February Management Training

Replacing the Maintenance Apprenticeship Training Model

EP Editorial Staff | February 21, 2014

bob williamson thumb thumb thumbBy Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor

We’ve recently realized that our current apprenticeship model for training and developing maintenance technicians is obsolete. Very few, if any, people are interested. Those who sign up rarely stick with it for very long. Those who have completed the training often lack the equipment specific maintenance knowledge for our equipment. And, if that’s not enough to discourage us, the training takes three to four years to complete. Are we missing something?

Apprenticeship training programs for maintenance have been dwindling for decades in this country–most recently for the reasons cited here. What makes this decline of apprenticeship-type training even more disconcerting is the general lack of FORMAL training and developmental activities in many small- to mid-sized companies. From what I’ve seen over the past few decades, I am convinced that traditional apprenticeship training for maintenance technicians (mechanics, electricians, or whatever the job titles are) have seen better days and are not likely to return.

The good news however, is thatare better, more effective approaches to training and developing maintenance technicians for today and into the future. In the first installment of a new quarterly column, Michael Callanan, Executive Director of the National Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee for the Electrical Industry, discussed a real-world example that’s already in the works (“The Changing Face of Apprenticeship,” pg.  45, MT&AP, January 2014).

The problem with maintenance training
Industrial maintenance has transformed significantly over the past 30 years, due primarily to technology improvements, new equipment, process-integration and cost reductions.  Yet, the general perceptions of maintenance training approaches have remained much the same: less-than-formal, on-the-job training (OJT) or trade- and craft-apprenticeship training. Three major problems have affected this training:

1. The gross shortage of public school industrial-based shop classes has led to at least two generations of young people not being exposed to the basic tools of a trade and working with one’s hands,

2. Traditional apprenticeship training, popular in the 20th century, is largely an obsolete format for today’s industrial maintenance skills development.

3. Technology in today’s equipment-intensive industries has evolved faster than the skills and knowledge acquired through informal OJT to properly maintain it.

These three problems have also led to the decline of industrial-maintenance job entrants for the past two generations—a decline accelerated by educational systems sending the message that “there’s no future in hands-on industrial work and that a college degree is far more valuable.” Couple that message with student-health-and-well-being concerns and educational-system cost-cutting and it’s no wonder that high-risk, high-cost shop classes have disappeared from our public schools.

For many businesses, there has been a security blanket of sorts that has eased the worry and allowed them to get by without addressing the maintenance training issues head on: Older, highly skilled or experienced maintenance people are still on the job in a no-growth economy. That moth-eaten security blanket, however, will soon be ineffective. Eventually, older maintenance workers will age out and leave. The economy is picking up in several sectors, and off-shored jobs are returning home. Increasing numbers of highly skilled industrial-maintenance technicians will be needed to care for new and improved manufacturing and utility processes.

Advanced-technology concerns
Interestingly, during the aforementioned security-blanket period, businesses not only began exploring new “labor-saving” technologies, they begun deploying them on a large scale. In some cases, though, the assumption of “labor saving” has been extended to an oversimplification of maintenance requirements for the newly deployed technologies. Consequently, maintenance-skills development and maintenance resources have often been ignored and reduced.

For the sake of discussion let’s lump these “labor saving” technologies into a single industrial concept called “automation.”

Automation is often designed to 1) reduce labor content and 2) increase productivity and reliability. This reduces the cost per unit produced, or the operating cost per occupied square foot. However, automation is yet another layer of controls, systems and components applied to a basic process.

Consider for example the automation in primary metals (a rolling mill); in manufacturing (welding robots); or in consumer products (packaging lines). The basic equipment remains the same for the most part. Then, the “automation” technologies are integrated with the basic equipment, sometimes linking previously separate machines into a single process to improve flow or eliminate material handling. The motors, bearings, seals, shafts, chains, belts, lubrication, nuts and bolts fundamentally remain the same. These machines still require the same level and types of maintenance as in their “pre-automation” state. But now, an additional level of maintenance required – maintenance of the automation system—which centers on troubleshooting and solving complex problems.

Automation doesn’t necessarily simplify maintenance requirements of the automated equipment, but it can complicate the maintenance-work processes. Thus, equipment-specific education and training become more important than ever—critically important. Troubleshooting a new technology requires a complete understanding of what it is supposed to do, how it operates and how it interfaces with the basic equipment it is automating.

While working with a major U.S. automaker to set up skills-training programs in the md 1980s, I heard the CEO exclaim (and I paraphrase): “After investing billions in new technology and robots in our plants and forgetting about the people and maintenance, all this new technology has done is allowed us to make scrap faster.”

Maintenance training has hit a wall
Traditional apprenticeship training developed “craft or trade” skills and knowledge. Maintenance apprenticeship training programs have traditionally focused on basic maintenance-related education coupled with specific tools and techniques of the trade. Most training was accomplished through classroom sessions coupled with a rather informal OJT led by a senior, experienced person proficient in the craft or trade–a journeyman per se.

In the past, the typical goal of an apprenticeship-training program was to prepare apprentices to the point that they could successfully complete any task assigned to journeymen in the craft or trade. Having become well grounded in basic and advanced methods, the newly trained individuals would be expected to continue learning and growing in their profession. No doubt they would go on to develop the skills and knowledge to maintain, repair and figure out almost anything that came to their attention. This approach worked—that is until machinery became unique, highly integrated and highly automated.

Today’s manufacturing and utility technologies require a more skilled, scientific, analytical approach to job associated with them. We also know that by standardizing work methods the human variation will be minimized, leading to consistent and reliable results. This “standardized work” approach not only succeeds in production jobs, it is the answer to success in maintenance-related job roles in modern industrial facilities. In other words “procedure-based maintenance” should be a requirement in today’s equipment-intensive businesses.

Training needs a vigorous renewal
Attracting, training, developing, qualifying and retaining competent maintenance technicians is one of the biggest opportunities for equipment-intensive businesses to remain competitive. Maintenance training must be renewed with great vigor. To take advantage of such an opportunity, overall approaches prior to, during and after training must be different from those taken in the past.

Developing maintenance technicians of the future for technology-based, equipment-intensive businesses demands a radically different approach–one that is faster and more dependable. There are three major categories in this developmental approach:

1. Formal Education: Career education; Basic reading, writing, math, science

2. Formal Training: General knowledge & skills of the job, equipment and task specific methods

3. Formal Qualification: Performance demonstration to verify skills and knowledge

Formal Education is essential in that it should build the foundation for success in industrial-maintenance careers. It also must include “career education” that helps students understand their career options and make decisions on what paths they want to pursue. Career education is essential whether a student desires a “college education” or a “technical education” path. The career choices should guide the education choices along a career development path.

Formal Education should then be aligned with the career development path toward career options and goals that the student is interested in pursuing. The formal education requirements of reading, writing, math and science will vary depending on the career emphasis: mechanical, electrical, electronic, engineering, scientific, academic, etc.

FormalTraining stresses the “tools of the trade” including general knowledge, applied skills and knowledge, and proficiency building in equipment-specific tasks and methods. The goal is “procedure-based” maintenance training and job-performance. Formal training based on these maintenance procedures requires structured on-job training and coaching by a proficient peer or trainer with some classes and guided self-study.

Formal Qualification is the capstone to the education and training process. On-job performance demonstration (or qualification) methods are used to allow the trainee to demonstrate their skills and knowledge competency to perform specific job tasks. Prescriptive improvements are recommended where the trainee shows weaknesses. The ultimate goal here is to develop equipment, job, and task-specific “qualified” maintenance technicians.

Replacing the maintenance trade and craft apprenticeship training model with a new, improved—more efficient and effective—education, training, and qualification process makes sense in our changing industrial landscape plagued by skills shortages. Let us know about your renewed approaches to maintenance training. MT&AP

Robert Williamson, CMRP, CPMM and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Email: Robertmw2@cs.com




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