The Top Challenges for the Ohio Maintenance Industry in 2015

Thursday 13 Aug 2015

Today’s maintenance managers face many different and growing challenges. They’re helping factories build more complicated products using increasingly sophisticated equipment with faster production schedules that demand streamlined preventative maintenance cycles. Throw in an older, retiring workforce that is leaving a sizeable skills gap and an influx in the number of manufacturing facilities competing for new talent. All of these factors combined create some serious issues coming up that affect the manufacturing maintenance industry over the next decade.

The Outlook for Manufacturing in Ohio

Particularly in Ohio, maintenance challenges are exacerbated by a large outflow of younger workers from major manufacturing hubs like Cleveland, Youngstown, and Dayton after the 2008 recession. Ohio is not the only state in the Midwest to experience declining a declining manufacturing labor force, but it is unique in that this rate of decline is actually increasing over the past decade. Seven of the state's eight largest cities have recorded population declines of 8% or higher, two of those cities Cleveland and Youngstown are among the fastest shrinking cities across the entire country in 2010. That’s a lot of potential tradespeople who have left the local workforce and could have been trained to fill the void left by retirees. The skills gap that everyone’s talking about in manufacturing definitely exists in Ohio.

Ohio City Population Loss, 2010 Census

However, from a labor supply perspective, the situation certainly hasn’t slowed down the demand for people in the manufacturing industry. Since 2010 over 3,200 new manufacturing shops have started in Ohio, creating some 40,000+ new jobs. That’s over 5% of the entire manufacturing workforce and yet there’s still a demand for even more trained workers! These are great times if you’re in Ohio and working in the manufacturing business, but if you’re a manager at an existing manufacturing firm, you’ve now got a lot more competition drawing from the same talent pool.

Emerging trends in Ohio Manufacturing

So how do you meet these challenges? Recruiting people from out of state can be expensive and time consuming, but productivity is paramount to the manufacturing business and you need skilled labor to meet the demands for your products. Are you looking at one of the following tactics to address this situation?

Will you adopt Robots to work with your production needs?

The demand for smartphones is driving down the cost of components that also happen to be used in modern robot manufacturing. The same sensors that determine whether your phone is in landscape or picture mode are used to build collaborative robots that sense where their employees are and adjust to work alongside them. What does that mean to your operations? Well, the cost of robots is steadily decreasing while advances in programming make it easier to incorporate robots to work with your production team. Robots aren’t just used with the big three auto makers anymore. Manufacturers large and small use them for repetitive tasks so that human workers can be redeployed to more detailed, sensitive jobs that best suit them and yields more output at less cost. (Hagerty)

Are you introducing Programmable Logic Controllers to your operations?

PLCs have been mainstays for manufacturing plants for over 50 years now, but they’re becoming smaller, more powerful (in terms of memory and processing speed), and are easier to communicate with other equipment in a plant. That means a newer mid-level PLC and can do some of the same higher level functions that used to require an older, more expensive, high-end PLC. Today’s controllers and their sister equipment Programmable Automation Controllers (PACs) can be networked using the same Ethernet we use online so they can be easily accessed and programmed from other terminals and areas of the plant.

Is your plant moving to high tech manufacturing processes?

Today’s increasingly pervasive digital age generates a huge demand for high tech products, as well as all of the accessories used with devices such as the latest smartphone model. Did you know that for every iteration of Apple’s iPhone, the company needs to manufacture over 10 million units to match demand in its distribution model? The aftermarket accessories market was $20 billion in 2012 and is projected to grow to $62 billion by 2017. (ABI Research, 2012) Regardless of whether you manufacture electronics or not, that demand ripples throughout the economy and produces a huge opportunity for manufacturers.

Are you retiring key staff over the next few years?

As mentioned previously, the skills gap is coming and it’s projected to come within the next 10 years. It’s worth asking yourself how much of your production process is considered proprietary and requires unique skills? Are there tasks that are so unique to your manufacturing operations that only a few people know how to do them? How long have those employees been with you and how much longer do you expect them to stay? Will a new employee need some time to learn those skills? Is that something that he can develop by himself or is an experienced mentor required to teach him to do those tasks?

Do you have enough trained staff to grow the business?

Yes, jobs require people with skills to learn and succeed in their roles. But what is really required for a person to start in that role? Is it essential that they have a four-year bachelor’s degree, a two-year Associates degree or diploma, or a training certificate with some on-the-job training? If a person is missing a few skills, do you have the resources to help develop that person in house? Will you offer that person outside training or are there mentorship programs inside of your business?

Bridging the Skills Gap

In the short term, the skills gap demands creative solutions to find people who can plug into your business and – just as importantly – stay there after they learn the job. It requires one part recruitment strategy, one part job-training, and one part flexibility with your business processes.

What kind of employee is needed

The work needs to get done, but who (or what) really needs to get it done for you? A professional engineer is a really valuable team member, but you could hire someone who has experience with some of these engineering concepts to handle the daily maintenance work and have your senior engineers supervise that work. This helps to train other people for their skills. Could a graduate student help with these skills?

The Robot

Payback Period for a RobotYou might not even need another person at all! With the increasing adoption of robotics and technology in manufacturing plants, it might make sense to use robotics to automate this part of your production. That doesn’t mean having a walking, talking robot like something you’d see in The Jetsons or the movie iRobot, but it might mean incorporating a robotic arm or a programmable automation controller. A little finance wherewithal is required here. Take a piece of paper or a spreadsheet and add up the total costs for purchase, installation, and maintenance of a robot in one column and compare that against your salary, benefits, and other hiring costs over a period of time in another column. Then find the point in time where each of these costs equals each other. The finance people call the point where these two columns are equal the Payback Period. If your Payback Period is a short enough length of time then that’s a good sign that you should be shopping around for the right robotic technicians for your business.

The Contractor

The contractor is a skilled specialist who can be either an entrepreneur coming in as a consultant or an overly qualified employee looking for extra work for a shortened period of time. It’s a great group of people because they already have the skills you need and can quickly help your team meet their goals without the extra time required to onboard a new employee. However, the hourly price you pay for them is usually higher than a salaried employee and there’s a risk that they might not be available at the moment that you need them.

Equipment vendors are often a good place to start looking for contractors, particularly if you’re looking for a technician to help with a specific piece of equipment, such as a Rockwell PLC. They have gone through the training and have received certification on this equipment directly from the vendor. They are usually the highest on the scale of pricing and their skills are specialized to the point where you might encounter limitations if you have equipment from several vendors serving different functions on the shop floor.

Recruitment agencies like Manpower often keep a record of contractors on file as well. These are usually job seekers who are looking for full time work, but are willing to take short term commitments in the interim. You might find a long term employee from this group of contractors, but there are added fees that go to the recruiters if you decide to offer a full time job to a recruiter. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that recruiters usually aren’t skilled technicians themselves so you’ll need to do the interviews and keep a sharp eye to find the person with the right qualifications for the job.

The Loyal Employee

Mentoring photo at Metal Seal Precision Ltd.
Image Source: Metal Seal Precision

Sometimes finding skilled technicians is just a matter of looking at your current payroll. Who are the employees that have been with you for a significant period of time and are keen to learn new skills? How much time and effort is required to get them to a skill level required to operate new business? You already know that these people are a great match for your company culture and it’s likely to assume that they will stick with you for the long term. They also have the benefit of knowing the current base of technicians for support if necessary as that group starts to retire.

Getting your current staff to learn new skills is the biggest challenge. Who are the right candidates to train as technicians? You need employees who have been with you for a long enough period of time to confirm they are a good fit for the business, but not for such a long period of time that they are considered mission critical to their current roles in the firm. Can an employee job shadow or apprentice a technician and learn the job or is a formal training program required?

Formalized training for employees can come in the form of continuing education courses or seminars at a local community college, a university, or a trade association. But after travel expenses those programs can often cost as much as $10,000. Many larger companies use online training from learning management systems (LMSs) which is software that is usually on the company intranet and offers customized courseware for employees. While larger organizations can afford to justify the cost of an LMS, they are often too expensive for smaller firms. They also don’t have the means to cover more complicated technical concepts required for an industrial technician role and thus they don’t usually offer industry recognized certifications.

At George Brown College, we’ve developed a series of technical training programs that are specifically developed for the individual employee to learn the necessary skills to become a qualified technician. Each of the programs is self-paced using a home or work computer so your staff can complete a learning module based on their schedules and write an exam at their convenience. The programs cover topics like Robotics, Automation, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), Electronics, and Electromechanical skills. Each program includes simulation software specifically designed to gain hands on learning without the risk and time-cost of using on-site production equipment. Many students have commented that they enjoy taking the necessary courses without having to travel and leave their families, which is great from an employer perspective because it completely eliminates their travel expenses.

With an accredited certificate from a college in hand, a graduate can immediately apply their skills on the job. It’s a rewarding, transformative experience that lets a new employee contribute to the business in a fresh, rewarding way. Employers now have the flexibility to deploy and maintain robotic processes, expand into electronics, and deal with the transition as their key employees start to retire.


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