Work Force Development No Longer Optional

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

When considering problems that limit reliability and performance, most people would agree that improving work force skills ranks high. Most corporations, however, invest little in work force development.

Most training is mandated and on topics such as safety and drug usage. Little if any of a company’s annual budget is allocated for true work force development or practical skills training. A skilled, motivated work force is essential to reliability and competitive performance. A need exists for skills improvement, supported by three major factors: a lack of basic skills, the age of the skilled work force and the low tide on the work force pool.

A few decades ago the skills required to operate, maintain and manage utilities’ manufacturing and production facilities were more basic than the skills required today. A maintenance technician had to understand and use some 500 pages of technical data written at the eighth-grade level. Today that same technician must understand more than 5,000 pages of technical data written at the undergraduate level or higher. The same is true for engineers, supervisors, managers and operators. Evaluations of organizations universally identify a lack of basic skills as a major contributor to poor performance. This problem is not limited to the direct work force; it includes all management levels. Few employees possess the minimum skills required to perform their assigned jobs effectively.

In addition, one out of three U.S. workers is 50 or older, and the average age of engineers is even higher. Association of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) statistics indicate that the average age of graduate mechanical engineers is 56, and 50 percent or more are eligible for retirement. The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC) reported that about 40 percent of senior electrical engineers and shift supervisors in the electricity industry were eligible for retirement in 2009.

Loss of expertise, lack of new employees entering the field and failure of the education system severely challenge reliability. This issue will have a significant impact on power generation and distribution reliability, as well as the infrastructure and critical manufacturing systems that constitute the industrial base.

Most companies will face a serious problem within five to 10 years when most of their skilled work force reaches mandatory retirement age. These companies will be forced to replace experienced employees with new workers who lack the basic skills and experience required for their job functions.

The education decline further compounds the problem most companies face when replacing workers. Too many potential new employees lack basic skills—reading, writing and mathematic —required for all employees. This problem is not limited to primary education. Many college graduates lack the necessary reading, writing or math skills and practical skills and knowledge in their speciality fields: business, maintenance or engineering.

Why not provide training to improve work force skills? A common reason is lack of funds. Many corporations face serious cash flow problems and low profitability. As a result, they consider training an unaffordable luxury.

This might sound logical, but it is untrue; there is no other option. We must develop a skilled work force or entrust plant and facilities to an unskilled, inexperienced work force unable to maintain adequate reliability or competitive performance levels.

Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

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