Workforce Development Is No Longer Optional

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

When considering the problems that limit reliability and performance, most people would agree that improving the skills of the workforce ranks very high, yet most corporations invest very little in workforce development. Most training is mandated training on topics such as safety and drug usage. Little, if any, of the annual budget is allocated for true workforce development or practical skills training. This failure is hard to understand. It should be obvious that a skilled, motivated workforce is essential to reliability and competitive performance. It should also be obvious that there is a critical need for skills improvement throughout most organizations. This fact is supported by three major factors:

Lack of Basic Skills

A few decades ago, the basic skills required to operate, maintain and manage our utilities, manufacturing and production facilities were more basic than the skills required today. For example, a maintenance technician had to be able to understand and use about 500 pages of technical data written at the 8th grade level. Today that same technician must understand more than 5,000 pages of technical data written at the undergraduate or higher level. 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 workforce – it  includes all levels of management as well. Few employees have the minimum skills required to effectively perform their assigned job functions.  

Workforce Maturity

One out of three U.S. workers is now age 50 or older and the average age of engineers is even higher. Statistics generated by the Association of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) indicate that the average age of graduate mechanical engineers is 56 and 50% 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. 

This loss of expertise, combined with the lack of new employees entering the field and the failure of our education system, is one of the more severe challenges facing reliability today. This single issue will have a significant impact on the reliability of our power generation and distribution systems as well as the infrastructure and the critical manufacturing systems that comprise our industrial base.

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

Unskilled Workforce Pool

The decline in the fundamental education afforded by our education system further compounds the problem that most companies face when replacing workers. Too many potential new employees lack the basic skills sets, such as reading, writing and mathematics, which are fundamental requirements for all employees. This problem is not limited to primary education.  Many college graduates lack the necessary level of reading, writing or math skills and certainly the practical skills and knowledge in their field of specialty, i.e. business, maintenance or engineering.

Workforce Development is not Optional

If you accept these problems as facts, why not provide the skills training needed to improve workforce skills? One of the more common reasons is a lack of funds. Many corporations face serious cash flow problems and low profitability. As a result, they feel that training is a luxury that they simply cannot afford.  

While this might sound like a logical argument, it simply is not true. There really is no option. We must develop a skilled workforce or entrust our plant and facilities to an unskilled, inexperienced workforce that simply will not be able to maintain adequate reliability or competitive levels of performance.


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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