Finding, keeping available workers

By |  March 10, 2017

Historically, a growing labor pool has fueled global economic growth. Today, that fuel supply is in decline around the world as manufacturers and industrial operators contend with the issue of workforce availability – a result of an aging and evolving workforce.

According to Rockwell Automation, this challenge threatens to reduce economic growth by 40 percent, barring a significant acceleration in productivity. It also affects the safety of both older and younger workers significantly. Workforce challenges resulting from aging workers retiring and being replaced by less-experienced early career workers are being felt all over the world. In the United States, about one-third of workers are over the age of 50, and the average age of highly skilled manufacturing workers is 56.

In addition, skilled trades have far fewer 65-and-older workers than other trades, meaning many skilled workers aren’t holding off on retirement. With that, the U.S. could experience a shortfall of 825,000 machinists, equipment operators and welders by 2020, according to “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond” report by Deloitte.

At the same time, evolving technology is transforming manufacturing and industrial operations through deeper visibility, greater connectivity and nearly unlimited potential for improvement.

New skills are needed to take advantage of new technology, and these skills are not easily found in today’s workforce. With demographic changes and technology skills gaps, manufacturers and industrial operators will have to reconsider machinery and facility design methodologies, worker training, technology implementation and safety issues.

Workforce pressures

Photo: wawritto

Skilled worker shortages have emerged as a threat to growth and productivity in multiple industries and regions around the world. The mining industry in Canada will need to hire more than 106,000 workers between 2016 and 2025 based on the current economic climate and forecasted business outlook, the Canadian Mining Industry Employment Hiring Requirements and Available Talent, Mining Industries Human Resources Council report. Nearly half of those workers will be needed to fill the jobs of retiring workers.

Worker safety is another complex issue. Older workers are at higher risk for certain types of injuries. Even those who maintain healthy lifestyles can experience changes in skeletal muscle strength, vision and cognitive abilities, which can impact their job performance.

Younger and less-experienced workers, on the other hand, are more frequently injured and tend to have more acute, serious injuries, according to Rockwell Automation. Several studies show that younger workers (under age 25) have much higher injury rates. This is attributed to inexperience, cognitive and developmental characteristics, hesitance to ask questions and failure to recognize workplace dangers.

In addition, the skills gap also must be considered in context of the changing technology landscape. Manufacturing and industrial operations have evolved far beyond the days of the assembly line when factory workers labored side-by-side, completing repetitive jobs. In fact, Rockwell Automation estimates that industrial operations will more radically change in the next five years than they have in the last 20 years.

As global pressures continue to grow, companies need to find new ways to use advancing internet-ready technologies to meet demand. With that, they must consider the restructuring of roles and responsibilities that need to accompany this transformation.

There are five steps companies can take to prepare operations and empower workers to cope with challenges ahead. Those steps include improving machinery design, building connected enterprises, training workers, leveraging vendors and engaging communities.

Improving machine design

Manufacturers need to improve machinery design to accommodate a changing, diverse workforce. This includes designing machines to assist the physical demands of older workers and the safety requirements of younger, inexperienced workers.

Older workers require less strenuous interaction with machinery, including reduced lifting, bending, twisting and repetitive actions. Younger and inexperienced workers require more passive safety systems to help mitigate risks in the event of an inappropriate action, such as placing a hand in a hazardous position.

In addition, a more diverse workforce requires that machinery be designed for a wider range of workers – male and female, tall and short, right-handed and left-handed and those with disabilities. These combined factors require rethinking in how manufacturers design machinery.

Building connected enterprises

A “connected enterprise” consists of industrial operations that are smart, secure and connected as a whole, according to Rockwell Automation. It allows for the seamless dissemination of information across processes and technologies to enable better collaboration and faster problem solving.

When it comes to helping companies adjust to workforce challenges, a connected enterprise reduces job complexities. Additionally, collecting information from experienced employees and integrating it into workflow instructions can help preserve critical tribal knowledge.

Second, a connected enterprise allows for easy access to information. Mobile devices can help deliver production information to younger workers in a format they are familiar with. Additionally, a connected enterprise reduces travel demands. For instance, older employees tend to be more knowledgeable making them high-demand workers.

With remote-access technology, these employees can offer expertise to sites from around the world or even from home. This improves work-life balance for older workers. It also can enable younger workers to remotely monitor operations of an isolated mining location, which helps to attract younger workers.
Finally, from a safety standpoint, connected enterprises can help identify risks and gain insights into where safety-related shutdowns and incidents are taking place.

Training workers

As experienced workers retire and younger workers take their place, the management of knowledge becomes critical to a company’s survival. Knowledge management in an evolving workforce requires a multifaceted approach. The “tribal knowledge” of older workers must be preserved and passed on to younger workers. Younger workers also need to acquire the technical skills necessary to maintain equipment and troubleshoot problems.

Review training programs and evaluate if they need to be improved, Rockwell Automation adds. First, establish a formal program to document standard processes and procedures to help maintain consistency through the transition of old and new employees. The program should help employees identify exceptions to those procedures.

In addition, conduct an analysis of job skills and knowledge levels to confirm your workers have the knowledge and abilities to perform at a desired level. The analysis should target specific job categories and focus on tasks that affect worker performance.

Leveraging vendors

It makes sense to leverage technical services from industry experts for projects that require specialized skills. This allows you to keep your workers focused on their primary responsibilities. For example, consulting services and some specialized maintenance services might be best performed when provided by vendors with deep knowledge on that subject.

In other instances, external services can augment an existing workforce. In this case, it might be beneficial to let a vendor supply a trained resource to optimize a storeroom or to conduct preventive maintenance activities and quickly diagnose issues when they arise.

One example of external services that can help producers address workforce availability challenges includes network services that might not be available in-house or needed on a daily basis. Also, using outside partners for continuous network monitoring and maintenance can help organizations better manage their networks.

Another example of external services is remote support and remote monitoring services that assist data collection and machine monitoring to identify technical issues. This can be especially valuable in critical processes, round-the-clock operations and operations based in remote locations.

Engaging communities

Engagement in communities and with youth educational programs is critical for preparing future workers for the modern industrial environment. Employers can no longer rely on schools as a key source of workers, as many career-bound students possess different skills and experiences than previous generations.

Younger workers are also less inclined than previous generations to envision themselves working in manufacturing and industrial operations. They perceive industrial jobs as boring and unsafe, Rockwell Automation reports.

Manufacturers and industrial operators must take it upon themselves to alter these perceptions. They need to demonstrate the new face of manufacturing and industrial operations and communicate the array of interesting and financially rewarding jobs that are available.

For example, Rockwell Automation is a strategic partner with For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), a nonprofit organization that helps young people build science, engineering and technology skills. FIRST activities mirror what Rockwell Automation employees do every day, such as working as a team to solve problems and develop solutions with limited resources.

Manufacturers and industrial operators also need to change their perception of potential employees, bringing in more underrepresented groups such as minorities and women. A diverse workforce keeps our perspectives fresh and transforms ideas into innovation.

Information for this article courtesy of Rockwell Automation.

About the Author:

Megan Smalley is the associate editor of Pit & Quarry. Contact her at or 216-363-7930.

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