By Walt Boyes, Editor in chief
“My 401K retirement account lost 75% of its value and is now a 101K…and I can’t retire.” This is a situation we’re hearing far too much about these days. It’s a serious issue for the process industries, and end-user and automation companies alike. The demographic data shows that the average skilled worker in the process industries is older than 50 and not particularly healthy, either. It’s likely that, within three to five years, investment accounts will be healthy again, and older workers will again be thinking of retiring, but for now, that’s not happening.
This is a breathing space for process and automation companies. These workers, who were close to retirement, were the last generation who grew up operating process plants essentially by hand and eye, before automation became ubiquitous. They have knowledge and a mindset that can’t be duplicated today because of the very automation that keeps the process industries competitive.
Companies should actually implement the knowledge management programs that they’ve been talking about, but which only the best, most cutting-edge of companies have implemented. They need to extract the institutional knowledge from their older workers’ heads and hands, and put it into a usable form for younger workers who simply don’t have the holistic conception of the plant that a worker who grew up with panel walls automatically has.
Companies should open high-resolution simulation training centers for plant operators and technicians, so they can game out strategies for optimization and also for accident prevention and event minimization. The next generation of workers is going to be familiar with joysticks, simulations and gaming—and they’re going to want to learn the same way. Now’s the time to get the simulations out of the heads of those fifty-somethings who are going to stick around a little longer.
Companies should also institute health and stress remediation for their operators. Many fiftyish plant workers aren’t in the best physical condition—overweight, out of shape, some are diabetic, and they’re not in the habit of taking the time to take care of themselves. DuPont has begun a program of paying operators and maintenance crew to exercise on company time as part of their workday, and has found that it pays back quickly in lessening lost-time accidents and reducing stress while improving morale. A healthy workforce, it would appear, is also a happier workforce, and a safer and better one.
Manufacturing companies should seriously reconsider the practice of treating plant operators more as they would hourly trade employees. Consider the significance of the job and the stress level. The only job I can think of that maps well to operators is that of commercial airline pilot. They have severely restricted hours, health management, and get paid well for taking the stress of getting us from where we are to where we want to be. Isn’t that what an operator does with your plant?
And, what should individual workers do?
Remember that your skills are what keep you employed. If your 401K has indeed lost its value or your pension fund is bust, then take a look at your skills and your training. Your employer probably isn’t going to agree to pay you for training—not in this economy. You are the one that’s going to have to make sure you keep your skills updated. That means you might want to test yourself against the ISA Certified Automation Professional or Certified Control System Technician benchmarks, see how you rank, and learn what you should know to do your job the best way you can. Being a CAP or a CCST may just be the difference between keeping your job as long as you need it and a pink slip.