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By Alec R. Meinke
News flash: Good people are hard to find. And they’re getting harder. Retirement, societal shifts and the stark lack of interest by young people have created a technical skills vacuum throughout manufacturing in the United States.
Corporations are pressured to provide higher earnings largely through cost improvements, while their budgets remain static or are reduced. Until we replace people with artificial intelligence and robotic capabilities, the manufacturing sector’s success continues to rely on people. People make or break a company and with increased demands on manufacturing plants throughout the country, the need to recruit, train and retain skilled employees is critical.
You already know the scenario. The number of technically competent personnel has dwindled for a variety of reasons. Collectively we have not done an adequate job done of handing technical skills and know-how down to successive generations. Baby Boomers are all but extinct in manufacturing thanks to buy-outs and early retirements and, increasingly, the aging of this demographic. Facilities blessed with the remnant should take advantage of their skill and wisdom while they have the opportunity.
Meanwhile, technology advances each year. In an attempt to produce a wider variety of SKUs at faster rates, companies install state-of-the-art equipment with the newest hardware and software. This practice intensifies the technical skills shortage, as most companies do not have the skill sets required to maintain the technology level they currently have. In essence, companies have inadvertently widened the technology gap within their own facilities.
Furthermore, public K-12 education has failed miserably with respect to supplying industry with the quantities and quality of technically oriented young people. Technical- trade classes have all but disappeared, and the ones that remain do not focus on the skills required to be a successful technician in the manufacturing industry.
If you search the Internet for automation and controls curricula, you will find that some educational institutions are realizing the need for such instruction. Many junior colleges now offer associates degrees in some form of manufacturing technology. The problem with most of these programs is that the course work is very general and does not provide the students with the practical knowledge and hands-on experience required by modern manufacturing.
Many of the manufacturing facilities I am familiar with seem oblivious to the shortage of qualified technicians. Some plant leadership is not capable of determining who is qualified and who is not. Often managers have little or no technical knowledge, so it’s hard for them to know technically qualified people when they see them.
Every manufacturing facility I have been in over the past 25 years has had a deficiency of electrical and controls knowledge. As manufacturing continues to become more automated, the skill level of plant technicians must increase accordingly or productivity will suffer.
This situation did not materialize overnight, nor will the remedy. The task may seem daunting, but you cannot finish unless you start. And you have to be prepared to spend time and money to get the job done. Manufacturing companies that are committed to training spend between 3% and 4% of their annual payroll on training activities.
You have to retain and develop the technical talent you have while recruiting more. Promoting from within is a great idea when it is based primarily on merit. Accepting less than you need from a position is never a good idea. Hiring proven technical talent from outside will provide you with new knowledge that can be transferred to your existing technical personnel.
I recommend a three-faceted approach to overcome technical skills deficiencies:
This strategy minimizes the time it takes to fully develop technical talent. It can also provide the next wave of technical talent to your organization through hiring relatively inexperienced technical personnel. If you choose to hire inexperienced candidates, having an internal technical development program in place is imperative.
To execute this strategy effectively, you will need technically competent managers. If you don’t have them, I suggest using outside help to attract new technical talent for both management and hourly positions. I have implemented many of the following steps to attract new talent with a great deal of success:
ControlGlobal.com is exclusively dedicated to the global process automation market. We report on developing industry trends, illustrate successful industry applications, and update the basic skills and knowledge base that provide the profession's foundation.