France shares in struggles of maintenance crisis

Contributing Editor Joel Leonard's recent travels to Europe led him to uncover that aversion to skilled labor is not just characteristic of Americans.

By Joel Leonard, contributing editor

Misery loves company: The United States is not alone in the fight against the maintenance crisis. Other countries are struggling with these issues, too. Let me share a letter from a gentleman who helped translate the original maintenance crisis song from English to French for the Euromaintenance Conference in Belgium (www.euromaintenance.org).

Dear Mr. Leonard,

According to the Web site of AFIM, a French maintenance association (www.afim.asso.fr), on the issue of an employment barometer, or barometre de l'emploi, every month, between three to five job offers for one job demand are to be seen. Last summer, this ratio reached its peak of 11.

From 1999 to 2005, I was a member of the French National Pedagogic Committee for the 26 Departments of Maintenance and Industrial Engineering (GIM) of our Technology University Institutes (IUT), and I had to oversee the evaluation of such departments.

We despairingly tried to attract young students to these departments. The lack of applicants compelled us to close down one department, in spite of the overwhelming needs of French industry.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with the teachers of the GIM of an IUT. They told me:

  • There’s only one applicant for jobs involving manual work compared with 10 applicants for computer work. Fortunately, a significant number of applicants (20% to 30%) come from Africa, provided they get an immigration visa.
  • More and more boys are addicted to video games. This is the reason why they’re attracted to computer jobs (but they quickly discover that computer programming isn’t as easy as playing video games!).

The effect of such a situation is that boys live in a "virtual" world, without any relation to the real one. They have no idea what screwdrivers or monkey wrenches are, let alone what they are used for.

This is the reason why the first portion of the tuition delivered by this department is used to give a workbench to each student, fitted with hand tools, steel or wood products, and with the necessary advice. The purpose is to enable them to make a device that can give them the pride of having built by their own hands something that works.

A main concern is that maintenance jobs are statistically, in our country, the most dangerous ones. According a survey carried out by the French National Institute on Research for Safety (INRS), in 2002, 44% of the fatalities recorded throughout French industry were related to maintenance operations. Maintenance workers have to work during their careers on machinery that compels them to be in unusual positions, in the vicinity of energy (electricity, heat, pressure, moving parts, chemicals, etc.).

This also is why young people prefer to spend their working lives comfortably seated behind keyboards in an air-conditioned environment, rather than to repair in the cold rain a bulldozer that is stuck in the mud.

We have to acknowledge the fact that if employers really need more maintenance workers, they have to make this job sexier, i.e., to provide workers with more adequate tools, improved safety and better working conditions, and to have more possibilities for promotion in the future. But it costs more, and the main target of decision-makers, who are no longer industrialists, but short-term-oriented financial people, is a permanent cost-cutting policy in maintenance expenditures.

In French industries, the average direct cost of maintenance in 1987 was 4.5% of their turnover. In 2006, this figure was down to 2.8%. From 1996 to 2006, the direct costs of maintenance were reduced by 10%, whereas the number of industrial injuries in maintenance increased by 50% (50% of injuries occurring to the 20% youngest members of the maintenance staff).

The findings of AFIM's surveys on maintenance safety led to the improvement of the teaching of safety in the French technical schools and universities (safety regulations, risk assessment, work permit procedures, use of protective equipment, etc.).

In the same way that you have composed a song about the maintenance crisis, a panel of teachers in GIM departments have composed a humorous theater play on maintenance, titled "De la Tête aux Mains"(From Head to Hands). This entertainment has been played, with some success, in front of an audience of students at secondary schools to give them an understanding of what maintenance is, what it is for, and why it is a very interesting job.

Regards,

Gerard Neyret
Vice president of AFIM


Please continue to share your thoughts on the maintenance crisis with me, and visit www.skilltv.net to find the most recent videos, podcasts and articles on this important topic.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at leonard.joel@mpactlearning.com.

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