What You’re Going To Discover…

One of the first questions I asked myself before I started my training was, “How do beginners get PLC programmer jobs?” At the time, I was taking a course online. I don’t have a degree and I didn’t know anyone who could put in a good word for me, either.

What I’ve discovered is that almost anyone could get a job as a PLC programmer, but it takes a huge amount of time to learn the skills required to do the job and there are a lot of steps to the process that can make it a difficult for newbies.

But don’t worry. In this article, we will walk you through what I believe you need to know to land your first job as a programmer. We will share where you can get the training you need and what you need to know before you start interviewing.

We will tell you upfront what the schools and online courses aren’t going to teach you and, more importantly, We are going to share with you how to find an offer and how to break down a help wanted ad to ensure you are a good fit.

We will also tell you what you can say during your initial interview when asked questions about your lack of experience and we will teach you how to showcase yourself and your experience in a way that will have recruiters, hiring managers and senior engineers eager to hire you.

In this article, we have tried to lay out a step-by-step path for a beginner to land a PLC programming job. We believe there is nothing holding you back from going after that dream job.

 

What Does a PLC Programmer Do?

Let’s start with answering a very common question, and a question that is often the most confusing to beginners: What does a PLC programmer do? In my experience as a professional programmer, I had to know how to draft electrical prints using AutoCAD, I had to be an expert industrial electrician, I had to know how to network hardware devices,  I had to know how to program and I had to be willing to travel for weeks at a time anywhere in the world.

At any time as a programmer, I had to be a project manager, a service tech, an electrician and a programmer while also being willing and able to change from one skill set to another in minutes. But, not every programmer position has this level of expectation, as some programmers just program full-time.

Some programmers work with robotics or tool & die departments.  Some even work in sales, tech support or in management. In short, it’s different for every employer. Therefore, it’s important for you to study job offers and to interview intelligently before accepting any offer as a PLC programmer.

What You Need to Know

To start with, you most certainly need to have completed several training programs, both online and offline, if you are able to. In addition, you should build your own hands-on controls training station with a variety of controllers, if available.

 If you are learning-at-home, your set-up should be using a methodical network addressing scheme. Build your programs using a real or simulated HMI (like a Red Lion HMI or C-More from Automation Direct). Practice basic programming and complete some intermediate programming, as well, such as AOI (Add-On-Instructions), basic PID loops, produced and consumed tags, arrays to track parts and a scaling of analog signals. 

In addition to having strong programming skills, you should also draft a half-dozen complete sets of CAD prints to show prospective employers during an interview. You must have strong Microsoft Office knowledge and, as a couple of bonuses, you might want to take an industrial robotics programming and a hydraulics/pneumatics course, as well. Finally, top that all off with having a valid passport.

 If you have a couple of years’ experience working in maintenance or frontline management helping to troubleshoot hydraulic equipment in a plastics or steel stamping plant, for example, you likely have enough working knowledge to qualify for a fluid controls requirement. 

Where Can I Learn PLC Programming?

While there are literally hundreds of places online and offline where you can learn programming, there are a few very important things I wish I had learned in my training but are not generally taught.

But first, what do you need to know to become a competent programmer?

Well, obviously, you need to have solid fundamentals. But, even before learning the basics, you need to clearly understand three very important things: relay logic, industrial controls and electricity.

Also, when starting your career, it would be in your best interest to decide to focus on only one of the programming platforms, either Rockwell or Siemens. I mention this because beginners are inundated with information when starting their training.

My best advice here would be to go slow, concentrate on gaining competence on one platform first and keep in mind that it will make learning the other platforms so much easier. Trust me.

I also mention those two platforms because they are the dominant players in the industry.  That makes it very likely that you will work with one of these brands in the field or on the job as soon as you start work.

Now, you should follow that decision by choosing where you’re going to learn to program. Many local colleges have industrial electricity courses that offer introductory PLC classes, and many trade schools often offer them as well.

You should investigate the electrical or mechanical engineering degree programs because they often also have controls programming those classes. Don’t forget the trade schools, which offer one-off classes (so you don’t have to sign up for a full two-year degree).

In addition, unlike many higher education institutions, there are dozens of online programs with no prerequisites other than the enrollment fee to get started.

Wherever you choose to receive your first training, keep in mind that you will only be receiving introductory training. Although it’s sufficient for an entry-level programmer’s job, there are many things most training won’t teach you.

What They Don’t Teach You

Here is where my experience could pay off for you. It’s what I didn’t know and later learned that made the difference for me in my career. I found myself saying many times over my first year “If someone had only taught this during my training course”.

So, one of the most valuable lessons is to learn about the ‘life cycle’ of a project. Start by understanding that a PLC program is nothing more than one part of a project. The program gets loaded into a controller, which is attached to a machine that is wired and built to produce a product, as you know.

A programmer’s project usually begins by studying the machine to understand its functions. You need to discover how it starts, how it cycles, how it stops, what settings it needs and how to track its production and much, much more.

This is usually followed by having the programmer or someone else build an electrical print set consisting of a dozen or more sheets. That’s followed by building the PLC program and then the human machine interface screen, known as the HMI.

Now, keep in mind that this machine may be only one part of a work cell consisting of several machines communicating so they can work together. So, understanding how to network devices and send messages between devices is imperative.

Once the prints, the program, the wiring and the HMI are all built, the commissioning of the machine begins. This includes energizing the machine’s controls, setting IP addresses and setting communication protocols.

This is then followed by the debug phase of the project, which includes downloading the PLC program and then testing every aspect of the code to include all the inputs, outputs, sensors, cameras, lasers, etc. on the machine. This is followed by testing the machine’s cycle in manual and then in auto.

Once that is done, it’s usually followed by testing every fault condition, pop up message and error message on the HMI as well as every possible safety feature on the machine. Once the entire debug sequence has been completed, the machine is certified and deemed ready to ship to the customer for trial runs or for the customer to come in and ‘buy off’ on the machine during a ‘run off’ test.

This is usually followed by creating the operators’ and maintenance manuals and then gathering the manuals for the purchased parts that have been installed on the machine. Next, you may need to gather or generate other documentation to be sent to the customer along with the machine. This will be included in the ‘bill of materials’ and a suggested ‘critical spares’ parts list.

A programmer must be able to work in any one or all the different stages of the life cycle of a project and NO online or offline program I am aware of prepares the student for any of these stages.

As you can see, in addition to learning programming, understanding the ‘life cycle’ of a project is crucial. And realizing that you could end up working on any one part or every part of a project when first starting out in your career is critical.

How to Overcome a Lack of Experience

Once you receive your training certificate, you need to begin building a portfolio. Nothing overcomes doubt (caused by a concern over a lack of experience) better than evidence, such as what you put into a projects portfolio. What you should do is create a collection of the projects you have worked on during your training. If you didn’t work on or complete any projects during your training, then you need to enroll in another program that has projects for you to work on.

Working on and completing projects is the most critically important action you can take to ensure landing a programmer’s job. And if you don’t have anything to show a prospective employer, it’s much harder to land that coveted opportunity.

A good portfolio contains prints that include a safety circuit with safety relays, motors drives and controls, PLC cards, enclosures and more. Having drawn these prints and understanding how to wire a machine, using them is critical. Keep in mind, when you start your job you may be required to draft prints or even work with electricians to help complete a machine for shipment.

Also, do not underestimate the importance of being able to create prints and being able to do it fast and accurately. Do not believe that, just because you can draw a set of prints, you’re ready for the workforce. Professional draftsmen are swift in their work and create stunningly accurate prints.

You also need to be VERY competent with a CAD software program. Start with a copy of the student license of AutoCAD and practice daily. When you are hired for your fist job, you can expect some time to get used to that company’s workflow, but don’t expect to have to be shown the basics. That’s your job, to be ready on day one.

Now, back to your portfolio. You should have a collection of PDF files that were downloaded from your PLC programs. You should also have a collection of electrical prints, a collection of PDF files downloaded from your HMI files and several videos of yourself showcasing your projects.

Once you have a collection of prints, projects, and designs of projects you’ve worked on, you should compile a digital and hardcopy version to distribute to prospective employers. But only distribute them if you’ve been asked to share them instead of throwing them everywhere at everyone.

Reserve them, this is your finest work (or it should be) and you only want people who are serious about considering you for work to view them. One of the most important tasks you need to do is to add a sentence right below your name that includes your contact info and a career focus statement, such as “If you’re interested in reviewing my previous projects, please visit my online portfolio at www.facebook.com/your-name“.

You should also create a Facebook page that is separate from your family Facebook page where you have posted your portfolio. Send serious employment inquiries to that page from your resume. In addition to having a printed copy of your work and a thumb drive to share, your Facebook page is also where prospective employers can view your prints, programs and projects online.

How to Find Your First PLC Programming Job

Now that you are trained in the basics of programming, have a better understanding of the life cycle of a project, understand more about what it takes to be ready on your first day on the new job and your resume is ready, you’re ready to search for and find that elusive first job.

Beginners need one more solid skill to develop and it’s at this time they will use it. That is to be able to find that perfect fit between you and the job opportunity. Now, keep this in mind: DO NOT BE NEEDY AND SIMPLY JUMP AT THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY THAT COMES ALONG.

Unlike what so many others tell you, unless you spend time really digging into dozens of opportunities, you are likely going to accept anything just to get your foot in the door. But, as almost always happens when you rush into a situation you’re unprepared for, you walk into a company that is dealing with their own problems and they’re hoping you can jump right into their storm and swim like a shark when you’re just a minnow.

Instead, the most important goal for your first couple of projects and jobs is to be successful, not to get a ‘chance’. These are two totally different priorities. With solid fundamentals and a crisp grasp of the life cycle of a project as well as a solid portfolio, you are valuable.

Any company would be happy to hire you, so start with the confidence that you are a valuable hire and can be a real asset to any company on your very first day.

So, you may ask “How do I find my first opportunity?”

Start by typing in a Google search “Entry Level PLC Programmer Jobs

And when we did that just a few minutes ago here is what we found.

I noticed that there were 614 entry-level jobs couple postings. AMAZING, I thought. But let’s break the most promising opportunity down into bite-sized reality.

I chose the “Controls Engineer – Entry Level” link and clicked on it.

The job posting responsibilities were: 

  • Design, implement, and document control systems for various types of automated equipment.
  • Conduct the electrical/hydraulic pneumatic design, peripheral device programming, machine PLC programming, coordinate the machine debug, power-up, and machine validation with build and electrical teams.
  • Ensure that equipment is designed and programmed to customer and/or JR Automation build specifications using standard techniques and approaches.
  • Travel to customer sites for installation and startup of equipment.

 The responsibilities appear generic to what most controls jobs require. For example, as an entry-level programmer, you will work as a part of a team as you learn how the employer designs, implements, and documents their control systems. In short, you will help them perform this work on existing projects until you can perform this work on your own with little or no supervision.

 Also, you may be asked to help with the electrical/hydraulic pneumatic design and installation. Or you may be asked to work on peripheral equipment and device programming such as “flexible assembly torque screwdrivers,” for example.

 You also may be asked to assist in writing a portion of a large PLC program as part of a group working on a project. Or you may be asked to help perform the machine debug, power-up, and machine validation with the build and electrical teams to ensure 100% accuracy in hardware and programming function.

 You may even be asked to help ensure that the equipment is designed, built and programmed to the customer’s and your employer’s build specifications. And you may even be asked to travel and work at customer sites. 

Now the requirements for this job are; 

  • You must be willing to travel an average of 25%; in domestic and international travel
  • You must have some experience with PLC’s, HMI’s, Robot’s, AutoCAD, Motion Control, Pneumatics, Hydraulics, and/or Vision Systems – Now this is a grocery list of experience the employer would like you to have, however you are applying for an entry level position so they know they will have to continue your training.
  • Experience working with AutoCAD Electrical (or similar software) to design electrical layouts. 

In this ad, they are specifically calling out the need to have experience with AutoCAD electrical, so as a beginner, you will likely spend some solid time drafting drawings. Therefore, you need to make sure you have a strong collection of drawings you’ve completed in your projects portfolio during your interview.

The Typical Interview Process;

  • Introductions – just a basic meet and greet, which includes the question Tell us about yourself. Just tell them about your family life and the title of your last position.
  • The Qualification Phase – next, they are going to ask you about your resume and about the projects in your portfolio. Basically, they are asking about your experience. Just honestly answer their questions.
  • The Challenge Phase – next, they are going to challenge you with questions to find out what you can and cannot do. They may ask things like we have this type of problem and that type of problem. Can you help? During this phase, just spend most of your time asking questions and trying to understand their true need. They will reveal a lot of information about themselves if you ask the right questions.
  • The Consultant Phase – during this phase, you get to ask them questions. Ask about their current projects, their challenges, staffing, expectations, resources and the like. To learn more about what to ask during your interview, read our article 16 Questions Beginner PLC Programmers Should Ask In an Interview
  • The Culture Fit – this is usually the next phase, saved for the face-to-face portion of the interview. They just want to see you and determine if you’re a good culture fit with the rest of the team.
  • The Offer – finally, when the time for the offer comes, don’t be afraid to negotiate and ask for what you want. You never know, you just might get it.

How to Handle Interview Questions

Getting the right training and finding a job is only half the battle. Now that you’ve found the job, you need to compete for it, and that requires passing the interview phase.

 Let’s start with understanding the interview process first, before we worry about what to say during the interview. After all, you haven’t even got an interview date yet, and this opportunity could be derailed before that even happens if you’re not careful.

 To start with, you need to apply exactly as the instructions inform you to do. If the ad says to go to their website and fill out a form, DO IT!

Often you can apply right online. The second you apply, your resume does all the heavy lifting. So, if you didn’t have a pro build a quality resume for you and instead you tried to save a few dollars and had your brother’s wife do it, then you’re banking on someone who doesn’t write resumes for a living to impress someone who looks at resumes all day, every day for a living.

Good luck with that. HR managers, recruiters and other decision-makers can tell a homemade resume from a mile away. Now, you could do this, and they do work, but as a beginner, you need every advantage you can get for that first job. DON’T BLOW THIS MOMENT.

It’s the first thing they see of you

Get your resume professionally done.

Once your resume has sparked interest and the HR manager has passed it onto the hiring engineer and you’ve peaked their interest so that they have gone to your Facebook page where you posted your portfolio, you will be contacted for an interview.

Here’s What To Say…

Now, to help you out, I am not going to dig too deep into what to say during your interview. What I will share with you is how to answer a few concerns most newbies have about their experience.

For example:

If the interviewer says:

You don’t seem to have very much experience” What I do is ask where they need help, by asking “Well, what is your biggest need right now?”

With that question to their comment you narrow down your biggest weakness ‘EXPERIENCE’.

Now, if they ask how you have learned some of the things that you have included on your resume without having any real-world experience, say:

What you see in my portfolio is me learning how to wire in a device and then simulating that device in my PLC code. It was easy to do”

Then, be ready to show them how you simulated an encoder or a valve or a motor. Just be honest and share that you know what you’re talking about. They will notice and hear it in your voice. Then if you can show them, you’re a shoo-in.

One more example. If they ask if you know something that you DON’T KNOW, say this:

“I have successful experience learning (mention something similar).”

Their concern isn’t focused so much on your experience (although about half the time it is). Sometimes, it’s about the interviewer noticing if it would take very little time to bring you up to speed.

When talking over the phone, remain calm and confident. Rely on your resume and portfolio to have done most of the talking for you. What a phone call or in-person interview does for them is allow them to watch and listen to the confidence in your voice and to try to detect any inconsistencies between you and what your resume or portfolio say about you.

If you’re marketing materials (resume and portfolio), your voice and your answers sound authentic and congruent, then you, my friend, are going to be offered a job. I can guarantee it.

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The Take Away

While this article provides a great deal of information, there is so much more that I could share with you. Feel free to reach out with any questions and unique concerns you may have and we’ll be glad to help.

With this article we’re hoping we’ve answered some questions, sparked your curiosity and shared some useful information. But, we know you may need more, so we invite you to contact us for some follow up questions or to discuss your unique needs.

Just go to our contact page and reach out to us and we’ll get back to you asap!

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