The Silent Skills in US Manufacturing

This year, in my capacity as grandfather to a posse of 12, I spent a fair amount of holiday time reading aloud about Grinches and reindeer and lights in the sky. Being a bit of a Grinch, myself, I also spent time getting caught up on material from the Plant Services web site. There I found a link to a remarkable report on the subject of the manufacturing skill shortage in the United States. (

It turns out that if you lay a lot of people off, they go other places and you lose their skills. It also turns out that if you do it at the precise moment that the baby boomers who possess half the skill in the workforce are starting to retire in droves, the problem deepens. Go figure.

One of the most interesting findings, to me at least, was that the hardest people to replace are not the trades workers, though they are in very short supply. At least there are apprenticeship programs available to train tradespeople. The hardest people to replace are the skilled production workers. These people are the products of years of experience in fields like hard turning, cold heading, cutter tool grinding, heat treatment, chemical processing, and hundreds more industrial specialties.

If we extend the same logic, though, we can find even rarer workers that must be replaced. In a sheet metal working or cold heading plant, there may be dozens or hundreds of the people who work in the operations that make up the plants' primary businesses. A cold heading plant may add a hundred or more worker-years of experience to the workforce as a byproduct of a year's operation. The same is true of the primary process workers in all other kinds of plants. The really rare, but essential people are the skilled workers in support functions. Included in this group are several groups of specialists in condition monitoring, planned maintenance (PdM) and related fields. A factory that employs a hundred production workers may employ only a few, say, vibration analysis or oil and chemical analysis specialists. Such a plant may only generate 3 to 5 worker years' experience in the support functions. A layoff here might easily wipe out half or more of the skill base.

Consultants and contractors are, of course, available in most fields, and they can be used to good effect. There is no substitute, though, for the specialist who not only knows his or her trade, but also knows your plant intimately. Even if there is high-tech remote monitoring installed in your factory, you still want local expertise in the relevant technologies to make the connection between plant maintenance and remote analytical support.

The moral here is that, even though cost reduction is sometimes a market-driven necessity, don't forget the silent skills that you have nurtured. They often revolutionize fields like maintenance and reliability, delivering improved OEE and huge multiples of their cost to the bottom line.

If layoffs and retirements have created a critical depletion of the silent skills, equipment producers, remote analysis consultants, and training firms do offer courses in the support skills. Adding some skills to your current workforce may be a more productive approach than trying to hire specialists in all your support fields. Some trainers can be reached through the search function on the Plant Services home page. Others can be reached through the usual web search engines.

With the silent skills in place at your factory, you'll have more time away from the plant to read to your posse at home. Or you can be a Grinch and spend the time sharpening your own skills.