For On The Floor

rick carterSkills Shortage As Real As Ever

We’re told to embrace change because it’s coming (like it or not). But for those affected by the U.S. skills shortage, change has so far been a no-show. Consistently ranked a top challenge for industry, the shortage of skilled labor for key manufacturing positions has received a lot of coverage and well-meaning attention in the past half-decade, yet still shows little improvement.  

Our Reader Panelists confirm this disturbing fact—again. Three years have passed since they were last asked about their skills-shortage problems. With few exceptions, the new responses on the subject, below, virtually match the old ones. I regret the repetition. I also hope another three years won’t pass before the news improves. 

Q: Does your company still have trouble filling skilled positions?

“Yes, we are having a very difficult time hiring qualified maintenance technicians, especially those with PLC knowledge.”

… Senior Facilities Engineer, South 

“We continue our struggle to find experienced maintenance technicians. We have been relegated to hiring young people right out of vocational maintenance programs with little or no experience.”

… Reliability/Maintenance Engineer, South 

“It is becoming increasingly hard to find people. Most who seek higher education aren’t interested in this type of work and many who are consider it ‘just a job’ and don’t want to develop skills.”

… Senior Maintenance Mechanic, South 

“With few exceptions we’re not refilling positions, skilled or otherwise. But when we do, we are finding a lot of qualified people.”

… Maintenance Engineer, West

“We are still having trouble filling trades positions, particularly electricians. Most have experience only in construction or home building. We have hired some of them and they generally are not able to catch on with the logic or the programming.”

… PM Leader, Midwest

Q: How does your current skills-shortage issue compare to the situation you had three years ago?

“The skills shortage continues to worsen. Very few young people are encouraged to pursue a career in the skilled trades.”

… Reliability/Maintenance Engineer, South 

“I can’t see much difference. This has been a growing problem for several years.”

… Senior Maintenance Mechanic, South

 “Our situation is about the same. We have been trying to grow and improve our maintenance staff for more than two years.”

… Senior Facilities Engineer, South 

“It hasn’t proven to be a problem, now nor then. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become one.”

… Maintenance Engineer, West

“It’s much worse. Hiring is brisk in our area, and we lose personnel as fast as we can fill positions due to demand from local manufacturers with openings that pay higher starting rates.”

… Maintenance Supervisor, South    

Q: What does your company do to mitigate skills-shortage problems?

“I cannot convince my company to do anything [in this area]. I’m told there has to be somebody out there.”

… Senior Facilities Engineer, South 

“Our company has established maintenance training centers at each of our U.S. locations, and we have established vocational school scholarships for kids with interest in maintenance at local high schools.”

… Reliability/Maintenance Engineer, South 

“Our company spends a lot of time and money on training, both in-house and outside. Most of the in-house training is mandatory, but we have many opportunities for specialized training outside. This is voluntary and many don’t take advantage of it.”

… Senior Maintenance Mechanic, South

“We have discontinued [most] training due to budgeting issues and lack of time due to understaffing.”

… Maintenance Supervisor, South    

Q: What, if anything, do you think government could do to address the skills shortage?

“This is not the government’s issue. If people are not willing to work for the skill sets and companies are not willing to assist developing them, why should the government be involved?”

… Senior Facilities Engineer, South 

“The government should stay out of it. The private sector will sort this out. It is the government’s steering of every child to pursue a college education that has created the problem in the first place.”

… Reliability/Maintenance Engineer, South 

“They could offer grants specifically for technical schools.”

… Senior Maintenance Mechanic, South

“Considering there are at least 47 federal employment and training programs, I think the government is doing too much already.”

… Maintenance Engineer, West

“Link trade schools with high schools and junior colleges.” 

… Maintenance Supervisor, South     

The jobs are there, but…
In a country where unemployment figures are a regular component of daily news, it can be hard for some to believe that manufacturing has jobs to be filled. “The jobs are there,” notes a Panelist from the West, “but no one seems to want them.” He agrees with other Panelists that the nation’s emphasis on a four-year college education is part of the problem. “We do not see a PhD repairing your car or processing your food,” he says. “It’s the skilled laborers that keep this country going.”

But this concept may be foreign to younger workers. As another Panelist notes, when his operation does find qualified workers, “many of our young hires don’t stick around. The hours are too long and they don’t like the call-outs on weekends and nights.” He adds that his company has been reluctant “to put extra people on the payroll for them to learn, so we now have a pending crisis.” 

This view suggests that industry itself must share at least partial blame for the skills shortage. A consultant from the Midwest concurs. Not only are certain companies reluctant to hire, he says, some are too quick to release older, experienced workers without tapping their knowledge. Coupled with “the low esteem many organizations have for their maintenance departments,” he says, such practices will put companies in a bind. World-class organizations operate differently, he says, “by hiring the right people—who are not the cheapest—and developing their own internal apprentice and mentoring programs.” Solutions to the skills shortage will be more obvious and simpler to enact, predicts this Panelist, when “CEOs and CFOs become less concerned with the cost of maintaining their equipment and more concerned with the cost of not maintaining it.”MT

The Maintenance Technology Reader Panel is comprised of working maintenance practitioners who volunteer to answer bimonthly questions from our editorial staff. Panelist identities are not revealed, and their responses are not necessarily projectable. The Panel welcomes new members: Have your observations included in this column by joining the Reader Panel at Click here and follow the instructions. If accepted, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a cash prize after one year of active participation.

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