Multiskilling: A tool for acquiring missing trade skills

Maintenance pros learn best with real-world, hands on activities that demonstrate applications.

December 4, 2017
by Steve Gahbauer

New equipment involving computers and microcontrollers increases the pressure on available skills in the workplace. Photo: Fotolia

A shortage of skilled maintenance trades is an ongoing issue exacerbated by constantly evolving new technologies that require new capabilities. But employers are also looking for people who are collaborative, have a good attitude and possess a range of soft skills such as communicating, critical thinking and problem solving.

Sylvia Metz, a business manager with the WorkBC Employment Services Centre in Vancouver, sees a need to draw a distinction between soft and hard skills. Many soft skills are overarching, but hard skills are dependent on specific jobs and industries. They evolve. The objective, therefore, is cross training.

There are many sources for acquiring trades skills. The WorkBC services offer free resources for employment seekers and employers. Agencies funded by the federal and/or provincial governments offer professional insight; several agencies as well as learning institutions offer assistance; and the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada (PEMAC) provides courses and certification for maintenance management and asset management professionals.

However, there is another way – multiskilling, which is the ability to seamlessly transfer knowledge and skills from one area of application to another.

This is an important human resource development tool, although there are barriers to training such as: time constraints; lack of in-depth theoretical knowledge among the applicants; equipment complexity; and existing social views on company culture. But there are ways to do it right, which were demonstrated in a technical session presented at a MainTrain maintenance conference, convened by PEMAC.

Mick Andic, program head and instructor of Bachelor Technology in Manufacturing at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, noted many practitioners are underequipped and inadequately trained. That’s because advances in electronics, computers and dedicated microcontrollers are consistently increasing the demand on skilled trade people, such as electricians, millwrights, mechanics, instrumentation technicians and others. New machines are often underutilized when the pace and volume of new equipment introductions exceeds the skills and knowledge of the users.

Modern equipment is an amalgam of mechanical, fluid power, electrical and electronic components and systems. Some form of multiskilling is logical. But the traditional division of labour divides responsibility among two or three different skill groups, which leads to problems with unions.

The challenge is to present multiskilling training in a way that organized labour does not perceive it as a threat.
Hands-on training

Knowledge and computer-related training is mostly based on a methodical and logical approach to problem solving and the application of mathematics. But skilled trades work in an environment where intuition and experience take precedence over strict logic. “Rules-of-thumb” are used instead of mathematical analysis. The question then becomes: what is a suitable training method for learners who have an incomplete base in fundamentals?

Andic offered several formats for this type of training: formal sessions through local colleges or private training providers, typically delivered in two- to five-day intensive courses; part-time training, one or two evening sessions per week for a number of weeks; and interactive computer- and internet-based sessions. The cost varies widely among formats.

Skilled trades people learn best with lots of hands-on examples that illustrate and demonstrate applications. If trainees get experience with new equipment and methods, the learning process is likely to accelerate without them necessarily knowing the theoretical fundamentals and underlying mathematical principles.

Training should deal with problems and situations that closely resemble actual working conditions. In Andic’s experience, the most effective format involves sessions over three to four days, each day with six to eight hours of instruction.

Multiskilling works. Andic cited an example in the automotive industry involving a major manufacturer that sent 300 of its newly hired maintenance employees, in groups of 40 to 60, for training before they undertook their responsibilities in the plant. They were already highly skilled in their respective areas, but the objective was to cross-train them. Mechanics and millwrights received electrical training, electricians received mechanical training, and everybody received training on computer-based controls and their applications.

The cost was jointly borne by the company and the government. All equipment maintenance personnel were candidates. Trainees returned to work immediately following the completion of their sessions. Follow-up feedback interviews were conducted with 25% of those who completed training and were working for six months or more afterward.

All courses were delivered at a local college with qualified instructors who had years of industry experience.
Multiskilling proved to be effective for the automotive manufacturer, which demonstrates that manufacturers have another option for solving their skills challenges.

Steve Gahbauer is an engineer, a Toronto-based business writer and a regular contributing editor to PLANT. E-mail

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of PLANT.

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