The Boomtime for Construction Site Sparks Becoming Automation Engineers

Do you remember the dark days at the start of the financial crises in 2007 and 2008? It’s hard to believe it was more than 10 years ago when UK customers of the Northern Rock bank could not access their money because of a bank run. Then there was the “St Patrick’s Day Massacre” on 17 March 2008 when Anglo Irish lost almost a third of its value in a single day.

These events and others were key moments in the Irish and worldwide financial crisis. At the time, it was hard to see light at the end of the tunnel.

The banking sector, the construction industry, and the wider Irish economy were in destructive turmoil. That said, these events were also the precursor for what would become a boom time for a particular group of people – ambitious construction industry sparks.

Facing the Challenge Head-On

The years of the financial crisis from 2008 to about 2014 were not easy for anyone in the construction industry. For many electricians, the only viable choice was to return to college to upskill in an electric-related discipline.

Luckily there were some incentives that made this easier. This was important as many electricians had come from well-paying jobs and careers. In other words, they had mortgages or rent to pay, families to feed, car payments to make, and more.

The incentives included grants that made it possible to just about survive, particularly given the fact the social welfare alternative was no more attractive.

Crucially, qualified electricians were able to skip the first year of a three-year degree. This meant they could qualify quicker which would get them back working again faster.

What to Study?

The decision to go back to college was not the only decision electricians had to make – they also had to decide what electric-related discipline to study. There were three main choices:

  • Renewable energy – this was the hot topic at the time, and many predicted it would be the boom industry of the near future. As a result, electricians were promised plentiful, sustainable jobs that would pay good money.
  • Electronics – a solid discipline that has always attracted attention.
  • Automation – an emerging discipline that not many people knew very much about.

Those who chose automation, however, were not disappointed.

Returning to Study – More Than a Change of Scenery

It’s not difficult to imagine what a jolt it must have been for many electricians to step back into the classroom. Broadly, those electricians fell into the following categories:

  • Those who left school early to get a trade and mostly worked in the domestic installation sector
  • Those who did some study at an early age but never thought they would go back to it
  • Ambitious and highly-skilled electricians who were always open to upskilling and changing careers
  • Manufacturing workers, particularly those who were part-time, who wanted to upskill and, in many cases, get away from shift work

In all the above categories, the electricians involved had little or no mathematical or programming skills.

They acquired them though, they got their qualifications, and they became hireable engineers.

Embarking on New Careers

Electricians who went back to college to upskill as automation engineers have generally done well in their new careers. Their previous experience means they understand how machines work, plus they had exposure to PLCs during their apprenticeships.

In addition, working on building sites gave them a work ethic that included doggedness, drive, and a can-do attitude. All these characteristics are attractive to employers and end clients alike.

SL Controls recognised this new resource at an early stage and has, to date, hired about 10 engineers who were formerly electricians.

Is the Boom Coming to an End?

All booms must end, and it appears this one might be becoming a memory.

Over the past five years, the building industry has not offered as many apprenticeships so there are fewer electricians in the construction industry. In addition, that industry continues to recover so there is work for those electricians who are entering.

So, the resource of former electricians moving to the automation industry might be drying up.

One thing does remain, though – the electrical apprenticeship model means those that did become engineers are now proving themselves to be effective mentors for today’s crop of junior engineers.