Recommendations For Survival: Skills Training Approaches For Fast & Sustainable Equipment Reliability

EP Editorial Staff | January 2, 2006

Forecasters have long warned us about a “perfect storm” bearing down on industrial America. Now, it’s upon us and your operations are right in the eye of it. Fueled by a growing underskilled and, inexperienced workforce and little emphasis on skilled trades training, conditions are bad (and due to get worse).

What if we train them and they leave? What if we don’t and they stay?” “Who’s got the time for training? We have equipment tearing up left and right!” “Training takes a long time—some say three to five years before you see results. We just can’t wait that long.”

Many small- to mid-sized plants and facilities are wrestling with these same train-or-not-to-train questions. Intuitively we know that the higher the level of maintenance and operations skills and knowledge the more reliable the equipment will be.

It makes sense doesn’t it? If we have trained operators to properly operate the equipment and maintainers to properly maintain and repair the same equipment it should run better and last longer. Operating costs will be lower and injuries will be fewer. Products will be shipped on time and with zero defects. It’s common sense. . . but, unfortunately, not common practice.

Far too many operators and maintainers in small- to mid-sized plants and facilities are not formally trained in their jobs or their crafts. Many have only had fragmented training through courses, workshops, vendor programs and the like.

Far too many maintainers are neither products of formal apprenticeship-type training programs nor graduates of vocational-technical programs for their line of work. Today, maintenance education—including the transfer of crucial trade and craft skills and knowledge—continues to be the least defined of all industrial activities. The bottom line here? We have to find a way to make our equipment-related training fast, focused and sustainable IF we are to improve our equipment performance and reliability, become more competitive and address the skills shortages. Traditional approaches to maintenance and operations training under which we’ve been working may no longer be effective.

Since the early 1980s, apprenticeship programs in this country have all but disappeared, vocational training programs have fallen by the wayside, companies have downsized their training capabilities and machines have gotten “smarter.” Yet, interestingly, these so-called “smart machines” still incorporate the same basic bearings and seals, gaskets, valves, gear boxes, couplings, motors, hydraulics and pneumatics as their predecessors.

Today, many equipment-intensive businesses and facilities are feeling the pinch—or the pain—of declining skills in their maintenance workforce. Junior-high and high-school shop classes are few and far between. One- and two-year technical certificate and Associate Degree programs have nearly vanished. The generation of newer/younger maintenance people is sizably smaller than the “Baby Boomers” who will be retiring in droves over the next five to 10 years. Furthermore, this younger generation has not been exposed to the same technical skills training and development opportunities as their parents.

We have a real challenge ahead of us in the maintenance and reliability arena. We are truly in a “perfect storm” when it comes to an under-skilled, inexperienced workforce poised to inherit critical maintenance and reliability jobs. [Ref. 1, 2, 3.]

“Developing ‘human capital’ must be a priority.”
The above subhead was a headline from a November 22, 2005 press release of the National Press Club. In the release, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting stated, “The serious shortage of qualified employees that a vast majority of U.S. manufacturers are now experiencing is taking an increasingly negative toll on America’s ability to compete…” In their “2005 Skills Gap Report – A Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce,” the group points to a number of statistics that should have all of us extremely concerned—and rapidly preparing to meet new challenges in the workplace [Ref. 4].

For example, the findings noted, “More than 80% of manufacturers surveyed are experiencing an overall shortage of qualified workers that cuts across industry sectors. The pain is most acute on the front line, where 90% report a moderate to severe shortage of qualified skilled production employees, including machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians.”

Not a new warning
While the referenced “Skills Gap Report” is new and a must-read for all of us, the message it carries is not new. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education published a report entitled, “A Nation at Risk.” In 1986, “Toward a New Era in Manufacturing: The Need for a National Vision,” a joint project of the Manufacturing Studies Board, the Commission on Engineering & Technical Systems and the National Research Council was published. In 1987, the Hudson Institute gave us similar insights in its study report, “Workforce 2000,” and again, in 1997, in “Workforce 2020.” In June 1990, “America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages” was published by the National Center on Education and the Economy. These researchers, educators and others have been telling us about the significant need for workplace skills and knowledge improvement for decades. Likewise, from an anecdotal perspective, many small manufacturers and facilities have been experiencing growing skills gaps for the past decade or more.

We are now in a crisis that will likely get worse before it gets worse, if we don’t do something about it starting NOW!

Surely, we in the U.S. are responding to skills shortages and looking for ways to develop and encourage “skilled trades” training to address this maintenance and manufacturing dilemma. A Google search of “skilled trades training” and then “legislation,” however, reveals that Canada is actively pursuing legislation around this problem at a 15-to-one ratio to U.S. legislative activity.

In May 1999, the U.S. House of Representatives authored a bill to amend the IRS Code of 1986 “to allow long-term training of employees in highly skilled small business trades.” It did not pass into law. In the summer of 2004, our political parties again deadlocked on jobs training legislation.

In March 2005 the House of Representatives passed a Jobs Training Bill (H.R. 27) by a vote of 224 to 200 that would renew the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 for Federal jobs training programs. (The Senate has yet to draft its version.) This WIA funding historically addresses community colleges, two-year institutions and local workforce investment boards in every state, but it appears to be underutilized, unknown and obscure to business and industry in many states or regions.

In a July 2004 letter from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, Representatives Boehner (R-OH) and McKeon (R-CA) to then Senator Tom Daschle noted, “Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says strengthening worker training and education programs is critical to putting Americans back to work and creating jobs. In testimony Mr. Greenspan stated that ‘rigorous education and on-going training to all members of our society’ is essential for future job growth and worker security.”

Again, going to the bottom line. . . there is much noise with little substantive action on the part of our Federal Government to address the skills shortages. Now, we are in a crisis situation that will only deteriorate unless action is taken on numerous front lines: employers (small and large), professional associations, community colleges, technical schools, high schools, and local workforce investment boards, to be specific.

Taking action
Training is no longer an option, it’s a requirement. So, what can. . . what should. . . what MUST be done if we are to survive this perfect storm converging on all of us? We could oversimplify and say, “Train, train, train, then train some more.” But, that doesn’t really tell anyone how to get it done, let alone how to get training started and how to make sure it is the right training in the most efficient manner. In the interim, the following presents a 10-point set of initial recommendations (a detailed process will appear in the next part of this series to be published in the February 2006 issue of Maintenance Technology).

First. . .
Recognize that education and training come in many, many different forms. Most of us think “classroom” or “OJT” (on-job training) when we hear the word “training.” There are, though, any number of diverse training approaches that can be used depending on the plant or facility needs, including:

  • Classroom training. Small groups of 3 to 5 or larger sessions with 20 or more in sessions that meet for several hours weekly, for several days, or for several months to a year in length.
  • Seminars or workshops. Typically one- to five-days in length with lecture, demonstration, and some hands-on exposure to the subject.
  • Formal on-job training. In-plant with an assigned OJT Coach (or mentor), detailed task list, objectives, step-by-step job task procedures, and training instructions.
  • Self study materials. Video programs, computer-based/CD-ROM programs, on-line training over the internet, print workbooks or manuals. . .
  • Performance demonstration. Re-gardless of the training approach, participants should be able to demonstrate the newly-learned skills and knowledge on the job in a formal and documented manner. After all, that is why we train in the first place—to improve job performance.

Remember, adults learn best by doing—and in maintenance, it is critical to the learning process that the training have a direct application to the job requirements in the plant. Training that results in “passing a written test” is not necessarily a good measure of a person’s ability to actually perform the job in the plant, on your equipment. Training that results in a performance demonstration (training for proficiency) is quite often the best.

Second. . .
Identify the type and magnitude of a skills and knowledge deficit in your company, in your plant, in your department. Back that gut feeling up with some data.

Consider the following signs of a severe training need:

  • One of two of your top skilled maintenance techs (or mechanics or electricians) accrue lots of overtime working on a critical few systems.
  • The maintenance manager or engineering manager is called out to troubleshoot problems and tell the maintenance techs what to do.
  • Repairs that used to be routine seem to take much longer and result in an increasing number of reworks.
  • Shortly after a PM is completed, the equipment fails.
  • Your facilities and equipment investments are expanding at a faster rate that you can maintain them.
  • Breakdowns and failures are on the increase.
  • A posted or advertised maintenance tech job has been open for more than 90 days and you can’t find an applicant who has a hint of qualification for the job.
  • The average age of your top skilled maintenance technicians is over 55.
  • The average age of your newest maintenance techs is mid-30s.
  • You’ve recently lost top skilled maintenance techs to newer companies in the area.
  • The turnover rate of maintenance technicians is more than 5% per year.

Remember, it is important to quantify, document and specify the magnitude of your skills shortage and/or training problems. Have evidence, testimonials and the best data you can collect to make the case for improving your maintenance training capabilities.

Third. . .
Identify a starting point for maintenance and reliability training. Keep in mind that between 50 and 90% of equipment losses are outside the direct control of the maintenance department.

Consider the following:

  • Focusing on a compelling business case for training. Look for areas of the plant that have high maintenance costs, high downtime, production constraint, the most critical equipment, potential for environmental or safety incidents, vulnerable or obsolete equipment, etc.
  • Following “Lean” initiatives. If your plant is aggressively pursuing “Lean,” piggyback on those efforts. They will inevitably face equipment issues that they are unprepared to address. Are the maintenance department and maintenance technicians prepared to respond with a “zero breakdown” strategy for the targeted equipment?
  • Core craft skills training. Develop the essential maintenance skills and knowledge base for critical equipment or processes.
  • Procedure-based training. Promote the mastery of standardized procedures, or “best practices” for operating, maintaining, and repairing your most critical equipment.
  • Cross-training current maintenance techs. Address areas of the most severe skills shortages. This could target an area of the plant (equipment or process) or a set of skills that might have a broader application (electrical, instrumentation, alignment, predictive maintenance, etc.).
  • Apprenticeship training. “Grow your own” maintenance techs over the next three to five years. This can address off-the-street applicants who have potential or an aptitude for success, as well as individuals from within the plant, including production/operations, for example. To assure success, it’s important to assess the participants’ aptitude, learning ability and literacy skills.

Fourth. . .
What is the size of the training effort? This one deals with the shear numbers of people who will participate as “trainees.”

  • Small plants may have the ability to allow one or two maintenance techs to be off in training at certain times. In some plants even this can be a real challenge.
  • Medium- to large-sized businesses may allow 5- to 10- to 20-percent of the population to be away for training at certain times.

Fifth. . .
When should training be performed?

  • During normal work hours (paid work time).
  • After normal work hours (paid overtime or unpaid time).
  • Half during and half after work hours (half paid/half unpaid time).

Sixth. . .
On average, how much time can the maintenance technicians afford to be away from the job for training?

  • Some companies plan 40, 60 or 80 hours per year per employee for job-specific skills training and development. This does NOT include regulatory or mandated training that’s necessary to meet company or governmental requirements.
  • Some companies average 5% -10% of annual work hours for employee training.
  • Workshops lasting several days.
  • Two-hour training sessions spread over several days a week, or over several weeks.

Seventh. . .
How much can you budget for maintenance training? What’s reasonable for training costs (travel, instructors, training materials, seminars, workshops, etc.)? Here are some basic guidelines:

  • 2% – 5% of payroll dollars.
  • 5% – 10% of scheduled work hours.
  • 5% – 15% of newly installed capital equipment cost.

Eighth. . .
Since the need for training can span a range of locations, where is the best place to do it? Many businesses have used all of the following options depending on the subject matter, the size of the group, etc.

  • In the workplace
  • Outside the workplace, but on-site (on or in company facilities)
  • Off-site at local colleges, tech schools, seminars, workshops

Ninth. . .
How can we keep track of training and qualification activities? It may sound like extra paperwork, but it is essential to improving performance. Take a chapter from improvements in quality, safety and on-time delivery.

Tracking current levels of performance and progress being made is a must. Most businesses already document regulatory training activities for OSHA, EPA, FDA, USDA, etc. Yes, I know, it is required. But, when you think about it, if training is essential to improving safety, why is it not essential for improving equipment performance and reliability—and not only keeping track of training, but also auditing employees’ work practices to assure the work is being done properly?

Some basic training tracking methods include:

  • Off-the-shelf training tracking software.
  • Personnel files and training activity files.
  • Training matrix charts and display boards.
  • Work orders. Create an “equipment history” record for each person and each training and qualification activity in your CMMS.

Tenth. . .
Who has the responsibility and the authority to manage the overall training and qualification process in your plant? Recently, many businesses have been cutting back or eliminating their training capabilities, budgets, trainers, instructors and training departments. That being the case, now is the time to bring back formal training leadership and management structures that are responsible for:

  • Planning and developing training.
  • Standardizing training and qualification processes.
  • Training trainers and coaches.
  • Purchasing and controlling materials and programs.
  • Keeping training records.
  • Scheduling training and qualification activities.

Putting it all together. . .
Training to drive out variation, failures and breakdowns
“Why don’t we have the time to fix it right the first time, but we have the time to fix it again and again?” There’s a very important “bottom line” to this. For equipment-related training, everyone who touches the equipment must be trained and qualified to properly operate, maintain and repair it.

Set-ups and change-overs must be done right the first time. Calibrations must be accurate. Programming must be error free. There is a compelling case for “standardizing” these procedures for our critical equipment first, then expanding standardization throughout the plant for “mission critical” equipment, machinery and processes.

Standardization of operating and maintenance procedures must be done BEFORE training. Why train employees in one method knowing that on the job they can use their discretion as to how the task is performed. All this does is introduce human variation, which , in turn, leads to inconsistent equipment performance and reliability.

Quality gurus such as Edwards Deming long ago reminded us that “you cannot improve it if you don’t first standardize it.” Therefore, if you want to improve your equipment performance and reliability, the first step is to standardize the work. Begin by identifying a “best practice” from those who currently are performing the tasks. (Avoid the traditional “industrial engineering” approach to standardizing the work—people support what they help to create). Once standardized, ideas for improvements now can be solicited from those performing the work. The revised procedure then becomes the way everyone does the task.

here is a long, proven history for “procedure-based maintenance” and “procedure-based operations” in the military and in industry of all types. Most maintenance jobs are repetitive in nature. However, the perception is the opposite, due to non-standard work methods and widely varying skills and knowledge resulting in equipment breakdowns and failures. Standardizing the “best practices” will lead to much less “reactive maintenance” or repairs. [Ref. 5]

Training in industry
In the 1940s, the U.S. Government established “Training Within Industry” (TWI) for the purpose of quickly training huge numbers of workers to perform new jobs. World War II forced U.S. manufacturers to re-tool for the war effort and, in many cases, to do it with a mostly new workforce—women.

After the war, from 1945 to 1951, the U.S. led the rebuilding of Japanese manufacturing infrastructure using proven TWI methodologies. The four interdependent methods included:

  • Job Instruction training (how to instruct).
  • Job Methods Training (improving job/task performance).
  • Job Relations Training (solving and preventing personnel problems).
  • Program Development (solving problems).

Many Japanese adopted TWI methodology, and still use it to this day! In fact, TWI is Toyota’s present-day training and development strategy in the automotive industry world-wide.

In the U.S. since WWII , though, TWI methods have been abandoned and lie dormant. [Ref. 6]

In an equipment-intensive operation maintenance and reliability must be as important as safety, environmental and quality in the formula for competitiveness. The American workforce is the most productive in the world. Look at all of the foreign-owned automotive manufacturers that set up profitable businesses here and rely on the American workforce to produce at world-class levels. In many businesses and industry sectors, however, we are rapidly losing our competitive edge because we are not paying attention to the basic rules of equipment reliability—proper operations and proper maintenance—doing things right the first time. Regardless of how computerized and how automated your plant and equipment may be, there is a fundamental, underlying need for reliable machinery and equipment components.

Focus on the basics of proper operation and maintenance first, then the advanced technologies can do their part. Many equipment-intensive companies could do more to get a bigger return on their investment through operations and maintenance training than through many of the currently fashionable “Lean, visual and 5S” training activities. MT

Suggested resources

  1. “Warning: Vocational Classes Falling Out of Favor,” Robert M. Williamson, Viewpoint column, Maintenance Technology, March 2005.
  2. “The Biggest Threat to Equipment Reliability: Skills Shortage,” Robert M. Williamson, Viewpoint column, Maintenance Technology, June 2005.
  3. “Lessons Learned from the Busted Knuckle Garage.” Robert M. Williamson, Viewpoint column, Maintenance Technology, September 2005.
  4. “2005 Skills Gap Report – A Survey of the American Manufacturing Workforce.” National Association of Manufacturers, Manufacturing Institute, DeLoitte Consulting LLP, November 22, 2005.
  5. “Procedure Based Maintenance,” Jack R. Nicholas, proceedings of IMC, December 6, 2004, and Reliability World Conference, April 27, 2005.
  6. Training Within Industry, Donald A. Dinero, Productivity Press, New York, 2005.
  7. “Maintenance Skills Shortage: Overcoming the Biggest Threat to Reliability.” Robert M. Williamson, proceedings of MARCON, May 4-6, 2005, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Like what you’ve just read? Want to learn more? Next month, in Part II of this series, the author will focus on the “Results Training & Qualification Process.” But it gets even better! You also have the opportunity to meet and learn from Bob Williamson in person at MARTS in Rosemont, IL, during the week of April 17. For full conference details, visit www.MARTSconference.com.

Robert (Bob) Williamson is a workplace educator with more than 35 years or experience helping companies and workgroups improve the performance of their equipment and work processes through applied education and training. His background in maintenance mechanics, special machine and tooling design and leading vocational/technical courses has prepared him for a career that has taken him into well over 400 plant and company locations developing operations and maintenance training, Total Productive Maintenance, multi-skill maintenance job design, pay-for-applied skills design, and “Lean Equipment Management.” After 24 years in post-secondary technical education and plant engineering/construction he formed Strategic Work Systems, Inc. in 1993 to focus on the people-side of world-class manufacturing and maintenance. For nearly 10 years, he also has been studying and teaching “team-based reliability” principles from NASCAR Racing. Telephone: (828) 894-5338; e-mail: RobertMW2@cs.com

Cases In Point

Case example #1: Plant A had an extremely high rate of scrap from one line caused by only one type of machine in the line. There were eight of these machines in the line, most built in 1939, overhauled in 1970. On these, two flat drive belts were observed to be slipping and wearing out at a high rate. During a training analysis, causes of the belt slippage were determined to be a binding of the gear/chain drive due to excessive build-ups of fibers and debris on the gears, chains and sprockets. Historically, maintenance craft skills training here had emphasized oiling chains and greasing gears. The Preventive Maintenance tasks (PMs) also reinforced this oiling and greasing practice. However, the manufacturer’s manual written in 1939 contained a note: “Warning: Do not grease these gears or oil these chains. Fibers will cause jam-ups which will lead to intake roll belt slippage and will result in off quality product.” In this case the equipment manufacturer’s recommendations were the opposite of the typical craft skills training.

Case example #2: Plant B had a constraint piece of equipment in one of its highest-volume product lines. Pressure was on to improve a five-year-old “Cutter Machine 3,” a highly automated material handling, cutting, orienting and delivery system. The central part of this machine was a precision “shear” that cut the raw materials to precise tolerances. Multiple maintainers had responsibility for this piece of equipment: Central Maintenance mechanics and electricians, PM crews, a Lubricator and, of course, operators. The most problematic assembly of this machine was the “shear.” During the training analysis, it was determined that the reasons for much of the failures were related to the upper and lower shear blades set-up, alignment, cleanliness conditions, sharpness, etc. The findings: there were no lubrication diagrams or instructions being used; the set-up was done by memory; blade conditions and failure data were not tracked; there were no PM instructions for the entire “shear” assembly itself. Despite the very detailed equipment manufacturer’s manual, most work was done from memory and “just like we do on all the other Cutters in the shop.” Equipment-specific training was not done since this machine was like all the others that “we’ve had for years.”

Case example #3: Plant C had a very large, seven-year-old, automated manufacturing machine that covered a 40,000-ft. area. The products from this machine were “sold out” for the next two years and the customer was hinting at a 20% increase next year. The problem? This machine was running at 51% availability on a 24/7 schedule. A training analysis pointed to one part of the machine as the most problematic (call it the “consolidator”). This consolidator unit had been extensively modified by the plant over the years. Debris built up under the conveyor belt, contributing to off-quality production and jamming the unit because a modification had partly disabled a belt cleaner. A “central vacuum system” would be hooked to the consolidator to remove any excess fibers and prevent defects and jam-ups. The cleaning and PM instructions stated “clean the conveyor roll and the central vacuum system.” These instructions were grossly over-simplified. The central vacuum system included a bag house, a huge fine-debris removal system that discharged into a centrifugal separator and collection bag, as well as a large bin. The multiple fans that powered this system were driven by motors using twin v-belts. The training analysis pointed to the absence of detailed PM work instructions. Observations noted the absence of proper v-belt maintenance—slipping/squealing belts, overheated and worn sheaves, misaligned shafts, chunks broken out of the belts and mismatched belts. No procedures were available for the inspection, cleaning or maintenance of these critical systems. Operators and maintainers relied on their own knowledge and experience. When new belts were installed the alignment was not checked and the belt tension was not reset. The causes of belt wear and damage were not explored. Fixing it fast was more important!




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