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Delayed Retribution - The Demise of Skilled Trades Apprenticeship Programs

by Doug Plucknette


We are performing a reliability centered maintenance (RCM) analysis on a critical piece of rotating equipment and discussing the mitigating tasks for misalignment. I ask the team if the maintenance group has a laser alignment tool to facilitate precision alignment each time the unit is uncoupled and recoupled.

Team: “No, we have looked at a few, but haven’t been given money to purchase one.”

Me: “Can you perform the precision alignment with reverse dial indicators? You can achieve precision alignment this way as well.”

Team: “I don’t think we have anyone in our shop who knows how to do that and if we did, I’m not sure operations would give us the time to do it.”

Me: “You haven’t been trained on how to perform precision alignment with dial indicators?

I take it your company doesn’t have a formal apprenticeship program?”

Team: “No, they stopped the program over 20 years ago and it doesn’t look like we will ever get another one.”

This is the same story for an alarmingly increasing number of manufacturing plants in the United States today. Formal skilled trades apprenticeship programs have nearly become extinct and as a result, fewer and fewer tradespeople have the knowledge and capability to perform critical precision maintenance tasks. At the same time, the people who manage these companies are seeking the assistance of consultants like me to help improve the reliability of their critical assets.

I guess we are in a classic catch-22 once again. World-class equipment reliability requires a sound design that is ensured at the time of installation using precision maintenance techniques. This is followed up with a proactive maintenance strategy based on failure modes that include the corresponding condition-based or preventive maintenance tasks. If we do not have the equipment and/or the capabilities to perform precision maintenance, the expectation of world-class reliability can never be achieved.

Even more importantly, as predictive maintenance technologies improve, our maintenance technicians now have the capability to detect, identify and mitigate failure modes if (and this is a BIG if) they understand precision maintenance techniques and have the ability to identify failure modes. From my point of view, having worked with thousands of maintenance craftspeople at hundreds of companies around the world, those who have not been properly trained in maintenance techniques are far less likely to grasp and retain these critical concepts.

So, how did we get here? How is it that over the last 40 years apprentice programs across the United States have almost completely disappeared from manufacturing companies large and small to a point where some of the younger managers have no idea what I am referring to when I ask if they have an apprenticeship program?

Even more importantly, how do we reverse this trend and get today’s corporate executives to understand the importance of formal skilled trades apprenticeship programs?

When attempting to drive change, I believe in leaving my emotions at home and showing up to the challenge with data!

Thus began the painful task of looking back through the last few years of RCM analyses that were performed for companies around the globe either by myself or one of our certified facilitators. While we had hundreds of analyses I could look at, the criteria was simple: I needed to select a few companies that I know had formal apprenticeship programs and another handful that I was certain did not provide formal skilled trades training (Figure 1). I was interested in looking for a few things to see if I could identify the impact that formal skilled trades training has with regards to the failure modes we analyze.

  1. Do the companies that invest in skilled trades apprenticeship programs have significantly less failure modes associated with improper installation, misalignment, improper torque, improper balance, or improper lubrication?
  2. Do companies who believe that experienced skilled tradespeople are as common as buttons on a shirt and require no special training or education suffer or benefit from this belief?

While this is just a quick sample (Figure 1), it is quite clear that companies that do not have or require formal apprenticeship training programs are more than 3.6 times more likely to suffer from failure modes where the defect is caused at the time of installation than companies who do offer formal skilled trades training. The most common failure modes for these companies occur at the time of installation or replacement and have a direct impact on the life of the equipment. With the understanding that if we do not provide formal skills training for maintenance technicians, it will result in increased failures induced at the time of installation, we should now look at the impact that training has on the overall life of the affected components.

part2Figure 1

To do this, I reviewed the same data and looked at the frequency of failures for each component where the failure modes of improper installation were addressed in the RCM analyses (Figure 2).

part2Figure 2

Looking at this data, we can see that companies that have formal apprenticeship programs still do, on occasion, suffer from failure modes induced at the time of installation, but the frequency of these failures is at a much lower rate. We can conclude this by developing an overall frequency for the three companies that have formal training and comparing it to the frequency for the companies that do not offer training.

The frequency of failure modes induced at installation for companies that have apprenticeship training programs (1, 2 and 3) is one time in 10.44 years.

The frequency of failure modes induced at installation for companies that do not offer formal training (4, 5 and 6) is 1.88 years.

From this, we can conclude that if your company is not offering formal skilled trades apprenticeship programs, or is not hiring technicians who have completed such a program, it will not only suffer from an increased number of individual failure modes induced at installation (3.6 times), but also the mean time between failure (MTBF) of each component will be greatly reduced (1.88 years vs. 10.44 years). Based on this knowledge, how can you expect to achieve world-class reliability if you do not have a way of training your people?

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Douglas Plucknette

Doug Plucknette is the founder of Reliability Solutions, Inc., and has worked with large industrial companies worldwide, helping them improve their reliability and operational performance. He is the author of the books, “Reliability Centered Maintenance Using RCM Blitz™” and “Clean, Green and Reliable,” and has published over 60 articles. He has been a featured speaker at numerous industry conferences.

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