Why maintenance should take national priority

April 2, 2008
Joel Leonard is leading a movement to move maintenance up on the list of national priorities.

I recently contributed to the Competitiveness Council Compete 2.0 Skills Report that was sent to the U.S. Congress, advisers at the White House and to each presidential candidate’s campaign. The report describes how to support the “Reliability Nation” initiative. I want to share with you some of the specific steps with the hope that it sparks more ideas to propel our industries and country forward.

From the compete 2.0 Skills Report

Many experts, including myself, believe that America is in the midst of a major maintenance crisis, caused by retirement of millions of skilled maintenance technicians and maintenance professionals, lack of interest in the profession by future generations, widespread reliance on increasingly complex new equipment with inadequate budgets for training, and old equipment that continues to age and require more maintenance. A perfect maintenance storm is brewing, and it’s forming largely below radar of our movers and shakers.

The basic question that every employer should be asking is: “What is the product coming out of the maintenance department?” The typical answer will be reactive: The purpose of maintenance is to repair broken equipment. But, the true product of any maintenance department isn’t repair; it’s capacity. Even as companies substitute technology for labor in machine operations, they need more maintenance workers for the machine operators. The highly sophisticated, automated systems require even more care and attention to keep plants running at optimal levels.

When people think of this field, they see Bubbas and Skeeters. But, the maintenance stereotype of grease monkey is way off the mark. Industry now needs skilled technicians, not only for mechanical systems, but also electrical and electronic control systems, as well as for sophisticated predictive maintenance technologies like vibration analysis, ultrasonic leak detection and infrared thermography.

As business and government leaders strive to fund bleeding-edge ideas to get cutting-edge results and competitive advantages in a global marketplace, they need to remember that we also must polish the rusty edge of business. In other words, we can't forget to perform proper maintenance of the hydraulic, electronic and electrical systems that sustain us today, as we strive to develop biotech and nanotech solutions for tomorrow.

If we want a competitive edge in the global marketplace, we must convert  our current maintenance weakness into a strength. If we become the Reliability Nation by building a strong foundation of skilled technicians, uptime performance strategies and reliability systems, our country will become more prosperous, and more high-paying jobs will be generated, and stay, in the United States.

How do we make Reliability Nation a reality?

First, we must remove the stigmas associated with perceptions of maintenance. This is probably the hardest step. Why are there so many “American Idol” and athletic wannabes? Because we’ve glorified those activities in the media. Entire television channels are dedicated to glorifying athletes and celebrities. Meanwhile, the best maintenance technicians are kept in the shadows. That is where SkillTV can help. We’ll be interviewing the best of the best and sharing their stories with media outlets like CNBC and other news programs.

Second, we must share the vision. The biggest contributing factor to substandard performance in maintenance is that most people in our society don’t understand that our true purpose is to provide capacity. The maintenance professional’s value isn’t in the problems that get solved but in the problems that never arise because of maintenance handiwork.

We need to break the SILOS: the self-interested locations of our society. We need to get engineers into classrooms and invite more students and parents to tour our plants. Invite HR directors, who need technicians, to speak to high-school guidance counselors.

By building these bridges we can develop stronger feeder systems from high schools to manufacturing facilities.

We need to develop incentives for older or retired workers to mentor groups of future technicians. We also need to challenge MBA programs to educate future business leaders about the profit contribution maintenance and reliability programs can provide. We need enlightened CEOs to help glorify maintenance in the media. We are already doing that with SkillTV, and will be dedicating more segments to this important activity.

Third, we must adopt national reliability and maintenance standards for technicians, supervisors and managers. For current workers to receive performance increases and for future workers to gain employment, each maintenance professional should earn certification to prove mastery of specific skill-sets and knowledge proficiencies. The outstanding initial work that SMRP and EFNMS have done on establishing maintenance professional standards could be used as a foundation for these future National Maintenance and Reliability Performance Standards.

I would love your input on further steps we can take to “maintain” our competitive advantage in the global marketplace, so we can add your perspective to future dialogues with government leaders. Please send feedback and suggestions to me at the address below. Then stay tuned for future updates on these exciting developments in the fight against the maintenance crisis.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected].

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