Knotek: The current state and future of industrial maintenance technicians

How industry leaders can grow the pool of talent

Apprenticeship programs are just one way to address the skills gap. Image courtesy of Motion Industries
Apprenticeship programs are just one way to address the skills gap. Image courtesy of Motion Industries

When I started in the world of industrial maintenance and distribution more than 45 years ago, people and machines moved a lot slower. In that era, the industrial world was chock-full of competent electromechanical workers with the required skills for the times. There were also plenty of places for them to seek employment. Downtime wasn’t as expensive, and profit margins were higher. Those days have gone the way of the 8-track.

I’m paraphrasing, but an ancient Greek philosopher by the name of Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice. Change is the only constant.” If you stop and reflect on that statement, you realize that both people and the river are changing. Trust me, I’m not pining for good old days. I’ve embraced the changes and accepted the new reality, albeit reluctantly at times. I’ve done my best not to become an anachronism. That is in part because I was blessed with an inordinate amount of curiosity and an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I am a life-long learner. Thus, after decades of hands-on field experience, I find myself functioning as an educator in the world of mechanical industrial components, systems and principles.

So, where do we find ourselves today? There have been many positive developments over time, especially during the last 10-15 years: safer workplaces, healthier working environments, improved treatment of employees by management, upgraded communication and greater opportunities for women. With regards to machines, they generally operate at higher speeds, are subject to heavier loads, are more intricate and are smarter. Digital process control is the norm. Conversely, we still rely on certain technologies that are considered mature but have not been completely replaced because they are a niche solutions and function well in certain environments. An example is a roller chain.

We are doing more with fewer people. We are beyond the age of implementing lean and have moved into the age of meager when it comes to workers who have electromechanical skills. The current buzzword is “skills-gap.” Let me be succinct: we have a real problem in that there is a deficiency of skilled industrial maintenance technicians. The pool of qualified technicians has shrunk and going outside of the organization to hire is becoming increasingly more difficult. Everywhere I conduct training, I hear the same sentence in one form or another: “We are having a difficult time finding workers who properly know how to fix machines.”

It’s a cliché, but the phrase, “we’ve kicked the can down the road” is apropos. In fact, we are at the end of the road and will soon be in the swamp. From personal experience, I’ve learned that you slow way down when you are in the swamp and eventually come to a standstill. North American industry cannot afford to stand still.

Before I go any further, I need to address those that take issue with my point. Keep in mind that it is OK to argue, but not fight. If you are promoting, teaching or partnering with vocational/technical schools, spending money on, and implementing programs to address the lack of electromechanical technicians, then you are working toward the solution. My hat is off to you. Keep up the good work. We have not, however, implemented solutions to a degree equal to the need. It is imperative that we move beyond discussion and increase action required to correct the problem.

How did we get here? The industrial maintenance educational causal nexus happened. A causal nexus exists when the result is a reasonable outcome or consequence of the activity.

Many factors in the equation added up and multiplied to put industrial education in its current state. Attrition by retirement, a liberal arts education emphasis, a changing culture, new technology, a lack of monetary investment and reduction of industrial education in primary and secondary education are some of the major reasons. Add in an overreliance on web-based training, an emphasis on soft skills and, of course, peer pressure. It is almost as if higher education in this country forgot, or didn’t recognize, that someone needs to fix the robots. Most everyone in the industrial educational world would agree that we have a shortage of the skills we need and an excess of those we don’t need. Whose fault is it? Ours!

So, how do we repair the industrial education path, or build a new road and go about solving this challenge? Let’s move forward with a multi-tiered approach:

  • Build an educational team of hourly and salary staff to expeditiously determine what training path is needed and what the curriculum will include. If the plant is unionized, make sure they buy in and are part of the solution.
  • The team should have a clear vision of where they are, where they want to go and how to get there. No endless meetings going around and around allowed.
  • Choose topics of industrial education that will pay the most dividends, address lost-time accidents and address decreased quality production.
  • The required curriculum route should incorporate web-based, employee instructors, along with independently taught hands-on courses. The curriculum should include electrical, pneumatic, hydraulic and mechanical topics.
  • Classify the various skill set levels, detail the path and outline what is required of the employee to advance to the next level. This should include the implementation of both written and hands-on standardized assessment tests. These will determine the needs and the advancement of the technician.
  • Present and promote the program and all training courses in a positive way, emphasizing that this will make employees more valuable to the company.
  • Implement the program in stages.
  • Track participants’ progress and increase pay for increased proficiency.
  • Monitor and record progress, especially when it pays off. Communicate success.
  • Tweak as needed.

Along with that, develop apprenticeship programs and mentor relationships with young and old linked together. There is a valuable treasure of good tribal knowledge in senior employees’ heads. Experience is a great teacher, and the veteran technicians should share their accumulated knowledge.

Some stop-gap solutions, such as lunch-and-learns with current staff, focused on single topics, is a good start. Base these topics around problematic equipment. Standardized web-based training for introductory-level courses is a must. Intense multi-day, hands-on, in-plant training conducted by suppliers or industrial training companies are helpful.

Looking ahead, you should consider hiring multi-craft graduates of vocational technical colleges. Partner with the local vocational tech to develop appropriate curriculum to meet the needs of the employer and fast-track them into a well-paying career. Vocational colleges are a big part of the solution. We need more of them and increased enrollment. Most importantly, never stop educating workers.

Three companies that I’ve taught come to mind as the right way to address the skills gap. The first requires a minimum of 7-10 days, depending on your job description, of training at its dedicated educational center. Another sought out state grants to fund training to promote from within by training operation/production workers to become maintenance technicians. The third developed one of the best ways to solve its skilled labor shortage. It collaborated with a large university to create a vocational school across the street from the plant. The vocational school offers multiple two-year degrees with a focused curriculum and minimal student debt, as well as a guaranteed high-paying job at the plant when students graduate.

Over the next few months in Processing, I will address hot-button issues pertaining to mechanical maintenance. Hopefully these columns will act as a trigger to further educate your maintenance staff on these and other pertinent topics.

I’ll end my first column with two quotes. One from Henry Ford, and the other my own.

The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay. — Henry Ford, Founder, Ford Motor Company

Keep it turning by being smarter than the machine. — Rick Knotek, Motion Industries.

Richard R. Knotek is a technical training specialist with the Motion Institute, a division of Motion Industries. He has worked 45 years with Motion Industries, holding a variety of positions including driver, inside sales, operations manager, salesman, branch manager and product specialist. A former adjunct instructor with Northern Michigan University's Industrial Maintenance Program, Knotek is also the published co-author of Mechanical Systems & Principles (ISBN 0-13-049417-8).

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