HR: The missing link to reliability

Johnny Maldonado
Tags: maintenance and reliability

What role does the human resources department play in the reliability of your plant?

In today’s industrial environment, HR is becoming less involved in the areas of recruitment, training and succession planning of qualified craftsmen. Some of these areas have been eliminated by management through years of cost-cutting. Since there is no quick return for time and money invested in these areas, they become easy targets. In addition, on-the-job training (OJT) is viewed as an adequate, all-inclusive training program. Simply place the new hire with one of your more “senior” craftsmen and, after a couple of weeks, the “new guy” should be ready to tackle most of the problems he will encounter. The few he hasn’t been “trained” on, he’ll need to figure out on his own.

Do the statements above characterize your company’s philosophy? HR management plays a key role in the selection and development of skilled labor. Management misunderstanding of this role has contributed to the decline of qualified craftsmen in facilities and manufacturing maintenance. A plant won’t achieve reliability excellence without adequately addressing these areas. Furthermore, companies that manage to reach increased reliability by focusing on other areas alone (planning and scheduling, reliability engineering, etc.) won’t be able to sustain the improvements without effectively addressing the three HR areas:

  • Recruitment

  • Training

  • Succession planning

Several factors have contributed to the neglect of these key HR functions. Most of these factors are rooted in cost-cutting measures driven by shortsighted management philosophies. This article will discuss why recruitment, training and succession planning have failed (and will continue to fail) to meet the needs of the industrial labor pool for maintenance departments. This pool is currently supplied by vocational, apprenticeship, OJT and two-year degree programs.

SECONDARY VOCATION PROGRAMS

According to the 2004 National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE) report published by the U.S. Department of Education, there is “little evidence of an ongoing drop” in secondary vocational education. Though participation did decline between 1982 and 1992, it appears to have reached a steady level (1992 to 2000). However, there has been a significant decline in the number of students that choose to concentrate in trade and industry vocational courses. Moreover, the data reflects that a greater percentage of students have taken vocational courses as “occupational investors” (i.e. students who don’t take all of their credit hours in the same vocational occupation). This could signify that many high schools students are taking vocational courses for reasons other than preparing for an entry-level position in industry.

The assessment alludes to potential future declines in secondary vocational programs resulting from “academic reforms” like expanded graduating requirements and grade assessments.

APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAMS

The federal program office responsible for the National Registered Apprenticeship System (NRAS) reports on data retrieved from the Apprenticeship Information Management System (AIMS). AIMS information is collected from 36 participating states. The reports from fiscal year 2000 to FY2003 show a 15 percent decline in registered apprenticeship programs. Of the registered programs, those classified under the manufacturing category declined 14 percent during the same time period. This reduction translated to a 14 percent reduction of apprentices from FY2000 to FY2003. Though the manufacturing category does include programs other than industrial craftsman occupations, the data still is statistically significant.

In today’s environment, OJT has often become the sole training requirement at a plant. In most cases, any resemblance to a formal training program was cut from the budget. OJT can be a very effective training method if administered correctly; however, many companies fail to do so. OJT training normally consists of a two- to three-week period of working with a “qualified” technician, at which time the new technician is deemed qualified and ready to work alone.

As you can see with this scenario, an employee that has been on site for less than one month can potentially train a newly hired technician. This practice definitely introduces failures into any operation. Those failures are termed self-induced because they are avoidable if the right practice or process is put in place.

So where does your HR department fit in with this background information? Before that is discussed, one more topic should be broached. This deals with the demographics of today’s U.S. labor force.



In the 2004-’05 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the U.S. Department of Labor projects a 43.6 percent increase in the 55-to-64 age group from 2002 to 2012. On the other hand, the 35-to-44 age group will decrease in size during the same time period. This decrease reflects the expected void following the baby boomer generation. The same document projects a 4.3 percent decline in the “primary working age group,” defined as those 25 to 54 years old.

These projections, compounded with the increase of “service-providing industries” and the decrease of “goods-producing industries,” will create an environment where the primary age group will become biased to service-related occupations, not to industrial maintenance occupations. Though these occupations will see some growth (approximately 5 percent) between 2002 and 2012, it will have a smaller labor pool from which to draft. Of the 2 million or so projected openings in the installation, maintenance and repair occupations (2002 to 2012), less than half are expected to be due to growth. The majority will be due to replacement needs. In addition to the obstacles discussed, there is also a cultural phenomenon contributing to the availability of qualified maintenance technicians. The age of computers and the Internet has brought industrial America to the advent of a generation of young adults that feels more comfortable sitting behind a computer in a cubicle than working with tools in an industrial environment.

So, how can HR help deal with this impending situation? It can assist, quite simply, by getting back to some of the basics: recruitment, training and succession planning.

RECRUITMENT

There are various methods and tools available for recruitment, such as the use of Web sites like Monster and Hotjobs. Whether or not HR chooses to have an internal recruiter, the use of professional headhunters can be helpful in filling maintenance positions.

There are also other creative ways to hire skilled candidates. For instance, most military installations have something similar to a placement agency where personnel ending their stint are helped to transition into the civilian workforce.

With a shrinking skilled labor pool, employees must be resourceful in their recruitment efforts.

TRAINING

Maintenance managers are encountering more difficulty in dealing with the next two areas of HR management: training and succession planning.

Some of the general concerns with OJT have already been highlighted, but there are two other critical issues to point out. First, consider the use of OJT to train technicians for lower-level skills like lubrication and inspections. Though these may seem like skills that are easily developed in a couple of weeks on the job, quality training comes from the time and dedicated effort of a qualified trainer. For example, a good OJT program would cover proper equipment lubrication, including the negative effects of under- and over-lubricating. Best practices on collecting lubrication samples should also be covered. Preventive maintenance inspections are critical to maintaining equipment reliability. A pitfall maintenance organizations fall into today is assuming that lower-level skilled technicians can handle these inspections.\

Second, you should use a disciplined approach to OJT to ensure best practices are taught instead of bad habits.

For higher-level skill requirements, OJT will, more often than not, prove to be insufficient. Skills in areas like mechanical alignment, welding, PLC programming and equipment calibration require formal training programs to be successful. The bottom line is that OJT alone won’t provide the level of training required to maintain a sustainable level of plant reliability. There is definitely a place for OJT in a craftsman’s training program. However, it should be accompanied by a controlled and verifiable process.

Here is where your HR department can and should be of assistance. Its expertise in developing Job Task Analyses (JTAs) can be utilized to create a list of criteria required for each craftsman position.

So, how do you deal with those training requirements that need formal classroom-type teaching? Once again, here is an area that usually is non-existent at most facilities. The attitude many companies have in today’s market is that training dollars are better spent by someone else. They hire individuals that gained the needed training and experience at a previous job. Those individuals are placed on a quick (and uncontrolled) two-week OJT program and then turned loose. Well, it’s true that if a technician is not going to be placed through some type of apprenticeship program, it’s best to hire experienced technicians from the outside. Even the most qualified technician, when introduced into a new facility, will have a learning curve to overcome. HR can help you identify these gaps in knowledge so that a detailed training program can be created. The creation of a generic training program is recommended, though, to handle all incoming knowledge levels. If needed, this program can be tailored to an individual’s weak areas.

There are few companies in industry today that use a formal three- to four-year training program to groom incoming technicians. Those programs still out there are normally used to train former site operators that have been accepted into the maintenance department. These programs are normally comprised of a combination of classroom, hands-on and on-the-job training. In some cases, they meet state and federal apprenticeship requirements. The key, once again, is that there is a formal process which leads to a consistent and comprehensive training program. HR can work with your maintenance organization to formalize such a program.

As previously discussed, apprenticeship and vocational program memberships are beginning to decline. So, it will become harder to find new hires with the basic fundamental training needed for these positions. It will be left up to the employer to fill in the gaps and ensure the technician is capable of performing his job. Otherwise, companies will continue to experience self-induced failures due to improper installation and repair. The effect of the future labor pool will be compounded by the demographics of the next 10 to 15 years.

The data presented earlier in this article indicates there could be a large number of retirements in the U.S. workforce within the near future. This change will be the result of many of the baby boomers reaching the 55-and-above age group. This projection becomes reality as you begin to look at maintenance departments throughout the country. Experience shows that the median age of craftsmen in the manufacturing sector is within the ages of 45 and 55. The stage is now set for a dilemma that will be plaguing U.S. industry for the next several years. The number of retirees will outnumber the number of available qualified technicians.

This leaves companies only one alternative: create a training program that could be utilized for any individual regardless of previous training or experience. Once a gap analysis is done with incoming experienced technicians, you may choose to fast-track training. On the other extreme, new hires that have no previous experience or training would require a complete program.

SUCCESSION PLANNING

There is one fundamental problem that won’t be addressed by your newly created program, and that is how to deal with succession planning. It’s safe to say that, based on the statistics shown, if an organization hasn’t begun to plan for future replacements, it is behind the eight-ball.

Succession planning isn’t hiring someone’s replacement two days before he or she retires. Though this seems to be common practice, it isn’t recommended. When you consider the obstacles that will be encountered in the future along with the availability of qualified individuals, it’s a daunting predicament.

All of the issues mentioned in this article should be taken into account to ensure a smooth transition of knowledge as senior technicians begin to retire. Otherwise, the consequences will be detrimental to a plant’s productivity as it faces failures resulting from knowledge gaps in their maintenance departments.

CONCLUSION

HR management can and will affect a company’s ability to reach a world-class state of reliability excellence. Maintenance and HR managers should align themselves on how to best handle these impending resource issues before they become a problem. Reliability excellence is everyone’s responsibility.

Johnny Maldonado is a senior consultant for Life Cycle Engineering, a company specializing in reliability and maintenance solutions. For more information, call 843-744-7110, e-mail jmaldonado@lce.com or visit www.lce.com.


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