What I find most exciting
Mr. Ernst, you started your career as an apprentice – and you have now been CSO of PIA Automation Holding since the summer of 2017. Please tell us a little bit about your impressive career.
My apprenticeship at IMA Automation in Amberg began in 1989 as a technical draftsman in design. At an early stage during this time, I discovered my passion for mechanical engineering – and like many others, I wanted to expand my knowledge right after my apprenticeship and study for a university degree. The economic crisis, several discussions with my supervisor and an offer for a job in design after my training all encouraged me to stay.
In addition to my challenging job as a project designer, I also started a correspondence course to become a mechanical engineer. The course took four years and took up a lot of my Sundays and holidays too. After design and project design, project management was my next professional job. In our line of work, the best technical solution also has to be economically attractive, so as a project manager I came into contact more and more with business and commercial topics. From 2004-2006, I went back to school and completed another correspondence course in technical business administration.
Fifteen years at IMA were extremely exciting, instructive and enjoyable; but it was time to try something new. Together with a number of former colleagues, I founded a special machine construction company and worked there as Technical Managing Director. After five extremely exciting and instructive years, I returned to IMA in 2010, where I was allowed to take over the technical management of the company as Manager of New Business in 2011 after a short stint in the Sales department. During this time, we further developed our products, expanded our standardization program, and strengthened the cooperation between Technology and Sales.
With the takeover of IMA by Preh GmbH and the associated new locations in China and the USA, I was entrusted with the management of the Sales & Project Planning division of the Preh IMA Automation Group. Since the summer of 2017, I have been privileged to lead the PIA Group as CSO, Managing Director for Sales and Marketing, together with my two colleagues in the holding company of the PIA Group.
What were the most memorable moments in your career?
In over 25 years of professional life with many exciting tasks and experiences, there were many ups and downs. As a technical draftsman, it was fascinating to see the solutions I had created on the drawing board working for the first time in the assembly hall. The first presentation as a project designer at a customer’s office and the feedback that you get from external third parties also spring to my mind. What I still find most exciting today are the discussions with colleagues, suppliers and customers when we work together to find innovative solutions. It is always amazing what you can do in a team and with the necessary willpower.
Regarding your apprenticeship, what has remained positive, and what is still a negative experience in your memory?
During the training period I developed a passion for my profession and laid the foundation for my professional career. Here I was able to discover and develop my skills in an optimal environment. In retrospect, what was lacking were foreign languages in the curriculum. Today the situation is better in this respect. I’ll never forget the filing during the first three months of my apprenticeship: It was so difficult to work on the metal – and also to meet the required standards of accuracy. The positive thing about it, however, was that it gave you a feeling for the material and for the most important requirements of the profession... precision, perseverance and care.
How important are apprentices at PIA?
This topic is very important for PIA and the level of appreciation for apprentices has been very high for years. The labor market is now more competitive than ever before: If you don’t find the right people, you have to train them yourself. And we have to bear one thing in mind: we don’t need specialists who are “off-the-shelf”. The importance that apprenticeship training has for us is also shown by the fact that we have our own training departments at our sites and how much time and resources are invested in training. The annual awards for our graduated apprentices and the many specialists and managers who come from our own junior staff underline the importance of the PIA training.
Why start an apprenticeship at PIA? And what is the USP?
Our USP (Unique Selling Proposition) lies in the combination of pure apprenticeship training and active involvement in customer projects. In the training workshop, the technical basics are taught. These are then implemented in practice and in participation in customer projects and further expanded. The experiences of cross-departmental teamwork are particularly important in the project business and they are communicated to the apprentices at an early stage. More USPs are the many possibilities that exist within the PIA Group. This refers to both the content and the site. If, for example, you undertake training as a mechatronics engineer, you can later switch to Design, Sales or Project Management. Or you could spend some time at a foreign location of the PIA Group. We offer high-quality and very varied training programs. Since we cover everything from design to actual plant construction and service, there’s always an interesting task for everyone at PIA. And if the performance and the motivation are right, you’ll have a permanent contract of employment in your pocket after your training.
Which departments are currently the most popular?
The most popular are the technical department jobs like product designers, mechatronics engineers, programmers and cutting machine operators.
Apprentices then and now: How has training changed (keyword: Industry 4.0)?
Nowadays, training without a computer is no longer possible: Working without digitization is no longer an option. That’s why classical mechanics have been obsolete for a long time. Everything is becoming – or already is – digital, so you also have to deal with the new media as an apprentice, but that’s not a big problem for the young people of today. Industry 4.0 offers great opportunities for further development and the current century will no longer be dominated by mechanical machines. Understanding mechatronics is a must today and an opportunity for every employee – and digitization will continue to increase.
Apprentices in the age of the Industrial Revolution: Still contemporary?
Yes... because as an apprentice you start early in the profession, practice is very important, and you can experience the company processes up close. The opportunities after an apprenticeship are almost unlimited today and thanks to what you have learned all the doors are still open for you. I discovered my passion for the profession and the industry during my apprenticeship. I’m sure that a good apprenticeship can still be the start of a successful career today.
When you look back, would you still do the same things you did, but with the knowledge you possess today?
There have also been some setbacks in my professional career, but these should never discourage you. The motto is: Stand up and get on with it! So yes, I would do “everything” again the way I did it in the past (laughs).
What tips do you have for apprentices?
The important thing is that you really enjoy what you do: Success comes when you enjoy work and have a passion for your job. Apprenticeships, training fairs and conversations with acquaintances in various professions help to find the right profession. Lifelong learning is a very crucial factor, probably more today than it used to be. Basic training lays the foundation for the future. My experience has also shown that it is important to show interest, to listen carefully and to ask questions. You shouldn’t let yourself be dissuaded from your decision too quickly, you should sometimes take on challenges too, because sometimes a “detour” also leads to your goal.
Mr. Ernst, thank you for the interesting conversation!
The interview was conducted by Manfred Hall.