Column Maintenance Reliability

Who’s Going To Fix The Stuff?

EP Editorial Staff | September 1, 2022

Manufacturing systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated at a time when we are facing a severe, long-term shortage of people with the skills needed to maintain those systems.

About thirty years ago a group of reliability and maintenance practitioners from various companies was discussing what a professional organization for maintenance and reliability should entail.

That was the beginning of the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP, smrp.org). I remember many of these discussions being about how to raise the level of awareness and importance of this work, attain recognition as a profession, and establish common best practices. Much progress has been made since then, as evidenced by improved tools, techniques, and operational performance results. However, the stigma of a maintainer still leaves room for improvement, with too many outside of maintenance still not understanding. 

In 2021, there were 1,444,000 “General Maintenance and Repair Workers” in the United Sates (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook). Expected growth (2020 to 2030) is 8%, same as the industry average for all occupations. Openings each year are projected at about 152,300 mainly because of retirees and transfers to other occupations. When you read the handbook’s description of how to become a General Maintenance and Repair worker it states, “typically requires a high school diploma or equivalent.…often learn their skills on the job for several years. They start out performing simple tasks while watching and learning from skilled maintenance workers.” 

Industrial Machinery Mechanics, Machinery Maintenance Workers, and Millwrights are at 501,500 workers (2020). It’s stated that these jobs typically require a high school diploma and at least a year of on-the-job training. Most millwrights go through an apprenticeship program that may last four years. On the upside, a 19% growth is anticipated (2020 to 2030). But where are they all going to come from? Most of the companies I’m in contact with are looking for skilled trades. A National Association of Business Economics (NABE) survey indicated that 57% of respondents confirmed this shortage. 

In a Washington Post article (9/4/21), “Why America has 8.4 million unemployed when there are 10 million job openings,” the author states that the last wave of baby boomers is retiring. As a result of the COVID pandemic (and future uncertainties), people have changed their expectations regarding what they want from a job, what they are willing to do, and how they want to work. If your maintenance workers aren’t treated like part of the team that matters, they have other choices.

I’m hearing about some apprentice programs beginning again, but that’s already four years too late and not enough. Many skilled trades/technicians are using predictive technologies, condition-based monitoring, working with machine learning, and performing root-cause analysis with related analytics. They’re on design teams for new projects, providing input and reviewing design for maintainability for new equipment. 

You’ll still need repairs in five to ten years, but the skilled trades may say, “That’s something I can’t repair for you remotely, so it’s going to cost you three times as much…and if you need it quickly that’s an extra premium, because there aren’t enough of us.” We need to fix the problem. EP

Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at kblache@utk.edu.

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