Ryan's Thoughts

Ryan’s Thoughts: Why We Need to Bridge the Maintenance “Skill Gap” Now!

Ryan Chan

Ryan’s Thoughts

”Ryan’s Thoughts” is a blog series created by UpKeep CEO and Founder, Ryan Chan, where he will be sharing his insights and knowledge of the maintenance and reliability world.

We Need to Take Action

The world of maintenance can be unforgiving and chaotic. All it takes is for one mishap, one bad day, one task to slip through the cracks. That’s all it takes to cost a team millions of dollars, or even worse, risk someone’s life. Thus, you can imagine that the level of skill, craft, and attention to detail in work sectors like these are immense. The demands for high skill labor in maintenance and reliability are incredible. Yet, an ever present and ever growing “skill gap” exists. There just aren’t enough qualified apprentices to fill in the void left behind by retiring professionals – the ones who have (literally) paved the way, only to look back to see that not enough people are following down the road. If we don’t start making progress now, our infrastructure could possibly collapse by the next generation, if not in the coming decade.

This problem didn’t just come out of thin air. In the short time I’ve been involved in the realm of maintenance and reliability (~5 years), I’ve seen enough to know that this issue is prevalent, growing, and overloading the unsung heroes who work tirelessly to maintain our world. There might be less and less people to fulfill our society’s needs, but that only means that our current workforce has to work that much harder – electricity still needs to run, our roads still need to be paved, and teams still need to ensure that the tools and assets they’re using are functioning properly and optimally. Especially during the current COVID-19 global crisis. To not care about this issue is to not care about maintaining and uplifting our quality of life, our communities, and the men and women that directly serve them. 

When did it start? Where do we go from here?

I did some research to track the origins of the “skill gap” for insights into what factors are perpetuating this phenomenon and how quickly we need to act to ameliorate, to turn things around. To accomplish this, I tried to trace back to where the problem first began. While there’s no specific day and hour, some sources trace the concept of the “skill gap”  surfaced in 2007, during the US financial crisis that had repercussions across the globe. In this 2018 study, “A Critical Look at the Skills Gap in Manufacturing”,  John Klaes cites two major forces that perpetuate this problem (specifically to the manufacturing sector):

  1. The Silver Tsunami: Experienced manufacturing workers are retiring at a higher rate than new workers are entering. 
  2. Manufacturing is becoming increasingly digital.

Number 1 can be intuitive, though number 2 has interesting implications about the role of technology. Although technology is meant to help us, it also generates a demand for new skill sets to maximize the potential of the tools we use at work. In essence, manufacturing – as well as most other blue-collared sectors – are requiring more and more highly skilled professionals. There is a combination of increasing demand and not enough supply for this workforce. If we allow this to continue, it could have huge detrimental effects to our communities, it’s systems and economy included. 

To put it in perspective, research by Deloitte Insights and Manufacturing Institute suggests that persistent skill shortages could risk the US $2.5 trillion in economic output over the next decade. That is approximately 3.5 times more than the entire US military yearly budget (a budget that is larger than the next top 9 military spending countries combined). Plus, this research is only looking at the US, imagine the global impact the “skill gap” might have on other countries.

Naturally, after looking into this study I started to realize that this issue could have lasting effects on not only the United States, but any nation on the globe experiencing a similar problem. This issue could potentially be stunting generations worth of progress on  local, state, national, and global levels. Remember, the world of maintenance can be unforgiving and chaotic, all it takes is one mishap. 

It is this article reported by Stephen Gold at IndustryWeek, that supported my hypothesis. Gold includes data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showcasing that 10,000 people are retiring every day in the manufacturing sector alone, and further cites that these workers (over the age of 55) constitute ~25% of the manufacturing sector. This is on top of the fact that the manufacturing sector reports the highest rate of tenure. To put that into perspective, it’s as if the manufacturing sector is losing ~40,000 years of experience, knowledge, and expertise every single day. That is an incredible loss, and an even greater one if we consider the rest of the blue-collar industry which makes up 80% of our workforce. The problem here isn’t that people are retiring. The problem is that when professionals are ready to retire, our systems lack the capabilities to effectively capture the years of experience and knowledge they’ve cultivated over their lifetime. This is where technology, innovation, and collaboration need to make progress.

What can we do? What are we already doing?

After mulling over the “skill gap”, my gut reaction was to reach out to the community for their thoughts and wisdom. Doing so drastically changed my perspective. I started to see the “skill gap” not as a problem, but as an opportunity for growth, innovation, and collaboration. After reaching out to the community, I noticed two common schools of thought to approach the problem:

  1. Internally innovating the way we value our skilled workers over our assets. 
  2. Externally evolving the way organizations and teams work/partner with education. 

The most engaging example for Number 1 was brought to me by Robert (Bob) Latino, who wrote this thought-piece on “Corporate Memory”.

Bob begins by questioning why we label our employees as liabilities, and equipment as assets – asking why we would find cutting a percent of our equipment based on seniority ridiculous, but readily accept it if we cut employees solely based on seniority. In this thought-piece, Bob is inviting us to think more deeply about the value of intellectual capital. By using technology today, organizations are able to capture that intellectual capital, and preserving that knowledge is a step in the right direction to mitigating the skill gap issue.

Another captivating approach involves changing the way businesses work and partner with education. On my LinkedIn thread, Scott Mickiewicz mentioned how Nissan partners with tech programs to support their campuses and relocates their manufacturing facilities to be closer.

Most people could already guess the business impact this has had, but to outline it, Nissan went from unable to fill 75% of their workforce gaps (and having to recruit against competitors) to now filling in 90% of their hires from those tech program graduates. That is an incredibly impactful initiative! If more and more companies begin to do this in a post COVID-19 era, I can see a future that includes geographical clusters where technical programs grow with support from various industries, competitors can improve by nature of competing with each other, and aspiring technical professionals can further hone their craft in such an environment.

I could go on and on about the other discussions we had, but here’s some thought provoking snippets from those LinkedIn threads for anyone reading this to sift through and ponder about. 

Final Thoughts 

Personally, I believe the answers lie in developing educational programs for younger folks, creating apprenticeships for people who are just entering the workforce, and doing things to make the industry more enticing. Even though I started by saying that the world of maintenance could be “unforgiving and chaotic,” it is more genuinely described as “adventurous and captivating”.  We wouldn’t have what we have today if not for it. So much of the world is built off the backs of the unsung heroes who serve in these sectors. But enough of my thoughts, what do you think we can do to transform the “skill gap” phenomenon into a catalyst of growth and progress for your community?

About the Author

Ryan Chan is CEO and Founder at UpKeep Maintenance Management. He is a Chemical Engineer from UC Berkeley and was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 for Manufacturing in 2018. Ryan started UpKeep out of passion and frustration by the lack of mobility in today’s maintenance management software. UpKeep has now been deployed to over 1,000 businesses and is a leader in mobile-first maintenance management software.

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