Required urgently: Supertechs

IN 2008, I expressed concern about the dearth of instrumentation engineers and technicians available in Australia, or coming through the system. Sadly, not much has improved today.

I am partial to the internationally-accepted acronym C&I (Control and Instrumentation) to describe our profession. C&I is a complex profession and very specialised technically. It is limited to manufacturing and processing plants (of which there are only a few hundred across Australia) with only a few technicians per site.

It requires broad technical skills calling for solid knowledge of physics, chemistry, mechanics, IT and light current electrics. Possessing just one or two of these skills is not good enough. Importantly, without the required C&I staff, most manufacturing and processing plants cannot operate.

So where do we find these supertechs? Herein lies the conundrum. Given the complexity of the profession and the very low acceptance of C&I as a career of choice, there is minimal demand from aspiring engineers and technicians leaving school to embrace control and instrumentation as a career.

As a consequence, there is little demand on TAFEs and Universities to provide qualified tuition. This is evidenced by the fact that only a handful of TAFEs and Universities offer courses that could produce qualified instrumentation technicians or engineers today.

And, without being critical of these tertiary institutions, it is difficult for us, in industry, to find motivated teachers, lecturers or tutors who would embrace as a gift, a crate full of pre-used pressure and temperature transmitters, flowmeters and the like.

As always, there are exceptions like RMIT, Murdoch, Swan, Petersham and Mildura. The task of designing a simple control loop, getting the pipe work made and installing the devices, is all too hard and is probably not of interest to enough of the students to warrant the time and expense.

The end result is: No C&I supertechs coming through the system.
I believe the industry is willing to support training for C&I locally. I do not believe our industry is interested in the quick fix – training electricians to be instros.

Industry needs C&I people who are fully qualified to run their plants, automate new projects and protect the environment. This is evident in most other educationally forward thinking communities such as Britain, India, China, South Africa and much of Europe,

But what can industry do to convince our young people that C&I is a challenging, fulfilling, lucrative career? By itself, industry can do very little.

We need a concerted effort by the three parties that can make a difference if they work together. The government must actively promote Australia as a technical society; industry can provide jobs and careers; and institutions can offer suitable training and encouragement.

And the alternative?
Industry continues to sponsor supertechs from other countries, using the onerous, time-consuming, expensive, and risky process fondly known as ‘457 visa recruiting’.

[John Immelman is Managing Director, Endress+Hauser Australia.]