Control and Automation Engineering Education Programs: Challenges and Opportunities

February 06, 2020 by Natalie Gross

In the formal education space, there seems to be a lack of programs readily available for control and automation engineers.

Starting a robotics program in high school led Ben Harmon to want to study control engineering when he got to college. But when it came time to choose a school, he found only two that offered the kind of hands-on, technical degree he was after.


Students Seeking Control and Automation Experience

Now Harmon, 20, commutes an hour to Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, each day, where he is working toward a controls engineering technician diploma and an associate degree in automation robotics.

“It’s mainly the program that drew me to the school,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s not many opportunities out there for controls, in my opinion.”

He’s not wrong. While the exact number of degree programs focused specifically on control engineering is difficult to pinpoint, their number is relatively small — yet growing — some experts say.

A search for U.S. institutions with control engineering programs on the engineering accreditor ABET’s website reveals very few. Among them is Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, a private institution that has been offering a degree in systems and control engineering since the 1960s, when the school was still Case Institute of Technology. Professor Kenneth Loparo, who has been teaching at the school since 1979, said he believes the school was the first in the country to receive ABET accreditation in this area.


Identifying The Need For These Programs

Other four-year institutions offering these types of degrees include Indiana State University, which started offering opportunities to study automation and control engineering at both the undergraduate and graduate levels; the University of Houston - Downtown with a bachelor’s program in control and instrumentation engineering technology; and Millersville University in Pennsylvania, where students can pursue a bachelor’s, associate or a minor in the robotics and control systems technology field, among other colleges and universities. 


A look at some control systems inside University of Houston

A look inside the Control and Instrumentation Engineering Technology (CIET) degree program at UHD. Image used courtesy of the University of Houston.


Different institutions may give similar programs different names, however — one of the reasons these degrees may be hard to find and difficult to track, said David Peterson, who has worked in control engineering and education for the last decade. Even employers in the industry sometimes use terms like “automation,” “mechatronics,” “control systems,” and others interchangeably, and schools house control engineer-like programs under varying departments, which can add to the confusion, he said. 

Generally, the combination of electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering are what sets them apart. That diversity is what makes these types of programs worth pursuing — “the fact that in control systems you have to look at the mechanical stuff happening and the electrical stuff happening, and to some degree the programming behind it,” said Peterson, who previously taught at Centralia Community College in Washington before starting a company to train technicians and educators in the field.

“You’re more taught the big picture, like how do all these things work together, which I would say makes you a far more valuable employee,” he said. “You can communicate with the mechanical technicians, and you know how to design something that the electrical technicians are going to be able to handle. You have a better understanding of how your systems work together.” 

Peterson said the number of schools offering these degrees is growing, as control engineers continue to be in high demand. When he taught at Centralia, the school’s mechatronics program was one of two in the state, he said. In the last eight years, however, that’s grown to 19 community and technical colleges offering some variation of control engineering, including mechatronics, electromechanics, electronics, industrial electronics, robotics, and advanced manufacturing. 

“I don’t think these skills are going anywhere,” Peterson said. “If anything, they’re going to keep on increasing.” 


More Technical Colleges and Four-year Universities Developing Programs 

Many programs at both technical colleges and four-year universities offer a lot of hands-on training; Harmon said he spends most of his time at Hennepin working with things like PLCs, PID controllers and PNP sensors in the lab, for example. But four-year degree programs will include much more theory and physics that two-year programs don’t tend to cover.


A student at Hennepin Technical College working with control systems and robots

A screenshot from a video of a student at Hennepin Technical College working with a robot. Image used courtesy of Hennepin Technical College. 


When asked how prospective students should approach the decision of which type of degree to pursue, Loparo said, "For me, the question would be, ‘Are you interested in the sort of hardware deployment and managing the sort of hardware devices that are on the plant floor or on the shop floor and using standard programmed algorithms within those systems to operate those machines? Or are you interested in being the designer and the implementer in the next generation of automation technologies?”


With an increasing demand for educational programs like these, it seems more programs are popping up all over the world. 


What was your formal education experience like? Do you see a demand for control and automation engineering formal programs? 

1 Comment
  • B
    Bromano February 11, 2020

    As a business owner from 1998 to 2014 and now as the engineering manager of an OEM that makes high throughput assembly machinery, the workforce gap has been an issue since the late 90’s.  Trying to find talent during this time has been somewhat difficult and about 4 years ago I started looking around at regional and then national colleges and universities that had a 4 year program, teaching the specific aspects of a control systems engineer.  I found all the typical EE and CompSci programs that maybe had a class or two for PLC programming, but no real comprehensive program that taught many of the aspects covered by a skills matrix I had for my Control Systems Engineers at my place of work.  The problem with hiring an EE or a CompSci major out of college is that one knew the coding methods and the other, some of the hardware design aspects.  But hiring either one meant a long period of OJT where I would lose efficiency of a tenured person to work with the new hire.  As a small business owner, I couldn’t afford that and even at my current place, we are so busy, I need to keep a very high level of efficiency and competency and my new hires need to hit the ground running.  That usually means that we need to hire control systems engineers from other positions at other companies and that comes at a premium as all the good engineers are gainfully employed.  So, I went back to my alma mater, The University of Hartford, two years ago armed with data, statistics, pay information and showed them that this line of work is not going away, in fact it is growing, and the skills gap and workforce shortage is growing.  I also came in with a skills matrix and a proposed curriculum of what I expect a Control Systems Engineer to have as a base knowledge.  The welcomed me with open arms and this past September, an Automation minor and an Automation concentration to the existing Electo-Mechanical Engineering program was rolled out.  There are two students that recently declared the minor and will be graduating this coming May!  To help out with this new program, UHart asked me to be an adjunct professor.  So now after nearly 40 years in the process and automation controls industry, starting as a junior in high school, I feel like I am giving back to help teach the next generation of control systems engineers!

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