appear to be looking after local manufacturing and workers as best it could. Over the last 10 years we have seen a massive decline in local manufacturing, from the clothing sector right up to the local automotive manufacturers.

“I think the government needs to look at the global picture not just a three-year plan they all seem to have,” said Veron. “We need a long-term plan. I know everybody is anti-Trump but the one thing I do like is that he is trying to manufacture locally and employ more local people. Effectively creating local opportunities”

Ebzery doesn’t like being a pessimist. He comes across as passionate and enthusiastic about his chosen profession, but he and the IICA can’t do it on their own.

“The only way I can see for things to get better is to get people talking about it,” he said. “There is a big blank. People are not prepared to put themselves out. Peter and I think that this is a bigger problem than just a lack of apprentices.

“We’re going to run out of smart people to do the job. It’s a real problem. As teachers of the trade we know how long it takes. Some people talk about private institutes – even putting together a 10-week certificate program. You can’t learn about instrumentation in ten weeks. It takes two years.”

Like any profession, the length of time it takes to learn a trade is just one aspect that needs considering. Changes within the industry itself is also an issue.

“The biggest role change is that instrumentation specialists need to know how to run diagnostics,” said Ebzery. “They need to know what the instrument is telling them. Also, microprocessors are being made so much better. At one time we were looking at parts per million, now its parts per billion. You need the smarts to tell you what is happening.”

Ebzery believes that if the coming shortage is addressed, it is a win-win-win situation for the person being trained, employers and Australia.

“If you want to cook a frog you have to start slow,” said Ebzery. “Hitting people with a $13,000 bill up front is not the way to do it. I reckon I could sell it for about $6,000 if we get industry on board. If you’re a young person coming into the industry having spent $13,000 there is no clear cut place you can go. You can’t go to Shell or Caltex or any of the other big companies so you’re stuck. But people want them. They want them in the mines, they want them in the north west shelf. But it’s very difficult.

“How much is it going to cost? At the end of the day he or she earns money. They pay taxes. In real terms, training the next generation of apprentices is the best national asset you can have. It might cost us $6,000 or $8,000 for an apprentice but that could literally be paid back in the first five years of employment. A trade is very valuable for the country. But if the companies don’t talk about it, and the politicians don’t talk about it, then our children and grandchildren will have nothing.”


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