How to get a Job Programming PLCs

Oct 8 2018

This message is from Andrew. I’m very interested in the field of control and automation and am trying to figure out where to start. I have taken a college course on PLCs where we programmed Allen Bradley RsLogix 500 and RsLogix 5000 based off of real world industrial examples. Am I ready to begin entry work as a PLC programmer? Should I start off as a technician building panels and work my way up by asking for cuts of ladder logic of what I’m assembling and what process it is to perform. I had an interview at a company and I was conservative in saying I was ready to get straight into programming but maybe I should have been more confident and gone for it. What are the steps of progression in this industry? Thanks again.

I love it when I get this question. Nothing makes me happier than helping someone get into this line of work and trying to help them avoid some of the pitfalls that I ran into.

Let’s break this question into several sections.

Are there jobs being a PLC programmer? In a pure sense no. Even if you are a seasoned PLC programmer, you probably spend 10% of you time programming. The rest of the time is spend planning projects, designing and building control panels, installing them, and most importantly and most often troubleshooting them.

Do you know enough off of a college course on PLCs to become an entry level PLC programmer? This is a very gray question because PLC programming classes vary so much in what you learn from college to college. I would say with the bulk of classes no. The main reason is they teach you to program PLCs but they don’t teach you troubleshooting which is what the bulk of what you do. We get calls all the time from new programmers who aced their PLC class yet can’t figure out how to connect to the PLC.

Now I don’t believe any additional schooling is needed to enter into the PLC programming world. In fact I would say that people who have taken additional advance PLC classes have the same problem. There is not substitution for real world experience. Even if your class had you write programs based off of real world industrial examples, they didn’t show what happens when a limit switch is out of position, a motor burns up, or an operator does something that wasn’t in the assignment parameters. In fact we are debating on creating a trainer that can simulate breakdowns you will see in the real world. Let me know in the comments if you think this is a good idea.

I do think it is important that you find an employer that realizes that you have the basic foundation but won’t be able to program like a pro on the first project. This doesn’t mean going in there unconfident. In fact that is the only thing in your original question that I can point out you should have done differently. Always be confident and HONEST. We all started out just like you and had to go through these steps. Make sure that the potential employer knows that you new and need some practical experience to sharpen your skill sets. Also this is when it is important to have a PLC of your own whether it be one of our trainers or something you made yourself to practice on.

Andrew specifically asked “Should I start off as a technician building panels and work my way up by asking for cuts of ladder logic of what I’m assembling and what process it is to perform”. My answer is yes with caution. Make sure you are in an employment situation where they are going to nurture your curiosity. Some panel shops have too much separation between the panel building and programming for you to make the jump between them. You can end up stuck with no chance of advancement it the direction you want to go.

The best way to sharpen your skill set whether you be a beginner with one PLC class or an engineer with a 4 year degree is to work maintenance somewhere. This is usually where engineers start to glaze over since they have have a degree but I will do nothing but help you adding a degree from the college of hard knocks. Preferable at a place that has a mixture of types and generations of machines. Plus one that doesn’t segment mechanical, electrical, and programming. There is rarely a programming problem on a machine after it has been commissioned. It will likely be mechanical or electrical. To become the best in the industry it is crucial that you understand all of these.

I never will forget early on in my career I was working maintenance and there was a machine down that I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with. I went to the maintenance supervisor and told him we were going to have to get someone else in to look at it. He told me there was no one else so get back out there and find the problem. It took me a few hours but I did and in hindsight it was the best thing he could have done. Not for teaching me not to rely on other but for teaching me to look at situations from many different angles simultaneously. After that day troubleshooting machines started to come easy to me.

I hope this helps you Andrew and maybe some others who may be in the same situation. I’m always happy to help so if you have a question leave it in the comments below and don’t forget to subscribe.