Strategies to survive the skills gap

Use technology and human resources approaches to mitigate the effects of the retirement of trade professionals.

By Jon Bailey, Eruditio February 11, 2015

Because of the changing economy and American culture, many industries are experiencing a long-term shortage of skilled tradespeople: including the pipe fitters, mechanics, machinists and electricians who have kept American facilities producing. This shortage has been perpetuated by three compounding situations.

First, many in our culture believe that a four-year university degree is the only way to be successful. Many U.S. guidance counselors and parents’ career planning message is to go to college. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that one in three Americans drops out of college, an increase from one in five in the 1960s. These young people may lose two or three years that they could have used to learn a skilled trade.

Another area of cultural change that affects skilled trades is today’s more electronic- or computer-driven society. Children spend less time learning how to use the tools of a craftsman. However, a benefit is that the younger generation is more technology savvy than in the past. This has led to a new skillset and comfort with technology that industry must leverage in the future.

The final fact that affects the shortage is the retirement of the baby boomer generation. According to the Charlotte Observer, beginning Jan. 1, 2011, more than 10,000 baby boomers began to reach age 65 every day. This will continue each day for 19 years.

According to another survey completed two years ago, 24% of U.S. workers admit that they have postponed their planned retirement at least once during the past year. But now that the economy is improving, these retirements are enabled once again. Manufacturing production grew 3.4% in 2014, ahead of the broader U.S. economy, and will continue to grow in 2015, according to the latest quarterly outlook report (released on Sept. 9, 2014) from the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation Foundation.

As a result, industries are left with a problem. Six initiatives are being implementing to address the growing shortage of skilled tradespeople.

Use clear, documented business processes

Currently, many facilities use loosely defined business processes. Many of the details and tasks that must be completed for a facility to operate successfully reside in the minds of the retiring generation. Efforts must be made to capture this information, or the facilities will suffer in the short term. In the long term, business results and finances could be negatively affected. Two byproducts of mapping and understanding business processes are the opportunity for continuous improvement and the ability to build more personnel involvement, which the younger generation desires.

Support training and education

Education can also help solve the skills crisis. Facilities should implement training-needs assessments, support educational planning for individuals and plan for long-term improvements—such as recreating apprenticeships with local community colleges.

For the needs assessments, managers should examine the facility’s business and production processes. This information can help define the organization’s needs. Facilities may also discover that the Society of Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) can facilitate personnel training. Its Certified Maintenance and Reliability Technician (CMRT) program can identify additional skills that the facility’s team needs to be more effective in its maintenance and reliability improvement efforts. Once an organization knows what is required and measures the skill levels of its staff, its management can better plan for team member departures from retirement. Also, multiple studies show that time spent in training boosts morale and performance of employees even more than a raise.

Implement condition-based monitoring and predictive maintenance

While many facilities are losing skilled personnel because of retirements, they are gaining employees with other abilities. For instance, the understanding of technology is increasing, and facility managers can use this to their advantage by further embracing the predictive maintenance or condition-based monitoring tools.

This is one of the tools that is sparking interest in young people for the skilled trades and bringing the “cool” back to an area that has been in need of a new marketing campaign.

Invest in a CMMS or EAM system

The next area on which a facility could focus to alleviate the skills crisis is the retention and use of historical data. Multiple employees will need to access plant information over long periods of time. A computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) or enterprise asset management (EAM) system should retain the records and history of nearly every failure and the plans, or at least the troubleshooting steps taken, for the repair of each of failure.

If this is not the case, then the plant may need to refocus its efforts to adequately use the capabilities of the CMMS. With the new generation, the use of computers and the information that they contain will be almost an expectation and should not be perceived in a negative way. This will allow the facility to take a properly designed and implemented EAM to a whole new level of performance.

Encourage mentoring

As personnel prepare to retire from the industry, they want to leave a legacy by training and mentoring the younger generation. The plans that the organization creates should capitalize on this by building job and training plans with the employees’ help and allowing knowledgeable personnel to mentor newer workers. As they work together more closely, the younger team members will learn mechanical knowledge and skills, and the retiring generation will, in turn, learn more about computers and technology.

Strive for proactive reliability

The next generation of skilled tradespeople has shown statistically that they are different in their desire for overtime, chaos and firefighting associated with reactive maintenance and reliability practices. They tend to be more supportive of a proactive environment. This is evident in the way that the younger generation wants 40-hour weeks with limited or no on-call hours. This is another driver that can support the manufacturing goals and bottom-line performance that a world-class performance facility expects in today’s economy. Personnel and management must work together to create a proactive environment in which overtime is not required.