Steps to address the critical skills shortage in industrial maintenance

Steps to address the critical skills shortage in industrial maintenance

Jan. 5, 2024
Jeff Shiver shares short- and long-term approaches to overcome the lack of qualified maintenance and reliability workers.

In the most recent NAM Manufacturers Outlook Survey (Q3 2023), more than 72% of manufacturers cited the inability to attract and retain employees as their primary challenge. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that 3.1 million jobs in maintenance and repair occupations will be added between 2021 and 2031 due to retirements and new growth requirements for maintenance. 

But if you have recently spent time in a manufacturing plant, this is not news, as you are likely acutely aware of the pain caused by the lack of qualified resources. The unfilled rate for industrial maintenance positions is high, ranging from 10% to 30% based on the role and location. In a four-team shift rotation, a 25% vacancy rate means that one team position must be covered by overtime or contract resources, or the shift does not have coverage during production.

Given the skills shortage, when maintenance technicians are hired, they lack the necessary skills and knowledge relative to the ones they are replacing. One group of technicians commented that since they could not find the skill level in applicants, Human Resources has defaulted to finding “warm bodies.” And it's only going to get worse. The 2023 NAM report, "The Skills Gap and Workforce Needs Survey," found that 28% of manufacturers expect more than 25% of their workforce to retire within the next five years. In many organizations, you can almost hear the sound of the vacuum as workers exit the door, as 20-plus years of knowledge leave.

Let’s discuss the fixes in terms of short- and long-term approaches.

For the short term

Stop relying primarily on tribal knowledge. Capture and share the knowledge wealth by documenting the work. Ensure your equipment hierarchy is accurate and that you have valid preventive maintenance (PM) task plans for each asset as needed to ensure reliability. PM procedures often lack detail, sometimes existing only in name and description, with no tasks. And it happens that you got away with that because Sam was the one who did the PM. He knew what to do to keep it running. What happens when Sam is gone?

Repetitive corrective work requires detailed job plans. There should be one right way to do the job. That’s the role of the planner coupled with a good feedback process. Build a library of corrective and outage job plans. Please don’t tell me you will look up work order history over building the reusable job plan. Work order history does not provide standard work, and without standard work, there are variations in how each technician approaches the job. Don’t forget that self-induced failures (including careless work behaviors) are the largest reason for equipment failures.

For the longer term

Determine the skills and knowledge required to maintain your assets. The data is in your CMMS. Think about the work tasks, when the knowledge was needed (day one or two years in), the frequency of the tasks, and how critical the tasks are. Based on these factors, create a progression matrix of skills and knowledge steps to ascend in the technician ranks. Assess the existing technicians against the matrix to determine their opportunities. Provide education and coaching with the technicians once the gaps are identified. Use the same matrix to develop an apprenticeship program.

Partner with communities. Enrollment in advanced trades like electrical, controls, and instrumentation is not keeping pace with industry demand. I know of one technical college with an industrial maintenance program, the only state-supported institution for a large geographical area. The electrical and instrumentation program only has four students per year. No, that was not a typo—four. And the education is free through the state-funded scholarship program.

This fact highlights that we must change the perceptions of working in the manufacturing industry. We must battle against outdated views that the work is hard and dirty, the hours long with unpredictable shift schedules, and the lack of career advancement opportunities.

Consider speaking in middle and high school career days. Invite students to tour your facilities and show them a day in the life of a maintenance technician, along with the pay potential. That pay is often higher than a four-year academic college degree yields.

Please work with the local technical colleges to improve their curriculums and help drive recruitment. Some organizations create apprenticeships with local colleges that allow the students to work side-by-side with technicians as interns. Doing so gives the individual company the chance to build a relationship with the students leading to full-time employment longer term.

Lastly, change the recruitment practices to be more inclusive. If you have built out your workforce development program, you can take lesser-skilled personnel and educate them.

About the Author

Jeff Shiver | Founder and managing principal at People and Processes, Inc.

Jeff Shiver CMRP is a founder and managing principal at People and Processes, Inc. Jeff guides people to achieve success in maintenance and reliability practices using common sense approaches. Visit or email [email protected].

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