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MRO Education: National industry certifications are closing the skills gap

To reap the full benefits of certifications, industry and academia have to continue to enhance their support.

By ·
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By ·

Materials handling and logistics covers a range of technologies, from manual picking and packing to completely automated warehousing, storage, retrieval, distribution, including information transferring and coordination.

Although many of the basics have remained the same, technology, engineered solutions, controls and programming have all advanced over the past decades. The technician hired today needs advanced controls and programming skills in addition to the basic mechanical and electrical skills.

As a whole, the labor pool is getting older. This is a simple statistical fact because of the larger number of skilled workers that were involved in technical work over the past decades as compared to the smaller number of workers with these skills today. As the workforce ages, more and more technicians with important basic mechanical and electrical skills are retiring.

Until only recently, I have witnessed fewer and fewer people beginning this type of technical work. Within the past year, enrollments and graduation rates in the technical area have been increasing. It will take many years for this increase to offset those leaving.

Students who graduate from any technical program today probably have less hands-on experience than those that graduated years ago. While the technical program may include just as much hands-on lab time, the younger student probably has less real-world experience. When your TV last quit working, did you repair it, or did you get a new TV? When the starter on your car no longer started the engine, did you replace it with your son, or did you have someone at a shop do it? These basic mechanical skills are leaving the workforce as technicians retire.

Just as we outsource our TV repair to a knowledgeable third party, so have some organizations tried to outsource warehousing, fulfillment or maintenance. However, there is no outsourcing a response to the industry’s skilled labor shortage, which requires all hands on deck.

When hiring or engaging the services of technicians, it’s important to consider:

  • the educational level you need,
  • the skills the technician needs to have, and
  • the compensation that those skills are worth.

Many employers want a technician to know everything the retiring technician knows. This is impossible. Consider that the retiring technician developed these skills over the past many years. A two- or four-year college program cannot teach everything. Even with several programming classes, I can only teach the basics to my students—as compared to someone with 20 or more years of experience and training.

What does this mean to the employer? When you find a younger technician that has most of the skills you are looking for: Hire them. Then, start sending them to training—seminars, classes, trade shows and trips to tour manufacturer’s sites. Consider an educational program of your own. A qualified engineer can give a seminar to technicians about a new system or component. If your place of work is remote, this idea of teaching within the company is even more important.

Engagement with students and prospective hires

There are several ways to engage with future hires at a technical school or college. First, colleges usually have one or two career days or job fairs during the year. This is a good way for your company to get the word out, like a trade show at the local college level. Second, contact the deans or full-time faculty of the area that may be training technicians. If looking for maintenance technicians, they may have a program that teaches most of what you are looking for.

The college program may be called a variety of things:

  • Mechatronics>/li>
  • Automation, Industrial Technology
  • Industrial Maintenance, etc.

Faculty are usually more than willing to talk about their program, give you a tour of their spaces and introduce you to students. You may also be able to talk directly with the current students during one of the higher-level classes and do a quick presentation of your company and what you are looking for. If you are unable to find prospective employees with the right experience, start here.

Industry/academia relationship and engagement

Colleges with technical programs normally have meetings of steering committees. These may be informal lunches or more formalized meet and greets. Get involved in your local technical schools by contacting the deans and faculty of the appropriate area. Most faculty are well aware of the trends in the workplace and know what you need from students. Faculty will normally not change their entire program to meet your exact needs. They are trying to supply graduates that meet a range of needs to the community. If you have a more specific skill that is not being taught, talk to the faculty to see if other forms of training are available: seminars at the workplace, non-credit seminar at the school, etc. Not everything can be taught at the college level.

If, for instance, you had a brand new sorter table that seems like magic, or an HMI application and software that no one can troubleshoot, this type of specific application would take a trainer extensive time to research before training others at your facility. If your technicians need training on specific systems or components, the manufacturer can usually supply this.

In general, most technical and two-year schools train technicians to be more competent at troubleshooting and maintaining equipment. Some two-year schools are more geared toward design and supplying students to a local four-year college with a similar program. Each approach is a sound practice depending on the location and needs of the community.


About the Author

Shawn Ballee, assistant professor of industrial technology, Waubonsee Community College


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