Bridging the gap: how industry adapts to a shortage of mid-level maintenance pros

By Leah Friberg   

Industry Innovation & Technology Manufacturing baby boomers Fluke Corp. maintenance manufacturing

Plants are applying a tiered approach that brings together varying skills to get the job done.

It’s a song that North American manufacturers have been singing for some years now: “I can’t find enough qualified people to do the work.” In particular, we have a shortage of mid-level maintenance technicians, foremen and engineers who have enough field experience to problem-solve on the fly.

It used to be that people handling equipment installation, commissioning, regular maintenance and emergency troubleshooting stayed the same, for a long time. But that changed during the 2008-09 recession as baby boomers retired, too few technicians and manufacturing engineers were entering the workforce, while job descriptions and expectations of maintenance productivity evolved.

Now when researching what kind of problems a customer is looking to solve using a test tool, Fluke surveys up and down the decision-making chain, takes productivity metrics into account, and carefully evaluates skills requirements.

In 2012, as the recession began to lift, Fluke surveyed its North American customer base on the skills gap. Ninety-three percent of respondents said it was very difficult to find entry-level workers with acceptable skills, and more than half said candidates lacked enough years of on-the-job experience to effectively perform in their positions.


Things that took a beating during the recession include:
• on-the-job mentoring
• apprenticeships
• specialization
• going home on time

A study posted in 2016 by the AED Foundation indicates the North American skills gap has persisted even as the economy has recovered. US manufacturing may still be “foregoing 11% of earnings and 9% of revenue due to the skills gap and the inability to hire qualified workers.” In the same study, 59% of Canadian executives surveyed struggled to find qualified candidates, 60% said they had lost customers as a result of the technician shortage and 40% said the shortage increased costs and decreased productivity.

Happily, some of the “counter-measures” initiated during the recession are starting to yield returns. Manufacturers have partnered with local colleges and universities and with each other to re-create the apprenticeship. It’s often by industry segment – automotive manufacturers, oil and gas – that have similar skill-set needs in specialized areas such as mechatronics. These training associations often develop their own curriculum, in addition to the on-the-job training that comes with the apprenticeships. The first graduates from these programs joined the workforce a couple years ago, and the numbers are increasing annually.

Another shift is occurring around continuing education for the current working population that is adapting to ongoing change. Workplace safety remains at the top of the list for company trainers, but a whole host of other technical and soft skills training has fallen on the internal trainer to supply. Hands-on training remains among the hardest needs to fill.

Leaping barriers

Lastly, many employers are excited about the new skills that millennials bring to the table. Together with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the millennial workforce offers facilities the chance to leapfrog over long-standing barriers to progress around not enough time, money or resources to get the job done. Millennials tend to embrace change, technology and collaboration while the IIoT is improving maintenance technology accessibility in terms of cost, complexity and scale.

Tiered maintenance is one example of how all of this comes together by enabling regular maintenance technicians to do what had historically been considered higher-level work: predictive maintenance inspections. Using prescribed tasks and entry-level thermal, vibration and ultrasound tools, technicians inspect critical equipment and collect, save and upload data for the less-numerous more-skilled people on the team to review.

The specialist’s job is made easier by having the larger team data map the plant so he/she maintains awareness of operational health and prioritizes time on complex issues while providing direction on less complex issues the team can resolve.

Meanwhile, the maintenance technicians build additional skills, including an awareness of the key equipment failure indicators. If the engineer uses a work order system, the technician stays involved, learning by doing as a problem is detected, diagnosed, and addressed.

The setup creates a new collaboration, with small changes to the role of the specialist and the maintenance tech that are natural extensions and usually of interest. At the same time, the conversion to proactive maintenance gradually shifts the balance of the team’s workload from emergencies to planned maintenance.

When all team members save data to a central source, knowledge is transferred from the individual to the team. The IIoT makes this aspect of it much easier than pen-and-paper or spreadsheets by leveraging the cloud and WiFi networks to bypass IT gridlock. And the prevalence of smart devices and laptops make it easier for technicians as well as engineers to share data on the fly. Ease of implementation is not lost on management: IIoT solutions are often scalable, meaning a plant can pilot a maintenance software system with a core team of early adopters, document successes and expand.

On a day-to-day basis, the best approach for optimizing the workforce and its productivity levels in the face of a skills shortage is multidisciplinary: a combination of adaptive management techniques for team deployment, training, roles/responsibilities and technology.

Leah Friberg is a training manager with Fluke Corp., a manufacturer of test and measurement instruments based in Everett, Wash. The Canadian headquarters is in Mississauga, Ont.


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