Is the trade dying a slow death??


Thread Starter

David Stuart

I am 23 year experenced controls guy (Engineer- Designer-Programmer) I have been self employed for 3 +years . I cant find any work or projects
. Been looking since this last may ... Is it time to change my course in life .... Is this trade dying a slow death ?? Whats your opinion?? How can you survive out there today ?? What would you do ??
Dave. I know the feeling. It's primarily a regional based profession. Here in the Detroit area, there are tons of jobs in controls. In other areas of the country, there are people who dont even know what a PLC is. I work primarily in the water and water treatment industry. I moved over from automotive knowing that sooner or later the big three would take a hit. My hunch played out. Like everything else in this business, its highly cyclical. As long as automation needs are needed so will the need for the people who program the machinery. Todays improvements on programming and PLC design are making it easy for alsmost anyone to do it now if you know what you are doing.

Good Luck
I manage the controls group for a small OEM in Oregon. We do the controls for our own machinery and also contract SI projects.

Things have been slow over the last year, but things are picking up. I honestly believe that in order for US Companies to compete, they need to continue to automate. This improves quality and decreases production costs. I cannot think of a better field to be in for the future.

Good luck and I hope things work out.
You might benefit from reading some of the things that have been written about this, recently.

There is an article on the Control Magazine website from a recent issue, "Who Will Do the Work?" by David Spitzer and Walt Boyes that addresses this issue.

There is an article on the Inside ISA website at that talks about former ISA Executive Director Glen Harvey's speech at the 2001 Honors and Awards Banquet in is exactly about this issue.

In addition, there are the articles I've written for on the world of work in automation and control. You can find them at They are a detailed look at what to do in your position.

I hope this helps.

Walt Boyes

---------SPITZER AND BOYES, LLC-------------
"Consulting from the engineer
to the distribution channel"
[email protected]
21118 SE 278th Place
Maple Valley, WA 98038
253-709-5046 cell 425-432-8262 home office

William Sturm

Man, that is tough... You may want to change your niche or your target market. Diversify a little. I think that the controls industry is a good field to be in, but not always. You need a strong niche where you can add value, and then start knocking on doors.

Here in the Western world, we've been going through a very severe and long-lasting economic downturn.
People are getting laid-off, fired or downsized
- not because they were in anyway "not good enough", because the senior executives made some
overly-optimistic guesses in the past. A lot of
good people at HP-Compaq are suffering unemployment because Carly wanted to roll the dice.
This is very depressing to hear, and
job-hunting has pretty discouraging for these
past few years.
Maybe the best thing is to temporarily do
something (ANYTHING!) else, because things won't
pick up for at least a couple of years. Once things get back on track, you won't have time
to do anything but work, work, work.

Ranjan Acharya

Be prepared to move around, even emigrate. English is a widely spoken (and abused) language, so that should not really be a bother. Think Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Continental Europe / Scandinavia, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, ... even a short term ex-pat contract could see you over the hump until your domestic economy picks up. I guess you should stay away from certain countries ....

Be prepared to re-train and diversify.

Don't get put off by the cyclical nature of a market-based economy.

I don't think controls are in trouble.

Automation List :

The automation business is declining -
and has been for a few years.

You might like to read my article -
"Why is Industrial Automation Declining?" at:

In a poor economy, don't simply sit back and wait
for the axe to fall. Be pro-active - use your personal
strengths, plus new ideas and tools, to find new
opportunities for continued growth and success.
There are always good opportunities for good people.
And good people find those opportunities!

My article "In a declining economy, what's a good
automation-techie to do?" has just been published on
the Automation Techies website, Dec. 2002 at :

You'll find it too on the website at:

Jim Pinto
email : [email protected].com
San Diego, CA., USA

Bob Peterson

One of the problems with a one-man shop is that you spend your time working and not beating the bushes for new work. When your contract is up, its hard sometimes to find a new one quickly. Some one-man shops I have spoken with claim they spend as much as 20% of their time looking for new contracts to take up as old ones are finished. If you are heavily tied to a single client, you can get into trouble because you don't realize whats going on in the rest of the world. When times are tough, it can be very difficult for a one-man operation to find work, as you are finding out.

People are cutting back, and they are looking to outsource chunks or whole projects rather than contracting a guy for a while. there is usually no economic advantage to a client to hire you just as an engineer (unless you work cheap, in which case you probably are not much of a bargain), its probably more cost effective over time to hire someone, even with a training cycle included. but if you have the capability to do a bigger chunk of a project, you may be more attractive to more clients. This has the advantage of giving you more of a base to sell yourself to, but requires you to work within a larger organization.

Don't get me wrong here. SIs are slow as well, but the ones that are more than rent-an-engineer companies have something to offer that you don't and it can make all the difference. Plus they have salesmen out beating the bush who are probably better at cold calling than you are, and will starve if they don't sell something to bring in commissions, thus they have a serious incentive to sell stuff.

I am not a big fan of temp services, but there are some temp services around that rent out engineering help. From what I have heard, usually they do not pay all that well, but when things are slow it may be worth a look.

Another area you might consider is doing field service work. There is a serious lack of competent field service help available (the key word being competent). You might be able to work out a deal with an OEM who's equipment you are familiar with (from programming them) or an equipment supplier, or even a local electrical distributor. Life on the road is not all that much fun, but it might pay the bills for a while.

You might also want to reduce your rate temporarily. A lot of companies seriously understate what it costs them to have an engineer on staff. I have seen people that charge themselves as little as $35-40 for internal engineering services, and have a huge sticker shock when they go outside to get help. I have run the numbers a lot of times, and the real cost for me is over $50 an hour. That is before any overhead or profit, just what it costs for me to show up to work everyday, based on one years cost to have me on staff divided by the number of typical billable hours in one year. Since wages and benefits are reasonably close, I see no way anyone could hire someone internally to do the same work for such a low number. And usually, the people working on them internally are bogged down by meetings, and politics, and other inefficiencies you are not afflicted with. But even so the numbers are starkly different than what they see as the cost of an hour of engineering time.

Another helpful idea might be to take on projects on a fixed price basis. Customers are often willing to pay more than if they did it on a T&M basis, just so they have a known quantity to deal with. this requires you to have a good idea what it is you are bidding on, and a good idea of how good you will be at what they need done.

Bob Peterson

Curt Wuollet

Hi all
With automation slow for the longest time and the tech sector in general about dead, I'm looking at HVACR as an alternative. Low tech, but at least somewhat related and short of people. Not having much luck finding someone who'll help me make the jump.

They seem to be looking more for brawn than brains and seem to be sceptical that I could actually fix furnaces. Might be worth looking into, especially in metro areas where there are energy management systems, etc.

Dear Sir,

If this is a case in USA, can you imagine what is in the east Europe countries where exactly the western economy and trade closed all industry (for exception of some food industry that has to be local.

Complete engineering companies broke, and a lot of engineers are having their small engineering offices, each covering his speciality, but when a bigger project is planned it is very difficult to get it. So the home business and small companies will brake.

That's a bit of economy. The world is one. The market is one. if you want to take some more, you have to take it from somebody else.


Ralph Mackiewicz

> That's a bit of economy. The world is one. The market is one. if you
> want to take some more, you have to take it from somebody else.

I hate to burst your bubble but, fortunately for the human race, the economy (global or local) doesn't work like that. This zero sum model of economic activity does not follow the real world. In the real world the economy grows. Wealth, a measure of economic activity, is not something static that you can only take from someone else. Wealth is created by the exchange of goods and services. If this weren't true then we would all still have to grow our own food just to survive to the ripe old age of 35 like our ancestors from centuries ago. The lifestyles of people all over the world (with the few exceptions of those still living as they did in the stone age) is a direct repudiation of the view of a static (zero sum) economic model.

Ralph Mackiewicz

Steve Myres, PE

A big "Hear, Hear!" for that statement.

One thing, though. I disagree that wealth is created by the EXCHANGE of goods and services. I think wealth is created when we PRODUCE goods and services.

If I take an empty tract of land and some milled lumber which I use to build a house, I am left with an asset worth more than the total cost I paid for the various parts. The difference is the value of my planning, building, etc.

This difference exists whether or not I ever exchange the house with another person.

We create wealth when we add value or utility. This can be by moving an object from a geographical location where it has a certain value to a location where its value is greater. It could be by purchasing a PLC and then reselling it with code included and tested, etc.

But enough nitpicking. I posted mostly to add my voice to your rebuttal of the zero sum attitude of the other poster.

Bob Peterson

Just what is "fair"?

Kepe in mind the vast majority of people who are hungry are hungry because of their own government's policies, often resulting in deliberate starvation. Its not as if some loco wealth redistribution scheme will solve the problem of mass murder by governments.

Bob Peterson

Ralph Mackiewicz

> One thing, though. I disagree that wealth is created by the EXCHANGE
> of goods and services. I think wealth is created when we PRODUCE
> goods and services.

You are absolutely correct. Exchange was not the correct word to use. The ability to exchange the result of production facilitates new production and wealth. Restricting exchange inhibits production and wealth. Freedom is the grease that lubricates the wheels of production and thereby the creation of wealth.

Ralph Mackiewicz