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The Changing Role of the Craftsperson in North America

Your ability to deliver trickles up from the manufacturing floor. The number and quality of goods you can manufacture is in direct relation to the number and quality of people you're able to employ on your floor. It is a simple equation made increasingly complex by various factors, including the aging workforce and a diminishing interest in the skilled trades.

In order for your company to survive this crisis, you must aggressively pursue a three-pronged approach to the problem:

  • Recruit labor in new ways-by promoting skilled trades, forging community partnerships, and delivering accelerated training programs.
  • Retain employees by bringing greater value, challenge, ownership, and mobility to their jobs by redefining roles and streamlining training.
  • Optimize the performance of your labor, your equipment, and your processes through strategic techniques designed to make jobs easier.

Figure 1 - Skilled Trades Shortage: Estimated Timelines

Figure 1 - Skilled Trades Shortage: Estimated Timelines

When do you think your organization will face a skilled trades shortage?

In a survey conducted by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, 41 percent of respondents estimated that a skilled trade shortage was imminent in their organization within the next five years.

Adding up the numbers.

To understand how critical this crisis is, let's take a look at some statistics:

  • The average age of an industrial tradesperson today is between 50 and 55.1
  • Canada's industry will need 400,000 new workers within the next 10 years to replace retiring industrial tradespeople.1
  • Automotive parts manufacturers will be unable to fill 42 percent of skilled trades through 2007.1
  • A shortage of 334,000 skilled workers between the ages of 24 and 54 is projected by 2012 in Michigan alone.2
  • Michigan's manufacturing output stands to lose $26.7 billion because of that shortage. Compare that with a loss of $1.2 billion because of wages lost to outsourcing.2
  • A serious lack of skilled workers will begin in 2005 and grow to 5.3 million by 2010, and 14 million by 2015.3
  • More than 75 percent of the workforce must be re-trained to keep the jobs they have. 3

1Source: Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association.

2Source: Seema Chaturvedi, Managing Director, Accelerator Group.

3Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Figure 2 - Expected Increase in Demand for Industrial Skilled Trades

Figure 2 - Expected Increase in Demand for Industrial Skilled Trades

The US Labor Department projects a significant increase in the number of available jobs in certain skilled specialties between 2006 and 2012.

Understanding the reasons behind the shortage.

The reasons for the decline in skilled workers are many and complex. According to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the reasons most cited for the shortage are as follows:

  • Skilled trades are no longer viewed as desired professions. Therefore, the supply of potential candidates has decreased.
  • The educational system lacks a focus on skilled trades, resulting in a diminished supply of apprentices.
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to attract apprentices and skilled trades workers. The effort, time, and cost to train apprentices exceed the benefits.

Many subtleties exist behind these causes. For example, in the 1950s, it was commonly accepted and respected for a person to earn their high school diploma and move on to a job in manufacturing. Over the past 50 years, however, it has become increasingly more common for high school students to move on to college and for college students to transition to white-collar careers.

With that trend toward higher education, many schools have dropped shop classes and work-study programs, and guidance counselors now point students in other directions than the skilled trades. As a result, the educational culture is no longer supporting technically and manually intensive careers as it once did, and those careers are no longer accepted and respected in the ways they once were.

Further, many of the professions that used to supply skilled workers have suffered from a changing society as well. The hydraulics industry, for example, used to find well-trained, disciplined workers among those exiting the Navy in search of jobs in the private sector. Over the years, however, the military has downsized and restructured, focusing more on the retention of their people. As a result, that pipeline is drying up in the hydraulics industry.

Exploring a critical gap in capabilities.

Perhaps the biggest reason that the industry is experiencing a shortage of workforce is the gap that exists between the advancement of technology and the advancement of human capabilities. In the past century, the complexity of manufacturing systems has grown. That growth has been especially sharp over the past 20 years.

Exacerbating the situation are work rules that don't change often enough to keep pace with the increasing complexity of manufacturing systems. As a result, workers' capabilities remain far below what they need to be in order to effectively and efficiently operate and maintain equipment. A system can only rise to the level of its weakest component, and unfortunately in North American manufacturing, that weakest component is the skilled workforce.

Figure 3 - Skill and Knowledge Gap

Figure 3 - Skill and Knowledge Gap

The increase in complexity of manufacturing systems exponentially outgrew the increase in work rules and human capabilities in the last part of the 20th century.

Addressing the cultural issues that hinder interest in skilled trades.

The solution to this labor crisis begins by finding new ways to recruit and attract new workers to the skilled trades. Recruitment cannot be sufficiently accomplished merely by offering attractive salaries and benefits. As discussed previously, the problem is largely cultural, so as an industry, you need to start changing the culture back to one that values skilled trades. This can be assisted through a number of different tactics:

  • Raise awareness of careers in skilled trades by promoting them as a viable career option in the schools.
  • Promote the image of skilled trades in the media through associations and cooperative partnerships between manufacturers.
  • Lobby the government to provide financial support for employers who train apprentices.
  • Develop national standards to recognized trades, and promote ease of movement across the country.
  • Adjust legislation to make the apprenticing system more efficient and effective through accelerated skills programs.

It's important to note that any change in perception takes time. So the time to start is now. If lobbying to promote skilled trades began in schools today, it would take many years before those messages started to filter through the schools in any measurable number. It would take at least an entire educational cycle-12 years in the US-for students raised and schooled in a culture where skilled trades are promoted to consider the trades desirable.

Assuming those students enter into the current 4-year apprenticing system, it could be as much as 20 years before manufacturers start seeing an upswing in the effects of a promotional effort coming through the schools. It's a necessary step in helping the industry get where it needs to be, and it needs to begin now.

Establishing a culture of skills development.

In addition to the preceding measures, the formation of partnerships can go a long way toward revitalizing the interest in becoming a craftsperson, as well as in helping the development of skills. Some partnerships that manufacturers can look at include the following:

  • Community colleges, which can help promote and train students in skills that could develop a healthier workforce.
  • Industry associations can help in promotion, as well as training, certification, and other educational approaches. One suggestion is to establish a Master Craftsperson Certification to recognize achievement and inspire tradespersons to work toward higher goals in their careers.
  • Government-sponsored organizations that can bear some of the burden of promotion and skills development to offset the impact the shrinking manufacturing workforce will have on the economy.
  • Similar companies. This option may seem counter-intuitive, but your real competition is not coming from the manufacturer down the street-it's coming from other countries. By banding together, North American manufacturers can team up for joint training initiatives and other efforts that can fuel the promotion and perception of skilled trades.

Pursuing new avenues of recruitment.

Another change that can be made to help combat the decline of skilled workers is looking at recruiting and hiring methods with fresh eyes. The same partnerships that can help with training and promotion can also help with recruitment by revitalizing interest in the skilled trades. In addition, the following tactics can be considered:

  • Hire retired tradespersons. For a variety of reasons, including the decline of retirement programs and the increased health and vigor of those of retirement age, today's retirees are more interested in seeking work and income beyond retirement. They provide a tremendous pool of resources for sharing their expertise, working part time, and handling specialty projects.
  • Find new recruiting pools. For example, companies can begin recruiting at "non-traditional" military sites where prospects may have complimentary skills to those you seek. Those who worked on mechanical systems in the Air Force or Army, for example, may not have the exact skills you're looking for, but they do have a propensity toward understanding mechanical systems.
  • Hire specialists. One model is to hire "heavy hitters" for every shift-such as specialists in hydraulics, industrial automation, and high-voltage electrical applications-people who can troubleshoot any problem. Give these specialists enhanced benefits and importance. Let them share their expertise. This concept is similar to having a master craftsperson on duty at all times. It raises the standards of your workers and gives them something to work towards.
  • Maintain high standards. Your company's competency and competitiveness rise only as high as the level of competency of your workers. While it may be tempting to hire as many seemingly capable people as possible, consider the damage incompetence can do to your bottom line.
  • Reconsider the rules of employment. Many companies have nepotism or other rules that limit their hiring pool. Consider this: Certain trades, propensities, and skills run in the family. Children often emulate their parents and will work hard to protect and maintain their family's reputation if they choose to make a certain trade a family legacy. Your workers' families could be one of your most reliable sources of dedicated and skilled labor.


Updating your training efforts.

Once you hire new employees, the next step is to train them. But behind the training must also some forward-thinking strategies. A few ideas include the following:

  • Streamline internal training programs. The traditional model requiring years of apprenticeship training needs to be reorganized and streamlined. Many companies have had a great deal of success restructuring their programs and delivering competent workers in as little as 12 weeks for mechanical skills and 24 weeks for electrical skills.
  • Provide reliability training for technicians. Consider expanding operators' skills to include routine maintenance tasks.
  • Establish operator-to-maintenance progression. By redefining the role of the operator, you also provide a natural avenue for advancement within your company, which, in turn, helps with staffing maintenance positions.


Changing the role of the craftsperson.

Traditional operator and maintenance roles show a sharp division of labor. Operators operate; maintenance technicians maintain.

With more than 80 percent of maintenance costs attributed to 20 percent of equipment issues-ones that can be minimized by proper cleaning, lubrication, inspection, adjustments, and filtration-it not only seems natural, but necessary for the equipment operator to be involved in the maintenance process. After all, the operator knows the rhythms, sounds, and visual cues of the equipment better than anyone else. So they are in a better position to address the needs of the equipment at the point and time of need, if so empowered.

By training the operator to perform simple maintenance tasks, many benefits emerge for both roles:


  • Care for the equipment at point and time of need, and emerging issues can be more proactively diagnosed and forwarded to maintenance technicians.
  • Establish a greater sense of ownership, pride, and responsibility for the equipment, resulting in better overall care.
  • Learn skills that forge an upwardly mobile path for them to pursue as their maintenance skills and interests increase.


Maintenance Technicians:

  • Move into the role of "Equipment Care Coaches," planning and scheduling the maintenance process, overseeing procedures, and helping restructure the roles through training and other tactical strategies.
  • Focus more intently on preventive and predictive maintenance, as well as corrective repairs.
  • Develop more appreciation for their jobs because they become now more challenging and engage of all their skills.

Figure 4 - Traditional Operator and Maintenance Roles

Figure 4 - Traditional Operator and Maintenance Roles

Figure 5 - Future Operator and Maintenance Roles

Figure 5 - Future Operator and Maintenance Roles

One tactic toward combating the shortage of skilled workers and increasing interest in skilled trades is to give operators more power to maintain their equipment, thereby freeing maintenance technicians to move on to more proactive and rewarding work.

Supporting the change using visual tools.

One of the ways you can support a smooth transition for the changing role of the craftsperson is to simply bring controls, gauges, and other checkpoints out from behind closed doors. By replacing metal doors with Plexiglas windows, you remove steps from the inspection process and simplify the task.

Another tactic is to standardize or otherwise simplify the reading of gauges and controls by indicating ideal conditions on the gauge plate, as illustrated in Figure 6. This idea can be repeated throughout the plant to indicate the following:

  • Normal operating range for gauges
  • Acceptable reservoir unit levels
  • Type and directional flow of hoses and pipes
  • Direction of rotation on motors, drives, and pumps
  • Lube points and types
  • Temperature of equipment with temperature-sensitive decals
  • Replacement dates and schedules

Figure 6 - Visual Controls

Figure 6 - Visual Controls

By removing metal doors and replacing them with Plexiglas, gauges are easier to access. Standardized or intuitive markings used to indicate ideal operational levels make them easier to read, too. These small changes pay off big by reducing training and increasing the capabilities of operators when it comes to helping maintain their equipment.

Figure 7 - Simplifying Routine Inspections

Figure 7 - Simplifying Routine Inspections

Inspections can be further simplified by taking pictures of inspection points, labeling them, and making laminated guides those technicians can use on their inspection rounds. On the back of each sheet is a checklist outlining inspections points and expected readings.

Simplifying and reinforcing training

You can reinforce trained procedures with simple, one-point lessons that remind operators of best practices. Located at the site of inspection, these quick guides visually and verbally outline a maintenance procedure step-by-step.

One other way to reinforce skills is to provide a computer terminal at the point of operation or analysis with Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) capabilities. The EPSS is embedded within the equipment operating system so that when a failure occurs, for example, instructions on repairing the system are automatically made available. In essence, whenever the system requires an operational, recovery, or repair procedure, it not only informs you of the need, but also of the means by which you can correct it.

Moving toward change

The strategies and tactics presented in this paper are just the beginning of the things you can do to accommodate the changing role of the craftsperson in your firm. The workforce crisis facing manufacturing will not go away on its own. It must be addressed. And by looking for new ways to recruit qualified labor, promote the benefits of the technical trades, redefine the role of the craftsperson, and streamline your re-training efforts, you will be taking a step in the right direction.

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