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Where Have All the Bearing Scrapers Gone?

Finding people with the required technical skills has long been a problem,even before the decline in manufacturing.This author recalls a conversation some years ago with a vocational/technical school director in Pennsylvania.When asked to name the biggest problem facing vocational/technical schools, the director was quick to respond,"Difficulty in finding quality students." The director continued by saying his own students referred to the school as "sped school." "Sped" is a derogatory term referring to special education.

This conversation and conversations with other vo-tech administrators indicate that quality students are difficult to find because of the stigma placed on vo-tech training in general. Young people have been conditioned to believe vo-tech training is for people who can't make the grade in college. This is puzzling because many jobs requiring vo-tech training are actually better paying jobs than some white-collar jobs. A solution to the problem would need to include a heightened effort by educators to change attitudes toward vo-tech training. This isn't likely to happen because many educators see lending support to votech training as downplaying the importance of college. This situation is most unfortunate because there are many college graduates who are employed in sub-level service jobs. If they had the proper technical skills, perhaps they could find employment in more lucrative skilled trades jobs.

Our educational system provides a solid foundation in basic content, but does a poor job in matching education to the jobs that are available.The paradigm in the U.S. is to complete high school and go to college without really assessing the aptitudes of students. Most students have no idea what jobs will best suit them. Aptitude testing in the United States is willy-nilly at best. The training paradigm is slow to change direction in meeting training needs. To reverse declining enrollments in career and technical education, schools need to restructure their programs and rebuild their image. Traditional vocational programs provide students with job specific skills that many parents view as too narrow for their children.

Until those needs are met, companies are still faced with the challenge of finding skilled people to fill technical positions. Even in times of economic downturns with many people looking for work, thousands of technical jobs go unfilled because qualified people can't be found2.

Another reason for the difficulty in replacing baby boomers is that some of their skills are so specialized that there is little or no formal training for those skills. The scraping of plain bearings is an example. Large rotors, such as those found in the turbines of power plants, are supported in plain bearings. Large plain bearings consist of a soft metal (Babbitt) that is bonded onto a steel housing. The soft metal is intended to protect the harder rotor shaft from damage during times of boundary lubrication or loss of lubrication. In order for these bearings to operate properly, the surface of the Babbitt must be precisely shaped. The proper shape is obtained by scraping away some of the Babbitt. Scienceand art are involved in obtaining the proper shape. A highly trained individual with an art for this work is required to do the scraping. This author recalls a plain bearing failure on a mill drive motor in a steel mill. The bearing was replaced only to fail soon after start-up. Another bearing was installed which also failed in short order. The company called the bearing manufacturer requesting help. The manufacturer sent in an elderly gentleman who appeared to be in his 70s. The old gent's hands shook whenever he picked up one of his scraping tools. However, when he was finished, the mill was up and running and that bearing did not fail again. That old fellow is long gone. Over the years, this author has met several craftspeople who possessed bearing scraping skills. They are all gone. It is probable that there are no good estimates on how many bearing scrapers are present in the U.S. today.This is all reminiscent of a NASA statement concerning manned lunar landings where a spokesperson declared, "If we wanted to land a person on the moon today, considerable time would be required because all of those who knew how to do the job are now retired." 

In a conversation with a contractor who supplies craftspeople for various companies in Gulf Coast states, the supplier confided that his most perplexing problem was not being able to fill all the requests from companies needing qualified craftspeople. The contractor went on to say that when a company orders a length of pipe, it is simply a matter of knowing its specifications and acquiring the piece of pipe. He said the same should be true for craftspeople. However, that isn't the case. For example, all electricians don't have the same specifications or abilities. The contractor stated that he has no easy way of determining an electrician's qualifications. He's selling a product that he hasn't been able to measure. This makes his job extremely difficult.

What is the best process a company can use to fill the skills vacancies left by the exodus of baby boomers? There is probably no one best answer, but there are a few options to consider. Keep in mind there is a best answer for each individual company, but because there are large differences in companies' sizes and needs, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Finding the proper craftspeople is a process that should begin with a plan. The first step in this plan is to accurately assess needs and determine which skills are required to meet company goals. The hiring process should not begin until the required skills are known. After the required skills are determined, measures should be developed to determine if prospective craftspeople do, indeed, possess those skills. An interview process has long been the standard for determining if craftspeople possess the proper skills. However, a major drawback to the interview process is that it can be too subjective. Before any interviews are conducted, there should be an objective set of requirements defined for the interview. The interview process should be highly structured and documented. Nothing should be left to chance. Requirements for interviewees should consist of portfolios, resumes, schooling, degrees, certification, experience, skills performance demonstrations,testing, prior work experience, recommendations and any other items that will help ensure the hiring of the proper person. Skills requirements can be filled by hiring or contracting electricians, millwrights, pipe fitters, etc., or by obtaining craftspeople who are multi-crafted. There are several advantages to having multi-crafted personnel, but these individuals are also more difficult to find. 

A decision should be made to either perform the work in-house or contract it out. Many times, a company will use both options. There are pros and cons to both solutions and the answer will depend on several factors.Such factors may include: Are people with the needed skills available in the area? Are there any contracting companies nearby that can provide skilled people? Will contracting out the work be more cost-effective than hiring inhouse employees? Are the required skills rarely needed?

A thorough assessment should be made in order to determine which avenue will meet company goals and provide the highest return on investment. If a decision is made to contract the work out,a company should have written specifications detailing what is expected from the employment agency in regards to the skill levels of the craftspeople provided. Certifications and licenses are examples of what may be required. Prestigious certifications do not guarantee a craftsperson has the required skills, but is a good indicator of skill levels.

Some companies have determined that it is more cost-effective to have in-house craftspeople performing technical work.One advantage of an inhouse workforce is it is easier to instill a sense of ownership in the employee.Companies can partner with local technical colleges to ensure the craftspeople they hire will have the proper skills. Vo-tech schools can tailor classes to meet the skills requirements of their partnered companies.

Apprenticeships work well for training craftspeople. Companies can draw from their existing employee base, ensuring their employees will have the required skills. There are long-term costs associated with developing and managing apprenticeship programs, so all factors should be thoroughly explored before any decision is made to enter into such a process.

Pay-per-skills programs are another good way for companies to ensure their workers have the needed skills. In these programs, workers are given incremental raises as they acquire new skills.If done properly,pay-per-skills is an excellent way of assuring the needed skills will be present in the company. As with apprenticeships, there are considerable costs and efforts associated with developing and managing a proper pay-per-skills process. In order for such a process to be sustainable, a long-term commitment is required. If administered fairly, pay-per-skills programs are also wonderful morale builders.

Although obtaining craftspeople with the necessary skills may not be easy, it can be managed if treated as a process. This is one area where doing it right the first time is critical for success. Bringing the wrong person on board results in several losses. The initial effort and cost in hiring that person, as well as having to do the rework of finding the right person, are all expenses. Some companies compound the error by hiring two people to do the work of one.

Companies consist of capital assets, physical assets and people.Basically, people are the company because they manage all the assets.Therefore,no process is more important than the process used to bring people into a company. This process needs to be well-defined and fully documented. Since all company goals are directly determined by the hiring process, the basic directive is not to "take who you can get, but to get who you need."



William (Bill) Hillman, CMRP, has more than 30 years in the steel industry and six years in wood products manufacturing as a predictive maintenance trainer for Temple-Inland. His entire career has been in equipment asset management, of which more than 20 years has been dedicated to predictive maintenance. Currently, he spends his time writing for numerous professional magazines, having had several articles published as a technical contributor for LUDECA,INC.,a leading provider of machinery alignment,vibration analysis and balancing equipment.

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