In the greater engineering world, there is one topic of conversation that is on many minds—that of education and the perceived—or real—shortage of engineers and skilled workers. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and STEAM, which adds Arts, are constantly being pushed to elementary, middle and high school students, with the aim of encouraging them to pursue a field in one of these esteemed professions. And nowhere is this more critical than in the fluid power industry, where manufacturers, educators and users continue to band together to strengthen the knowledge pool of the industry.
A real problem
There is much discussion nationwide about the shortage of engineers and most will tell you that it’s a fallacy. That being said, fluid power is such a specialized industry and there are so few engineers who gain experience in the field during school that most agree it can be difficult to find qualified engineers trained in hydraulics and pneumatics.
Many in the industry believe there is a growing lack of knowledge. For example, said Eric Cummings, Global Industry Manager for Ross Controls, training is becoming more critical due to an aging and thus, retiring, workforce. “We find more and more pneumatic systems being designed by engineers with little pneumatic expertise,” he said.
Mark Perry, Immediate Past President of the IFPS and Sales Manager at Fitzsimmons Hydraulics Inc., added how he had challenged a local community college to start its own fluid power program, but like so many others, the president there was under the impression that it’s a dirty, outdated technology. And Perry said that notion couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’m a big flag waver when it comes to education and certification. I talk to young engineers all the time. They’re coming out with their ME degrees and they’re smart engineers but they don’t have a lick of fluid power background, none. It’s not in the curriculum, but it should be,” Perry said.
And outside of engineers, finding skilled workers can also be difficult. “In all the places I’ve traveled, the meetings I’ve gone to, the number one thing is the same on everybody’s plate is that we can’t find qualified, educated, trained, certified people, in any of the trades,” Perry explained. “As far as hydraulics and pneumatics, it’s a huge need and it isn’t going away. If anything, it’s getting greater and greater.”
Steve Boyack, Chief Financial Officer for Bailey International LLC, agrees, saying that vocational training and apprenticeships need to be the wave of the future for the United States as we find ourselves in the age of a manufacturing renaissance. “Our biggest barrier to elevating our Gross Domestic Product measurement is skilled manufacturing labor,” Boyack said. “We need to make this work attractive again to entice a lot of the underemployed and those that have altogether given up on searching for a job to achieve sustainable gainful employment.”
The solution is three-part: First, start young by incorporating fluid power in STEM education. Second, continue to grow fluid power engineering curriculum at the college level. And third, strengthen hands-on training for already skilled and educated professionals who just need more fluid power experience.
In addition to embracing nationwide STEM/STEAM curriculum, many fluid power companies and associations are working towards increasing interest in the industry. For example, several years ago, The National Fluid Power Association (NFPA) developed the Fluid Power Challenge, a competition held at the eighth grade level, in which students are encouraged to use fluid power to solve an engineering problem. The teams build a fluid power mechanism, in which they must use air and water to lift and move objects on a board within a certain time period.
Likewise, The Fluid Power Educational Foundation offers $2,000 scholarships to help young people enrolled in high schools, technical colleges and engineering schools pursue their interests in fluid power by helping defray the cost of education.
Kim Stelson, Director of the Center for Compact & Efficient Fluid Power and University of Minnesota Mechanical Engineering Professor, said that the CCEFP is increasing its collaboration with the NFPA in actively promoting STEM education in K-12 programs using fluid power. “Lifelong learning is the theme of the CCEFP workforce development program,” he added.
Eric Lanke, CEO of the NFPA stressed the importance of this collaborative approach in furthering the industry. “It is critical that the NFPA help keep up this momentum by bringing more fluid power to more students at multiple points along the educational pathway,” Lanke said. “We have a portfolio of different programs that are designed to do exactly that, and are looking for help through the NFPA Education and Technology Foundation to scale them up in order to meet this critical challenge.”
Roll in formal education
All players—suppliers, fluid power component manufacturers, distributors, system integrators, OEMs, and end-users—have a stake in educating the future workforce in the fluid power industry, said Lanke. That is why organizations like the NFPA and CCEFP are collaborating with manufacturers to develop formal college training and raise funds to continue research.
Stelson said the CCEFP is also increasing the awareness of fluid power at the university level with the ultimate goal of having every mechanical engineering student understand the fundamentals of fluid power.
“As an example, in the last eight years the CCEFP has graduated more than 200 Bachelor, Masters and PhD engineers, all better versed in fluid power and its capabilities than any recent generation of students,” Lanke said. “More than 45% of those graduates are now working in the fluid power industry, and they represent a vanguard of a new workforce that our industry will use to create many new products and market opportunities.”
In addition, Stelson said that the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) will have a major impact on expanding fluid power educational access. The University of Minnesota and CCEFP are developing a university-level fluid power MOOC entitled “Fundamentals of Fluid Power,” which will be taught in September by Will Durfee and Jim Van de Ven. The course is free and can be attended by signing up at www.coursera.org/course/fluidpower.
In addition to supporting CCEFP universities, manufacturers offer their own training and lend a hand at the university level as well. For example, John Frey, Director of Product Management, Industrial Sector, Bosch Rexroth, said the company offers its own training in the form of manuals, online courses and more as well as support at local universities in its communities.
“Our training department has developed a series of courses that are meeting the training needs of the industry, with extensive training available in our facilities or at customer locations. We’ve also developed modular training stations that are used by customers and educational institutions alike, to help perpetuate the knowledge base and enhance the interest level in fluid power engineering,” Frey said.
Frey also described how Bosch Rexroth helped to outfit a fluid power training center at Texas A&M University a few years ago. “The primary basis of that lab is to educate students using the newest technology in hydraulics and advanced control methods,” he explained. “Its secondary mission is to attract industry sponsored projects and to provide professional training or continuing education to engineers, distributors and managerial professionals working in the fluid power marketplace.”
Finish with hands-on experience
Because it is such a niche industry, more and more fluid power companies are taking it upon themselves to educate their employees. In this case, finding someone willing to learn the technologies is key.
For example, said Steve Cavera, National Sales Manager, Yates Industries Inc., finding someone who is an expert in cylinders and how they work is like finding a needle in a haystack. You’re not going to find that person. But finding someone who understands the mechanical operations and physics behind how cylinders operate is the answer. “The people that are coming on board, we’re finding more and more that we’re actually teaching them fluid power. We’re teaching them cylinders,” Cavera said. “It’s going to become more and more critical that we see the younger folks that get educated so you can pick a guy that at least has hydraulics or pneumatics schooling to train him into our product. Not so much that he’s knowledgeable about cylinders, but does he understand fluid power as a whole. That’s going to be huge.”
Dr. Ted Duclos, CEO, Global Fluid Power Div., Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies, agrees. “Typically what we have to do is find people that are well-educated in the mechanical engineering field, particularly for the application side of things,” Duclos said, “and then educate them ourselves on the specifics of the technologies because it does have a tendency to be quite specific in terms of the kinds of things you need and the kinds of things that you have to know.”
Clippard Instrument Laboratory tries to start with students at the high school and early college level, said John Campbell, President. Clippard helps supply machines and equipment to the high schools and tech colleges in the Cincinnati area. These programs give Clippard a first look at students; many Clippard employees came directly from such programs, Campbell said.
Clippard also offers its own training courses for employees and distributors. It is critical, as the company uses its own products and technologies in its manufacturing facilities. “What we are looking for are people who want to make their career with us,” Campbell said. “We believe great people are behind a great product.”
And for those people to be great, they must know and love the technology. And that is something that is probably the biggest advantage in the fluid power industry. If there’s one thing that’s for certain, its members are passionate about what hydraulics and pneumatics have to offer and continue to educate a knowledgeable, passionate work-base that will ensure its future.
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