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Can you transfer your PLC programming skills?

How easy is it to transfer your PLC programming skills from one platform to another?

We’ve recruited within the controls and automation industry for a number of years here at ASC. In recent times, we have seen a common theme surrounding the ability to transfer your PLC programming skills. In various candidate and client conversations the team have had, there has been a difference of opinion.

Candidates tell us time and again it’s easy to transfer between platforms and that if you can programme a PLC it doesn’t matter which platform it is.

On the other hand, most (not all) clients will only consider plc programmers who have worked on their platform. Any engineers who could be the right fit culturally, have the technical knowledge and are willing to adapt to another platform are dismissed.

In a candidate led market with a worsening skills shortage should companies be more flexible when considering candidates?

To investigate this further and understand:

  • Why employers feel this way
  • If engineers had transferred PLC programming skills how easy was it
  • If we should encourage employers to change their mindset

We asked the team to reach out to their network. The results made us realise that although technically it is considered to be relatively easy to transfer your PLC programming skills, changing the mindset of employers is not so easy.

Why do employers feel this way?

In short, from the responses received from those hiring, and engineers, it’s not as simple as just considering transferable skills. It becomes complicated when there is a time constraint in terms of delivery deadlines or a customer is working with a specific set of industry standards. This is where companies feel they require an expert but this then puts pressure on the engineer. For example, some company’s may need this expertise straight away and can’t afford to spend time waiting for the new employee to get to grips with the new platform.

However, on the flip side of this, if you consider the time it takes to hire the right person who has experience of your PLC platform, there is a cost impact on your business for each day there is no engineer to take your project forward. But, an engineer without your platform expertise could have got up to speed in the same time. Double-sided sword maybe?

Therefore, should employers change the way they think about recruiting controls and automation engineers for their projects?

Opinion: Should employers change their mindset?

Yes

Those that were of the opinion of yes believed it is relatively easy to transfer between platforms and that employers should be assessing the whole package as opposed to just looking at tick boxes. Furthermore, if someone is going to be a good fit and demonstrates the ability and willingness to transfer skills, they should definitely be considered.

Yes, they may need more time to adjust to your platform because there are small differences between each. It was even suggested that some platforms such as Rockwell would only take a few weeks to develop the knowledge required. Whereas Siemens can take a while longer to understand.  Does this suggest, it depends on the platform?  Also if you have other employees on-site that are experts in this area then they can support a new person get up to speed.

However, for employers to be more open on considering the transferable skills option, it’s important to fully assess ability. Do the applicants’ understand the basics? As one person mentioned “PLC programming is just a tool to implement a control system. If a person has taken the time to learn and understand process control, automation systems and software design best practices, they will not have much trouble moving from one PLC programming platform to another. However, if someone only knows the PLC programming part, and doesn’t understand the WHY part of automatic control systems, they will have a lot of difficulty moving from one PLC platform to another”  How familiar are they? Can they hit the ground running?

It was also brought to our attention that it depends on whether the company has considered the long term objective of why they want to hire someone with PLC programming skills. Are they looking for someone to simply work on a short term project or do they want someone who in the long run can improve the running of their facility? If it is the latter, then asking for a specific plc programming skillset isn’t necessary and their wider skills and the value they can bring to the business should be the focus.

No

The main reason behind the opinion of ‘no employers shouldn’t change their mindset’ is business needs. Therefore it’s not a straight-out ‘no’ but more looking at each role on a case by case basis. For example, if a company only needs a contractor for a month, they won’t be able to afford to give them the time to get up to speed with their platform.

There is also the issue around different industry standards. Automotive having different standards to FMCG for example. Although the standards were meant to make life easier and everything more uniform, they have actually made things more compartmentalised.

Before the standards came in, most engineers could work at most companies. Nowadays, each company will use different platforms. Unless you keep moving from one platform to another, you become an expert of one platform rather than having general/good knowledge of 2 or more.

Do we, therefore, need more of these types of engineers? But is this really plausible? In one sense, no because when we had more engineers like this, the systems were mechanically driven. The factory/plant technology and the environment has evolved. Not only do we have PLC platforms but also complementary technologies. It makes everything a lot more complicated which is why experts in niche areas are required.

However, a new underdeveloped standard called O-PAS could see things changing. It is suggested that once O-PAS is fully defined it will allow for the construction of safe, reliable, secure process automation systems that are scalable & do not require system shutdowns to perform updates. Thus, creating more uniform standards across various industries and there will not be a need for employers to change their mindset about transferring PLC programming skills across platforms.

In conclusion….

What we have taken from this is, it is possible to transfer your PLC programming skills between platforms but due to the complexity of the modern-day platforms and increased functionality within these platforms, it’s not actually that easy when you start getting to the nitty-gritty of it.

We do understand where employers are coming from, in terms of looking at it from a cost point of view. However, although it may not be that easy, we believe each role should be looked at individually and as already mentioned in this article, what is it you want them to achieve and in what time frame? More long term roles, maybe be a little more flexible. It will be interesting to see how standards and technologies evolve. Will we need these niche skill-sets in the future or will they become even more niche? Let’s see what the future holds.

We hope you have found the article and debate interesting. It would be great to hear your opinion, please leave your thoughts below.

If you’re on the lookout for a new role or struggling to hire the right engineer, let’s open up a conversation, get in touch with the team here.


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