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Monday, June 27, 2011

What has happened to the skilled labor force?

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"What has happened to the skilled labor force?" Is a question I just replied to in the LinkedIn Industrial Maintenance group. 119 comments so far. Below is my take on the topic...

I hear you all, with the baby-boomer skill shortage and slow economy creating the most challenging paradox. In the recent past it might have been corporate profits driving companies to look for the 'Jack of all Trades', but now the economy is making the policy stick even more. (Maintenance Mechanic, Electrician and PLC tech all rolled into one person. :>)

The paradox being you typically can only find a new employee experienced in all three trades, being at the end of their career cycle. Which would require the employer to pay top dollar to win and keep the rare employee, knowing it would be a relatively short term investment. They would most likely retire in 10 years or less. Which is even harder to justify in today’s economy.

In the early stages of our industry, logic prevailed with the Maintenance Mechanic, the Electrician and the PLC Tech being separate job titles to deliver to the employer the best of each. (‘Jack of all trades but master of none’ used to be a bad thing on a resume. Anyone remember that? Haha) The boom of the unions only strengthened this employment environment, insuring a mechanic didn’t cross over into the electrician’s turf, and insuring the more technical positions received more pay. Then the desire for more corporate profits turned the tables, sacrificing some of the expertise by combining all 3 employees into 1 maintenance employee. The same profit driven agenda also diminished unions, as it was a barrier. So that the ‘jack of all trades - master of none’, became a good thing on a resume. (Employer and employee would both ignore the fact, most employees couldn’t possibly master all three. :)

The only viable solution (as some have already leaned towards here), look for strengths in one of the 3 occupational fields, and train them in the other lacking skill sets. A compromise that admits the mistake of the past that companies/managers made by combining all three, but now are economically powerless to correct fully. Use on-site training so logistics better allows cross training giving you an even greater return on your training investment. It is very common when we deliver on-site PLC training, to train the electrician to be a PLC Tech also, that employers stick maintenance mechanics in the classes too. (maintenance managers pick up what they can too as time allows.) Because we simplify our PLC training, when the PLC Tech and the Electrician are not available, in some situations, the maintenance mechanic can get the machine back up and running, saving downtime.

The bottom line is, there is not an overwhelming shortage of mechanics, or electricians, just PLC Techs. But there is an ever growing shortage of employees experienced and/or properly trained in all three fields. (As mechanics and electricians are available from many other industries besides manufacturing. The cross over to industrial mechanic or electrician is not that great education wise.)

Don (Follow me on Industrial Skills Training Blog and on Twitter @IndTraining .)

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