Jobs are there for the taking

How a skilled labor shortage and changing maintenance strategies are causing the maintenance function to evolve

By Kevin Parker and Amanda Pelliccione June 10, 2022
Courtesy: Cincinnati Incorporated/Steve Rourke, CFE Media and Technology

The challenge of hiring skilled labor is front and center for respondents to the 2022 annual Plant Engineering survey, once again sponsored by Advanced Technology Services (ATS), a leading provider of industrial maintenance, technology and parts services for over three decades.

“The need to be sure mission-critical production equipment runs at high levels of performance and reliability is changing the traditional world of labor-based maintenance,” said Micah Statler, director of operations, ATS. “The change is technology-driven,” he continued. “A surge in innovation and technology advancement means solutions are available in the market today that weren’t there five years ago.”

Which of the following best describes your job title?

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That’s good news for respondents citing lack of resources or staff as a major challenge to improved maintenance, which increased from 37% last year to 49% today. Labor recruitment is increasingly difficult, say 72% of survey takers.

The shortage of engineering and other type skills needed to maintain industrial machinery gone high-tech is part of a larger picture.

The bigger picture

It’s estimated that 20% to 30% of the U.S. population fails to reach the basic skills level in math and science, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

At the other end of the spectrum, the ultra-high tech semiconductor industry has its own talent issues, according to Axios. Particularly in the U.S, with increased chip demand, semiconductor companies are struggling to hire engineers and other skilled workers. From 2020 to 2021, job openings for electrical engineers in the U.S. chip sector jumped 78%, far faster than in other sectors.

The average facility has three maintenance programs in place.

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Overall employment of industrial machinery mechanics, machinery maintenance workers, and millwrights is projected to grow 19% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 56,300 openings for industrial machinery mechanics, machinery maintenance workers, and millwrights are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire, according to the Bureau.

In the long run, economic growth depends primarily on the skills of people. The IMF says the point is proven by comparing the growth over time of different populations.

Maintenance strategies

Most plants today have a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) or enterprise asset management (EAM), but many of them are under-utilized, either because they are antiquated, no longer supported or no longer adequately reflect work-process changes.

Another area of advancement is analytics, based on data derived from the CMMS or production data. Devices and intelligent software applications are used to find insights that improve effectiveness. The advantages are proven.

What percent of assets are managed using what programs?

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On the hardware side, what’s exciting is the ability to tie into actual real-time machine performance to determine when and how maintenance should be conducted on that asset. Most companies do maintenance on a calendar-based schedule, while adjusting it based on production volumes or production schedules.

Computer applications supporting maintenance.

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Goal of conditioned-based monitoring.

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“It can be challenging to make the shift from calendar-based to predictive and condition-based maintenance,” said Statler. Adding sensor technology enables manufacturers to optimize maintenance activities for a true condition-based maintenance strategy.

“ATS deploys sensors in customers’ plants and feeds the machine health data to our Reliability 360 Technology Center. This centralized function provides manufacturers the engineering, data analytics and actionable support they need to eliminate unplanned downtime, increase productivity, improve efficiency and reduce cost,” Statler said. “It’s about delivering results and that is at the core of the ATS culture.”

One thing after another

Unlike many other workers, during the COVID-related restrictions imposed by local and state governments, manufacturing personnel couldn’t work from the relative safety of their homes. They were deemed essential in a way others weren’t. And during the direst moments of the pandemic, manufacturers had a three-fold mission to fulfill: a) protect the workforce, b) manage risks so as to ensure business continuity and c) drive productivity at a distance.

The pandemic delivered a shock to global and U.S. production and supply chain systems. Slowdowns and shortages continue today. Inflation has taken hold. The post-WWII world order is behind us in Europe.

Further change is coming. The changes in workforce demographics and the resulting skills gap in the manufacturing industries predate the pandemic. The introduction of new technologies into manufacturing environments, while undoubtedly welcome, exacerbates the issue by adding to demand for high-tech skill sets.

The survey results reflect these changes. While most maintenance work still gets done when something actually breaks or receives scheduled maintenance, use of predictive maintenance for critical equipment seems to be growing. Combining the strategies as appropriate, so-called reliability-centered maintenance, is also gaining in popularity.

How much maintenance support do the following areas receive?

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What percent of the operations team is part of maintenance?

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Survey highlights

  • Eight in 10 industrial facilities currently run three or more maintenance programs/strategies. The top two programs, according to respondents, are reactive maintenance (run-to-failure) and preventive maintenance.
  • The average facility manages 35% of their assets with a reactive maintenance program, 38% with preventive maintenance, 14% with predictive maintenance and 10% reliability-centered maintenance.
  • Eighty-nine percent of facilities use one or more computer applications to support maintenance efforts. The top two applications are a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) and home-grown systems.


How much of your plant's maintenance operation is outsourced?

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Reasons for outsourcing maintenance.

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Leading cause of unscheduled downtime.

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  • Eight-five percent of facilities have or are planning to implement condition-based monitoring (CBM); 55% aim to improve cycle times for preventive maintenance and execute predictive maintenance with CBM.
  • Thirty-nine percent of facilities allocate more than 10% of their annual operating budget to maintenance tasks, services and equipment; the average facility assigns 10.6%.
  • Almost half of respondents’ report that their maintenance staff works more than 80 hours per week performing maintenance-related tasks; the average is 138 hours/week.
  • An average of 23% of a facility’s operations team is part of the maintenance department.
  • Eighty-six percent of facilities outsource some or all of their maintenance operations. Since 2021, 29% of facilities have increased or greatly increased their use of outsourced maintenance services.
Key challenges to improving maintenance.

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Difficulty of labor recruitment.

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  • The top factor leading facilities to outsource maintenance operations has changed from “agreement with manufacturer/supplier” in 2021 to “lack of skills among current staff.” Lack of skills increased from 40% to 52%, surpassing the second factor, “too many specialized skills required,” by 13 percentage points.
  • Ninety-seven percent of facilities experience challenges when improving maintenance. The top challenge remains aging equipment (58%), but a lack of resources or staff has increased from 37% in 2021 to 49%.
  • Following up to maintenance challenges, labor recruitment has become more difficult, or significantly more difficult, over the past 12 months, according to 72% of survey respondents.