Workforce development: Why maintenance and reliability professionals are in high demand

July 20, 2022
Manufacturing plants continue to struggle meeting their workforce needs, and it’s changing how companies hire and train workers.

Manufacturing is not alone in its struggle to meet workforce needs. Many industries are fraught to replace retiring workers with a new, younger workforce, but manufacturing, in particular, has some other unique and potentially damaging impacts affecting its thriving workforce. From 1945 to 1975, the United States dominated the world in technology development. We had the world’s highest productivity economy, and GDP growth was close to 4%. Over the next three decades, as global competition grew and Germany and Japan established themselves in the manufacturing economy, U.S. GDP dropped to 3% with some periods as low as 2%. Following the 2007 recession, GDP fell to a dismal 2.1%.

The country made some slow economic recovery since then, but its diminished presence in the global economy has mirrored diminishing jobs in manufacturing. And the jobs left largely remain unfilled. Now, as new technologies demand a more skilled workforce, industry is scrambling to make up for decades of lost investment to develop the next industrial workforce.

How U.S. manufacturing rebuilds what it has lost

The U.S. manufacturing machine once changed the course of a world war and dominated global enterprise. So what happened and how did the world’s manufacturing leader fall from its throne? William B. Bonvillian and Sanjay E. Sarma explore this backdrop and what created the current workforce and its problems in their book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap. They explore solutions for employers and the education system, as well as new education technologies that can boost the scale of adoption.

The vast research for the book grew out of the Workforce Education Project, an effort started in 2018 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Office of Open Learning program. Bonvillian is a lecturer at MIT in the Program in Science, Technology and Society and senior director of special projects at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning. Sarma is the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

The authors focus in large part on industry because the successes and failures of U.S. manufacturing reverberate far beyond factories and its suppliers. Manufacturing is intrinsically tied to the U.S. economy, they argue. Three sectors account for more than 30% of the workforce: retail, healthcare, and manufacturing. That includes 12.8 manufacturing workers, according to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manufacturing has long been understood as the economy’s largest job multiplier. “Growth in manufacturing output encourages additional output and growth in other sectors, both directly and indirectly, in terms of jobs, investment, and innovation,” Bonvillian and Sarma wrote. Considering the entire industry value chain, manufacturing could account for up to one-third of GDP and employment. When manufacturing thrives, so does the U.S. economy.

In the summer of 1791 in Philadelphia, Alexander Hamilton drafted his “Report on Manufacturers,” for Congress. “Hamilton was arguing that American independence from the era’s contending great powers, and ultimately its liberty, would depend on building a strong manufacturing sector,” Bonvillian and Sarma said. The United States did achieve this liberty and established itself as a global manufacturing power, yet why have we fallen so far?

Bonvillian and Sarma argue that just as the country’s weakened presence in the global economy reflects diminishing manufacturing jobs, this decline is also mirrored in falling U.S. incomes and a widening gap between classes. U.S. median household income has been stagnant since the 2007 recession, a time which also resulted in dramatic losses in manufacturing jobs.

To make sense of the changing class dynamics, the authors describe a model introduced by their MIT colleague David Autor, which graphs occupational employment. The data takes on a barbell shape, indicating a thriving upper middle class and a growing service sector with lower-end, lower-paying jobs on each end, leaving a thinning out of the middle class, represented as the handle of the barbell. His analysis also examines where the declines are taking place: in middle skill jobs.

”Examining a third of a century, Autor identified ten broad occupational categories and found that four core middle-skill occupations—production worker, sales, office worker, and machine operator—accounted for 60% of American jobs in 1979. By 2012, these categories had fallen to 46%,” Bonvillian and Sarma said. Manufacturing used to be a common path to the U.S. middle class, but the erosion of the middle class and growing wage inequality, the authors argue, are leaving the working class behind.

Middle skills jobs are becoming more and more technical, and workers without some advanced education can often no longer follow that career path. The discussion around the semantics of workforce characterization even tell an interesting story about how this country views industrial work. In 2017, the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s “Building America’s Skilled Technical Workforce” report urged dropping the term “middle skills,” which it said carried a pejorative connotation, for “skilled technical workforce.”

Bonvillian and Sarma also introduce a term from IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, who describes those with the skills needed in areas such as cybersecurity analysis, app development, and cloud computing implementation, as “new-collar” workers. “They are a far cry from blue-collar workers doing rote assembly in Henry Ford’s River Rouge Ford plant, but they don’t require four-year degrees,” Bonvillian and Sarma said. Their research aligns U.S. manufacturing workers into three categories: lower-skill assemblers and basic production workers (which once dominated but no longer); middle-skill workers, such as machinists, technicians, welders, and other skilled workers (which have seen significant growth in the last two decades); and high-skilled workers, including engineers, researchers, and scientists.

The lack of focus on training and education programs to funnel workers toward manufacturing jobs in those areas that are expanding has exacerbated the economic problems for industry, as it now tries to play catch up. Bonvillian and Sarma argue that not only does the U.S. lack a unified workforce education system, the labor market information system to connect workers and employers is also broken. The building blocks for a meaningful system exist, but they remain disparate and difficult to scale. It’s a regionally influenced problem that needs a national answer.

Many successful workforce education programs are thriving across the country in small pockets, but the current workforce needs require a more organized, wide-scale effort. Online, on-demand technologies hold great promise for scaling workforce education, and other education technology (or EdTech) can get upskilling programs and new education paradigms in front of more new and younger workers. These online tools are also particularly effective for hands-on learning or learning by doing techniques, which are prevalent in middle skills training.

Their book outlines the tools this country already has in place and what we need to revitalize the U.S. industrial workforce, but none of it is a quick solution. There is urgency to scale these solutions, but it will still take time, attention, and funding to coalesce. But many companies have staffing issues that need to be solved in the short term, so what can they do now? In the chapter about how to frame new educational content for competency-based programs or certificates, the authors make mention of something important, a theme that was also reverberated throughout recent industry discussions on workforce issues and represents a small step that employers can take now to strengthen their workforce.

In addition to technical skills, workers need what are referred to as soft skills or social skills. The National Network of Business and Industry calls them personal skills: integrity, initiative, dependability and reliability, adaptability and professionalism; and people skills or interpersonal skills: teamwork, communication and respect. The Center for Third Space Thinking at the University of Southern California identified five core soft skills: adaptability, cultural competency, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and 360-degree thinking.

According to David Deming, a professor at Harvard University and expert in social and educational policy, the labor market is rewarding social skills more and more. Expanding team production means more jobs require high levels of social interaction, and employers need flexible workers that can adapt to changing work conditions.

Soft skills for maintenance and reliability professionals

The discussion around interpersonal or soft skills was a part of the panel discussion on workforce development at the Society of Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) Denver symposium in May. “Curiosity, I think it’s a key attribute for good operators and maintenance techs,” said Jason Bolte, CMRP, CMRT, continuous improvement manager at Ardent Mills. “They’re going to be curious about the business we’re in.” He is also a big fan of transitioning qualified operators into maintenance positions. “I think what makes a good operator makes a good maintenance technician. You’re curious, you’re hands-on, you know your equipment and you take ownership in it,” Bolte said. A special soft skill for maintenance, stubbornness, as in a persistence to fix difficult problems, Bolte said, can also be a virtue for reliability engineers and technicians.

The panel also discussed many small and simple suggestions to implement for employee training and mentoring, attracting new workers, retaining good workers, and enhancing knowledge transfer.

While training as a whole is lacking in industry for new and incumbent workers, Bolte suggested that plants also need training for senior workers to help give them direction on how to transfer their knowledge to younger workers. Train the trainers, and likewise, make sure younger employees have a clear career path.

The Ardent Mills training program includes in-house developed video training and some high-quality training material from YouTube. “I think you can find plenty of junk out there,” Bolte said. “But I think if you’re looking for something specific, like setting the gap in a bearing, there’s a lot of valuable stuff out there [on YouTube].”

The two-year training program at Ardent Mills is a combination of video training and traditional textbook and worksheets. “I think keeping it simple but having a strategy is a good start,” Bolte said. You don’t need a long, complicated assessment. “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good, and stop you from doing something that will build up the skills to make your technicians feel valued,” Bolte added.

The industry brain drain from the retiring workforce requires mentoring in the field as well classroom training. “I see it over and over again when people retire,” said Dave Reynolds, owner of Midlands Reliability & Consulting. “There’s no mentoring of his skills to that next person. It’s assumed that with the training that the young person will attend, he will be able to pick up right where the last employee left off, and that’s not necessarily the case.” But mentoring is not easily done at facilities, Reynolds added. Finding the time for one-on-one training or sitting down off the floor can be difficult. The process also needs to involve some type of skills assessment, Reynolds suggested. “Anybody can hook a laser alignment machine and push buttons,” Reynolds said. “But when it tells you to do something, you have to understand what to do. What’s causing this problem?”

Training should also include information about the employee’s career path and the company and its products. “All of those things help in that attitude of the employees because now they have a clearer picture of what the objective is,” Reynolds said.

Flexibility is another big theme for new workers. The double-edge sword is that maintenance teams are short-handed, so those techs that companies do have are often asked to work extra shifts and long hours. “You have a tendency to potentially burn them out, and then they’re more apt to leave,” Bolte said.

He thinks it’s also important to recognize that maintenance and reliability is a skilled position. “Not everybody is wired for maintenance and troubleshooting,” Bolte said. Promote individuals for the right reasons, but make sure they’re suited for technical work, or dedicate the time and resources necessary to develop them.

At some Ardent Mills sites, operators can work overtime hours with maintenance to observe and practice. “It allows our company to see if maybe they have some potential and this might be somebody we want to consider for a new maintenance position,” Bolte said. “The sites that are successful with that are the ones that aren’t super lean, because the last thing that you are able to do is double up people for training, especially when you’re already short staffed.”

A standardized skills assessment for workers is also an on-going project at Ardent Mills. Starting in 2020, the team identified 100 maintenance skills, and they’re working on how to assess or rate those skills. The ratings will form a skills matrix to assess current skill levels, but ultimately guide a personal training plan for each employee.

Job seeker market drives a refined hiring process

Chris Pepin, founder of Progressive Reliability, a talent acquisition firm for maintenance and reliability professionals, and Adrian Messer, CMRP, vice president of executive services at the company, help facilities find and hire qualified candidates, but also help companies upgrade their hiring process. “It’s not just about having the right talent, but getting the talent through the door, and through the process with an offer letter in hand ready to start faster than everybody else,” Pepin said. Companies need to think about the candidate experience, he added, even amongst the perfect storm of overwhelmed managers facing understaffed facilities.

Not only are companies strapped to fill positions, but candidates also appreciate a fast and fluid process, especially in a competitive market. For example, Pepin said they have helped companies combine hiring process steps, such as a written test and on-site interview, which might typically be done in two visits.

In the current market, Messer said they coach hiring managers or decision makers to act quicker. “As we know, right now, it’s a job seekers market,” Messer said. “If they’ve got somebody highly qualified, they’ve got to act quicker than ever on that candidate in order not to lose that candidate.”

Pepin likes companies to hire within three candidates. Across the maintenance and reliability industry on average, he estimates that the ratio is closer to one out of seven candidates. With a tight process and filtered, qualified candidates, “It only takes three people to fill the job,” Pepin said.

Once companies get new candidates in the door, it takes continued work to make them long-term employees. Culture, training, and access to growth are key factors for attracting new employees, Pepin said. Some companies also need training on building that culture, so they know how to give employees an environment for career growth. He also said that experienced, niche candidates in maintenance and reliability want a developed preventive maintenance culture too. “There has to be opportunity to grow,” Pepin said. “There has to be room to learn.”

Many companies fear that if they train employees, they will leave with that training. But a culture that promotes training and development and the proper tools to develop the right skills will retain good talent, Pepin said. “As technology changes, new skills are going to be needed,” Messer said. “We’ve got to continue to develop the workforce and train them to the current skill level that’s needed to do their jobs effectively and reliably.”

Who bears the burden of technical skills education, schools or industry? While the onus is often put on schools to bring back skilled trades, companies need to have involvement in identifying the needed technical skills and the training gaps, Messer said. “Companies have got to get more creative on developing their own programs to identify kids at an early age who have an aptitude for electrical and mechanical type work and begin to work with those kids and develop those skills at an earlier age,” Messer said.

The generational culture clash and competitive market fuel the staffing war

Joel Crawford, sales officer at I-care Reliability Inc., also presented at the SMRP Denver symposium. In his presentation “Maintenance and Reliability Hiring Managers, Enough is Enough,” he said the number one challenge facing plant managers is recruitment. “That’s what keeps plant managers up because they’re going day to day, week to week with positions that are going unfilled,” Crawford said.

Ten years ago when Crawford began in the maintenance and reliability industry, he was primarily helping companies develop reliability positions and programs. Certification programs have helped advance the reliability and maintenance industry, and companies are less concerned with the basics of program development. They know best practices and what they’re looking for, Crawford said. They just can’t find the staff they need.

Another problem with reliability engineers is attrition, Crawford said. Companies plan and hire a reliability engineer to focus on preventive maintenance and then that engineer is constantly pulled away to deal with emergencies. “I’ve learned that reliability engineers will last a very short amount of time working in a reactive plan. If they signed up to build something, if they want to go build a reliability / proactive maintenance department, there’s a lifespan to that, if they’re constantly pulled back into reactive work,” Crawford said.

For some companies, it’s a dramatic change in culture. “Because of the way plants have historically run, and then now the new generation is coming in with expectations on what they want that job to look like, there’s this culture clash,” Crawford said. “And it’s affected the way plants are operating.” It’s also affecting attrition rates, which are at an all-time high, he said.

In talking with reliability engineers that left the field for something else, Crawford said, usually it comes back down to company culture and the maintenance program budget and support. Be upfront with candidates about the plant’s current state, Crawford said. If the maintenance program is a mess and 90% reactive, let them know. “Also let them know what you’re doing as a leader to move the needle and find new candidates to make change over a period of time,” he said.

According to the U.S. Staffing Association, retirement is ramping up, on average 10,000 per day in 2019. By 2025, Crawford said it’s predicted 2.5 million technical positions will go unfilled. In 2019, according to, the U.S. had 100,000 reliability engineering job openings.

All of this has led to a “hyper competitive market,” Crawford said. The pandemic has only heightened the Great Resignation, as more workers got a taste of working from home and more flexible schedules.

Of the open positions today, 94% of those are going to be filled by word of mouth, Crawford said. “It’s not going to be through recruitment; it’s not going to be by going to job career fairs; it’s not going to technical schools; it is going to be working with your employees, working their networks, engaging them, and pulling in people they’ve worked with in the past,” Crawford said. And companies are realizing this now, he said, as evidenced by the vast use of LinkedIn and recruiters. “Most companies right now, most Fortune 500 companies, most of their messaging on social media platforms is around people. It has nothing to do with the product,” Crawford said. “It’s all based around their people, the people working at the plants. They highlight a plant manager or they highlight an engineering manager or operator because they’re trying to show what the culture is.”

“It’s very, very competitive in today’s landscape,” Crawford said. Selective candidate engagement is a big mistake; instead, “try to find those people out there that you think you can make into rockstars over a period of time if you put the right training curriculum behind them, and the right support and mentor,” he said.

Similarly, where many workers and industries have been affected by economic downturns or more recently, the pandemic, companies often found reasons to cut training programs or apprenticeships or cut maintenance budgets. “Companies now are scrambling. Now it’s a war for talent because they did nothing during the last 20 years for succession planning, for knowledge transfer, for mentoring,” Crawford said.

Just as potential workers are looking for more flexibility, companies need to welcome more flexibility in the job application process and even, the final job description. Why do companies write a job description for each opening describing the ideal candidate? It’s likely that position has been open for a long time, and they need someone to hit the ground running. The job description goes to human resources, who will post for the job and review candidates. “They’re going to live and work in the job description that you create,” Crawford said. “You’re setting the expectation right out of the gate with that very first job description.” In some cases, you may be extending the time that job will remain open.

Maintenance teams need to work closely with human resources. “Because they have very similar jobs as you do, where they’re doing a little bit of everything at all different times, they get pulled in a million different directions. And you’re going to want to build some sort of unified approach with them,” Crawford said.

Hiring and training employees the way you’ve always done won’t work anymore, Crawford said, like this common hiring misnomer: we don’t want anybody that’s jumped around from job to job. “Why?” Crawford asked. He’s seen many examples of tragic circumstances, personal and global, that have affected employment across the country. More and more, workers are interested in contract work, or the gig economy, where gig workers make their living with multiple part-time jobs over one full-time job. “So again, it’s living in the reality of what’s happening in this market,” Crawford said. This will require new ways of thinking and new practices.

Company culture, hiring processes, and employee training also need to consider generational changes and adjust to some of the new ways of living. Twenty years ago, Gen-Xers were driven by career growth, working their way up the proverbial job ladder. For Millennials and probably even more so for Gen-Z, it’s work flexibility that drives their career choices.

It can be difficult for older workers who have worked the overtime hours and weekends and emergency work, and they’re watching a newer generation in the plant that won’t work like that. “That starts to hurt the culture,” Crawford said. “If you think that they can’t feel that tension at a plant, and they can’t feel frustration from a maintenance manager or a plant manager, you’re wrong. Because I could feel it.” Sometimes Crawford can feel it on a day visit, watching how employees interact and the way they talk to each other. Too much tension and frustration can create a closed-door culture, where people leave and knowledge dies.

Companies need a more streamlined hiring process, and communication is key, Crawford said. Build transparency and show the candidate what to expect in the process. Don’t go weeks without communication. The hiring process needs the same standardization that they seek in reliability programs. “Standardize all the activities from job description, creation, all the way down to onboarding and find out who’s responsible? Who’s accountable, who supports and who informs and who does what, and what’s the established timeline to get each item done?” Crawford said.

“Onboarding is your last chance to make a first impression,” Crawford said. “Working in your culture, you have a chance to give them a really good experience and a thorough onboarding and a lot of added communication and make them feel comfortable and motivated moving into their job.”

Old model, new version: Festo’s foundation in education and training

Education and training are part of the foundation of Festo, which began as a woodworking machinery manufacturer. The company introduced a pneumatic cylinder in the early twentieth century, which used compressed air to provide force instead of traditional clamps.

Festo Didactic Inc., the industrial workforce development brand of Festo, sells training equipment and curriculums to technical schools to educate the workforce of the future, and it works directly with companies on custom training solutions. When companies purchase automation equipment from Festo, Festo Didactic can also perform on-site and personalized training on the new technology.

One of Festo Didactic’s flagship products is a cyber-physical (CP) factory. “It’s basically a miniaturized, laboratory-sized version of complete factory processes,” said Sean O’Grady, director of operations for Festo Didactic. “So assembly and machining or storage and sensor technologies and PLCs interface with industrial networks and safety and robotics and security.” The classroom-sized, factory process simulation allows students to work with actual industrial equipment.

“The sophistication of those products continues to evolve, and where we are right now, and where most of the skill evolution that we see taking place over the next couple of years, are taking folks with traditional factory maintenance backgrounds and helping them to become experts at Industry 4.0 technology,” O’Grady said.

In June, Festo Didactic announced a new partnership with PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies to provide advanced technical education and hands-on training for the industry. The packaging and processing machine builders are at the cutting edge of many different factory automation technologies, he added. PMMI also plays an active role in supporting education surrounding its industry technology and different certifications on a wide array of highly technical topics. “Since that’s exactly in line with our mission, it was just a natural partnership,” O’Grady said.

PMMI works to evaluate the talent level throughout the packaging and processing industries, with training and development opportunities and connecting employers to the workforce. The PMMI Mechatronics Certification program was developed to help education institutions create industrial maintenance programs that align with the technical needs of manufacturers, preparing students for careers in advanced manufacturing. Festo Didactic’s mechatronics learning solutions will provide lab equipment and education content for PMMI’s mechatronics certifications.

Festo Didactic also specializes in customized training programs because the amount of time that employees have for training is quite limited. “We have to be very targeted in how we use that time,” O’Grady said. “Our programs are very customized to exactly what topics they need.”

Festo Didactic has several products that use augmented reality technology, which can overlay fault information on equipment images via a tablet or cell phone. “Understanding how to access those technologies and interact with them is something that not many factories are doing yet. And then the skills required to actually develop and deploy those applications so that the factory worker can pull their phone out of their pocket and tell what’s wrong with the machine, rather than even having to get a maintenance person involved is where that part of the industry is going,” O’Grady said.

O’Grady thinks industry is also still fighting the image of manufacturing as a dirty, dark and dangerous place. Parents don’t encourage their kids to work in those environments. “Once people actually tour a modern factory and see what it’s actually like to work in them and get to meet people that are doing those jobs every day, some of the jobs themselves are very interesting,” O’Grady said. But often, students and workers realize the potentials of manufacturing too late, before they can capitalize on training in their early years.

This spring semester Festo Didactic ran its first pre-apprenticeship program with students about ready to graduate high school. “One kid said, ‘I always thought I was just not a good learner. I always struggled with things, but being in this factory and doing things hands-on with machinery just made sense to me’,” O’Grady recalled. The program hopes to reach those students earlier.

Traditionally, Festo Didactic takes a three-pronged approach to its education programs. It works with schools on turnkey package curriculum and training for incumbent workers on specific gaps in their current training. The company also works with industry directly to assess what issues the facility is having and form a foundation list of technologies to solve those problems. This includes assessing the current knowledge level relative to applicable standards for the plant’s operation and design a training program to close the gap.

“And then the third prong, this is where there’s so much potential to be the marriage between the school and the company,” O’Grady said. This apprenticeship-like program or dual enrollment education system, which is very prevalent in Europe, is seeing more interest in the U.S., O’Grady said. As an example, a typical student would go to a local community college one day a week for classroom work, then spend one day a week at Festo doing hands-on technical training with the equipment, and then the other three days a week working with their employer practicing new skills.

“It’s very clear that dropping the 100% German model into the U.S. market does not work,” O’Grady said. “But we’re finding that employers are very willing to be flexible about how they apply apprentice programs. Frankly, sometimes the term itself gets in the way a little bit.”

Funding still remains an issue for many apprenticeship programs. O’Grady was talking with a German colleague about the lack of adoption of the dual enrollment program here. In Germany, the government essentially pays for the program. German companies cover the cost of apprenticeships but essentially receive tax cuts to cover costs. For now, companies in the U.S. aren’t receiving the same kind of government support.

“If an employer has a strong employee who meets their values and wants to grow and learn new things, they love the opportunity to work with an apprentice program that is tailored to their needs,” O’Grady said. “And so we’re finding a lot of support, even from the government, to certify these apprentice programs to exactly what it is that local industry wants.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Anna Townshend
Anna Townshend has been a writer and journalist for almost 20 years. Previously, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and was International Dredging Review, until she joined Putman Media in June 2020. She is the managing editor of Control Design and Plant Services.
About the Author

Anna Townshend | managing editor

Anna Townshend has been a journalist and editor for almost 20 years. She joined Control Design and Plant Services as managing editor in June 2020. Previously, for more than 10 years, she was the editor of Marina Dock Age and International Dredging Review. In addition to writing and editing thousands of articles in her career, she has been an active speaker on industry panels and presentations, as well as host for the Tool Belt and Control Intelligence podcasts. Email her at [email protected].

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