Workforce Development / Change Management / Skills Gap / Industrial Training

What comes first, technology or workforce?

“Organizations need to take a multipronged approach, build leadership capability … and develop reward systems that go beyond a vertical promotion.”

By Thomas Wilk, editor-in-chief

In 2019, two of the hottest topics facing our industry are (1) how to get started using digital tools and technologies, and (2) how to find and keep talented maintenance and reliability workers. To close out the year, Plant Services invited four industry professionals – Calvin Williams of Impruver Technologies; Suzane Greeman of Greeman Asset Management Solutions; Kevin Clark of Fluke; and Nancy Regan of The Force – to comment on this convergence of technology and the workforce. (Note: Interviews were conducted separately, with responses assembled for this article.)

Q1. In general, how is digitalization changing the face of maintenance, reliability, and asset management?

CW: The way I look at technology and the role it plays in operations performance, asset performance, is that it is an enabler of the things that people already want to do, right? Technology itself just adds speed and momentum in the direction that is set by the leadership, the culture, the people in the roles doing the work. It takes the heart of the people who are already in place and then adds speed and momentum.

At a micro level, what I see is that technology is an accelerator. People are going to use it to do what they already want to do, and the technology is going to allow them to do it faster and to a greater magnitude. Now, at a macro level, I think it would allow information and expertise to travel to where it needs to be on demand, so the right person can make the right decision, leading to overall better decision-making.

SG: In asset management, what we are talking about is transforming the organization to rely on digital information as a basis for asset management decision-making. That’s how we get value from a good asset-management strategy. Every area is going to be impacted, and every role in maintenance, reliability, and asset management will change and evolve.

Digitalization has enhanced the sources of information, analysis capability, decision-making, and information dissemination. We now have an increased number of quantitative data sources, and every time we improve the sources of information or the analysis capability, we improve the probability of getting more correct analysis. And also because the mathematical capability of the devices has increased, we can do more-complex analyses. We realize that we can’t probably just keep hitting this in an ad hoc way. Now the fears that organizations are looking at are, “We need a digitalization strategy,” and working on that digitalization strategy because there is this massive amount of data coming in.

This is changing the face and shape of organizations. Decision-making is now more dispersed rather than concentrated, and so is the dissemination of information. We need a coordinated approach within the organizational space – between IT, maintenance, asset management, project management, and engineering – to develop what the requirements are and to manage the data. That is why organizations are now realizing, “Well, we now need a digitalization strategy, otherwise we’re going to be in trouble.” And the strategy is going to be around, how do we take the data from construction or from acquisition of the asset and have that seamlessly become operational and maintenance information, and then have that seamlessly become financial information that sits on the balance sheet at the end of the day?

KC: In the asset management space, we’ve been doing digital for a long time. We’ve always been trying to find ways that we can predict, and I think predicting failures is making that big impact in our business.

Specifically, simplification is making a huge impact on our business, the way that we’re simplifying how we acquire data, where we can acquire data, and then where we can put that data. I think with the advancements in AI and machine learning and also with the work being done with edge technology that we can do a lot more with less.

I spent many years doing SCADA systems, and it was just hard – that’s all I can say. If we had to make a change, we had to go back and change every one of our tags and more. But today, we can throw an API out there and magically, our data is passing from one system to the next. That kind of simplification, I think, is what’s really driving digital.

NR: For me, I think that digitalization insidiously implies that human effort is less important. But in my opinion, with advancing technology, it seems like human beings become even more important. Technology can be a very useful solution, but human beings have to identify what problem it’s solving (a.k.a., what failure mode it manages) and how to implement it properly.

For example, when it comes to condition-based maintenance, sophisticated monitoring devices can be really advantageous and cost-effective. But a human being has to identify what cause of failure that equipment is intended to manage and how the potential failure condition will be monitored. All of that takes focused thought-work by people who know the equipment and the operating environment. It’s important that humans stay in the driver’s seat and not let advancing technology and digitalization drive us.

Q2. The 2019 Plant Services workforce survey asked respondents which factors would impact their decision to stay or leave a position in our industry. The top factor was “dissatisfaction with the corporate culture,” cited by 51% of all respondents (and 80% of Millennial respondents). Does this match your sense of where we are as an industry?

SG: It not only matches my sense, it also matches my own experience, and I worked in HR for a couple of years. I’m not even a Millennial, and the stats resonate with me.

Let me hit this from three angles. First, there’s leadership education, maturity and behavior. Industry 4.0 is busy changing how we do work, and intergenerational forces are changing who we see in the workplace, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the need for good leadership skills.

Next there are systems of reward. When we identify talent that we would like to promote, we must first consider if the individuals have the generosity of human spirit to connect with the other humans who will work for and with them.

Finally, there is the rigidity of HR systems, and asset-dependent companies are well-known for their rigidity in systems and approach. How much of that can the HR system tolerate in its talent acquisition and retention processes, and how does top management view remuneration packages?

Organizations need to take a multipronged approach, build leadership capability, reward the behaviors that reinforce the culture that we want to see and disincentivize the behaviors that are not useful, and develop reward systems that go beyond a vertical promotion.

NR: It does match my sense of what’s going on. And for me, I think it all goes back to people, because the top complaints that I hear are these two: “Management won’t listen to us” and “Management doesn’t understand the value of maintenance and reliability.”

One solution, I think, to creating a good corporate culture is for every individual to get out of their own head and get into the minds of the people that they need to influence. Any initiative has to be framed in such a way that it’s appealing to the other party. That responsibility doesn’t just lie with management, in my opinion. I think that everyone has to be on board to foster an effective culture. It starts with management, but it doesn’t stop there.

CW: In a plant setting, and especially for operations – more so than maintenance – what you typically have is one supervisor and then 20 direct reports or more. If you’re an operator and you have ambition to do more than just operate a machine for the rest of your career, the prospect that you get that promotion to supervisor will be essentially 1 in 20, which discourages most people from trying.

But that’s the first problem. The second is that effectively run organizations have a supervisor-to-employee ratio of 1 to 6, and that is also the case for executive-to-executive teams. When you have a 1 to 20 ratio, you’re just not going to get the level of development you need to really excel.

This is an area where I do think technology could help. For example, there’s a lot of folks who are on the cusp of retirement, so if you could tap into remote coaching where through the internet and through technology, you could get people who are no longer with the company or experts from various fields to provide some of that coaching support to your people on your behalf. Technology in this case unlocks a supply-and-demand market that exists but which currently doesn’t have a channel to operate.

KC: I think corporate culture has gotten a bad rap; corporate culture can be negative, but these days you see an awful lot of positive stuff coming out of corporate culture, especially when it comes to embracing change. It’s no different on the asset management side.

We’ve always had a culture of how we do things, but I think we’re trying to create something that’s more accepting, more tolerant, and able to adjust rapidly. That last part wasn’t normal for us – culture doesn’t change rapidly – but I think many of the Gen Xers, and most of the Gen Ys and Zs, are really driving for change if it’s the right thing to do.

Q3. Are digital asset management technologies (from condition monitoring and mobility to AR/VR) mature enough for industry to keep newer, more digitally native maintenance and reliability workers from leaving?

NR: The people I talk to are still fighting to get basic practices set up. So, if we start there and get the basics mastered, then it creates an environment where newer MRO workers can come in and do what they do best. It will allow them to implement what they have learned. Instead of walking into chaos – firefighting mode, reactive mode – people with more-advanced skills can come in and start enhancing.

For example, condition-based maintenance and advanced monitoring technology can be hugely advantageous. But if you’ve got an organization that’s running from fire to fire and now you bring them this “shiny object,” they’re likely going to look at you and say, “Huh?” If we’ve got the basics sorted out, then I think it creates the environment for digitally trained people to come in and thrive and want to stay.

KC: Just the other day, I noticed I’ve got some kind of virtual or augmented reality demonstration by another company at least once a week. You look at these demos and go, “Wow, that’s really cool,” then you think, “Yeah, we’re not quite there.” However, the technology is so far ahead of what we need right now that our needs are now starting to move toward what technology can actually do.

AI is another technology like this, all of a sudden allowing us to look at things the way we never knew that we could look at them before, and now our needs are shifting towards that new capability. So we’re trying to stay ahead of that curve by looking at everything that comes our way so that we stay up and hopefully ahead of the needs of our clients.

SG: I think technologies would be one element of what we call interesting work. I also think Millennials are a little bit different from my generation and their parents’ generation, in that we focused on what was meaningful work. But for Millennials, it also has to be interesting work and probably the technology can make that happen for them. For example, if a planner could sit in a room and put on some VR gear and look at a rig that’s out there, hundreds of miles away at sea, then that’s probably interesting work.

In addition to that, no matter what the work is, if the environment itself is not conducive to people growing and excelling and doing that work, then people are still going to leave. That said, we also have to realize that part of the Millennial journey is to chase experience, so organizations probably have to let go of the notion that employees will give them more than a few years of service. Again, I’m not a Millennial, but I chase experience, sometimes over and above salary, and definitely over and above tenure. We just have to get accustomed to the fact that people are not looking for a 20-year engagement anymore and put some focus into organizational learning to retain information while folks revolve.

CW: The production plant is a world in itself and unfortunately closed off from the outside world to some extent, and (it) tends to look internally to solve its own problems – or just choose to live with them.

What makes sense to me is for manufacturers to pick two or three of their largest problems and get clear about the cost and the consequence of those problems. If there is no existing technological product on the market to address those problems, then partner with a technology company that can build you something, even if it’s high-technology, like virtual reality or augmented reality, to create something to solve your specific problem.

A lot of these technologies are developed by tech people – software developers, IT people – who haven’t lived the experience of a plant person. The result is that you have brilliant technologies being developed that just aren’t practical for the intended application. This is an incredible waste in itself.

Q4. Also in the workforce survey, 48% of respondents indicated that they are targeting four-year schools as their primary recruitment pipeline, compared with 30% for two-year schools, 22% for adult education, and 21% for high schools. (31% are not targeting schools or workforce organizations at all.) For organizations facing recruitment challenges, what advice would you offer?

KC: My encouragement to a lot of people is just go out there and make sure that you’re getting yourself a little bit of training, a little bit of studying up so that you can begin to understand what’s coming. The best thing about AI and machine learning and tech like that is maintenance and reliability is one of its primary targets. We have trillions of dollars in assets around the world and it’s potentially the biggest business in the world: managing assets. And we can’t let our assets fail as much these days.

Automation and AI are going to change the face of how we do work, how we see work, and just our overall view of work. I saw a statistic the other day that said that AI next year is estimated to eliminate 1.8 million jobs in the U.S., which most people look at that as incredibly scary, but then it came back and it said that AI is going to create 2.3 million jobs.

That’s a bump up by half a million, and that’s why I encourage people all the time to make sure you get out there and get just a little bit of education on the technology that’s coming. You don’t have to be a technologist. You just have to understand how it works and qualify yourself for the next job.

CW:  I think the opportunity that’s missing is that education itself doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be successful in a job. A bigger determinant of success is your natural capacity to do the type of work needed, and education is not necessarily a good indicator of that.

The best high-skilled mechanic may or may not be great at college, right? They may not even be good at high school-type work, but if you put an engine in front of them and say, “Hey, get this thing to put out 30% more horsepower,” they can figure it out, and that’s the kind of propensity you want.

The challenge with the U.S. educational system is that we don’t necessarily channel people into that career track at the right stage. So I think the challenge is for companies to find a way to look for people with a propensity for the work. It could be people in the military, people in middle or high school, people with prior convictions for crimes, or people from other countries. I’ve seen more forward-thinking companies trying to open up the umbrella to look wider instead of higher up the education chain to find the right talent. That’s probably the way to go.

NR: I think it depends largely on the position that’s being filled, because certain positions require formal education. Generally speaking, someone’s formal education is not as important as their attitude and their experience in our industry. But formal education takes a lot of hard work and stick-to-itiveness and that demonstrates commitment.

When I graduated with my degree in aerospace engineering, on the last day of the semester, my Aircraft Design 2 professor came to class and slammed a book down on the desk. He looked at all of us and said, “OK, you’re now engineers, which means you have a license to learn.” That taught me that formal education has to be mixed with mastering the work that you do once you’re out there.

SG: I’m going to be frank and honest. I spent most of my growing up professionally on a cement plant. Some of those jobs are a tough sell to begin with. They’re not glamorous, no matter how you slice and dice it. However, there are people for those jobs, if they are aware of the jobs, what they are, and the benefits of doing them. Organizations have to now do a bit more planning around the competencies that they need and shape the workforce deliberately to match that, versus the urgent filling of vacancies that seems to be the order of the day.

I think that all of this is going to lead to a resurgence in apprenticeship programs. I see a kind of resurgence with multi-stakeholder participation, the kind of apprenticeship that will probably be more at the city, state, and provincial levels and will have governments and industry participating with academia to create a continuous pipeline of people to industrial jobs. By that I also mean the technical jobs that don’t necessarily require a four-year degree.

I know it sounds odd because I’m also one of those “degreed” people, but I tell you, I would be over the moon if my daughter decided to become a carpenter. More education does not necessarily mean a four-year degree. We want to create opportunities for someone to love (taking), to become a journeyperson and excel academically, professionally, and financially as a journeyperson if they so desire.