Column Training Workforce

In Search of Highly Skilled Talent

Bob Williamson | November 15, 2017

two friendly industrial workers colleagues in factory

With the U.S. job market picking up and unemployment declining to 4.2% in Sept. 2017 (the lowest rate since Feb. 2001, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Oct. 6, 2017), some regions, sectors, and occupations are experiencing painful skills shortages.

Manufacturers, specifically, have reported 3.8% unemployment. Another low. One occupational trend affecting plant efficiency involves installation, maintenance, and repair workers who currently have an unemployment rate of 3.4% (reflecting an increase of 100,000 over the number employed in Sept. 2016). That presents a good news/bad news conundrum.

Industrial-maintenance technician jobs are typically considered “highly skilled” in businesses that rely on high-speed or precision processes. The demand for such personnel increases where manufacturing-reliability initiatives are being deployed to improve efficiencies and the effectiveness of machine and human performance, while adapting quickly to changing customer expectations.

Attracting the best and brightest

Recruiting highly skilled employees is becoming quite the challenge in some areas of the U.S. Competition for them is already “intense,” according to a variety of industry sources, and heating up. The situation stems from fewer people taking highly skilled career paths; schools and colleges reducing related educational and training programs; and businesses, in general, not consistently promoting their high-skilled job opportunities.

The quest for talent often leads to non-traditional, out-of-the box recruiting practices. Conversely, businesses playing by traditional recruiting and hiring rules can be left with dwindling numbers of highly skilled workers in their aging workforce ranks. Non-traditional tactics include things such as offering sign-on bonus payments and retention incentives. They often are more effective than negotiating new and/or increased pay rates for current job classifications.

Sign-on bonuses, in particular, can be attractive to talented new-hire candidates, including recent graduates, seasoned employees, and those from other employers (anywhere). In years past, such bonuses played a major role in filling jobs in Canada’s oil sands and oil- and gas-production operations in North Dakota and on Alaska’s North Slope. These days, even classified ads in my local (small-town) newspaper point to sign-on bonuses—the first time in three decades or more. Employers are also promoting them, along with fully paid benefit packages, overtime opportunities, and a variety of non-traditional perks.

Unfortunately, while various types of bonuses can be helpful in recruiting/hiring the “best and brightest” in a competitive job market, without a comprehensive plan, there can be a downside. Ask yourself, “How will current employees feel about bonuses being paid to attract new employees?” What’s in it for them? Are retention bonuses in order?

To be clear, variable compensation and bonuses can have a place in this expanding job market. Rewarding what you value, for increased profitability, productivity, and flexibility, can be a powerful business-growth tool. EP

Bob 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. Contact him at




Bob Williamson

Bob Williamson

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