Boomers departing: A matter of integration

Baby boomers from manufacturing automation industries are taking knowledge gathered through years of experience into retirement. Scrambling to find qualified workers to fill that void has begun. System integration and related technologies are helping.


A new playbook coming for manufacturers requires a more intense and robust form of automation. Tony Paine, president and CEO at communications software developer Kepware Technologies, explained: “If vendors and systems integrators are doing their jobs rigWhen Bruce Gibbens walks through one of his client's tomato processing plants, he knows things are running right just by listening to the hum of the machinery. The process tells all.

"By the noise you hear in the plant, you can tell if the plant is speeding up or slowing down," said Gibbens, president of the Temecula, Calif.-based Tactical Controls LLC.

"As an integrator," Gibbens said, "I can feel the pulse of the plant just by being there. I don't have the knowledge of whether that is a good sound or a bad sound. The guys that work there all the time, they can say, 'We are going too fast; we have got to slow the process down.'"

What Gibbens knows—and what the rest of the industry is trying to come to grips with—is that the knowledge gathered through years of experience by veteran baby boomers is leaving the manufacturing automation industries; people are scrambling to find qualified workers to fill that void.

The unknown part is with a scarcity of engineers to fill the openings throughout the industry, and with manufacturing driving the U.S. and global economic recovery, just who and what will fill that expertise walking out the door?

That gap is where systems integrators will be able to provide human and technical knowledge to a manufacturing enterprise.

"A lot of [boomers] are going to be leaving," Gibbens said. "It can go two ways. The people that are going to take over are going to be less knowledgeable and have less experience-and they may have to lean on external resources more than relying on the people that are leaving. They may have to reach out to systems integrators and seek advice for their control system and outdated control systems for upgrades and the knowledge for helping them in what they need in their plan. Or, a lot of these plants are trying to be lean and mean, and they may try to do some of that stuff in-house." 

Engineering shortage

President Grover Cleveland instituted Labor Day as a federal holiday in 1894. Back then, the need for skilled manufacturing workers in America was on an upswing. While the manufacturing sector has changed considerably, one thing is certain: there is a skills shortage that needs filling today, according to a survey of industry senior executives commissioned by Advanced Technology Services, Inc. (ATS) and conducted by The Nielsen Company. Among the top findings of the survey of 100 vice president and C-level executives:

  • 55% of the largest U.S. manufacturers polled (those with $1 billion or more in revenue) will be the hardest hit by the skills shortage-costing each $100 million or more over the next 5 years.
  • 45% of the companies surveyed are encouraging their older workers to stay on the job.
  • 50% of respondents said they currently have 11 or more open positions for skilled workers, with 31% having over 20 open slots.

Another report released by the National Research Council urges new partnerships to tackle the problem of retiring boomers. They include a retooling of higher education to produce more young people competent in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

The report said there was a "bright present and future" for energy and mining jobs, with continuing demand for workers and good pay for those hired. But it also said some industries already face labor shortages-and others soon will-because the nation's colleges and universities aren't cranking out graduates with the skills needed by growing companies.

The electric power industry alone will have to replace nearly 100,000 skilled workers (more than 25,000 of them in the nuclear industry) by 2015.

Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data show 46% of the workforce will be eligible to retire within 5 years, but there are too few younger workers in the pipeline to replace them.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry has a workforce that's currently concentrated at the older and younger ends of the spectrum. The National Research Council report said this creates "a gap in experience and maturity," making it difficult to replace retiring leadership.

While 47% of respondents in the ATS/Nielsen survey said they would like to fill their open slots with full-time workers, 53% said they are more likely to outsource the positions.

The report recommends several wide-ranging solutions, including outreach efforts to improve the public's understanding and perception of energy-producing industries like oil and gas.

If the stars align, those solutions may work in future years, but what about now? What happens in the next year or so, when the boomers decide to cash in? A manufacturing plant can't wait for a marketing campaign that will entice college-age students to become engineers and join the company in 4 or 5 years.

This is truly where systems integrators plying their skills with automation technology will help fill that skills gap to provide a productive, safe, and secure environment for manufacturers.

Documenting tacit knowledge

"A lot of what we do is talk to senior management people and document everything they know: documenting the processes, documenting the information they use, going out and finding the trends for things that they have done, and understanding why they made the decisions they made," said Emmett Moore, product manager at the systems integrator Cimation in Houston, Texas.

"With that type of knowledge-and us in the field working with these guys-we have learned the experience, but we are trying to use more of an analytical and engineering approach to really find out why these guys have done the things they have done. Why does an operator at a control station push this button at a certain time? Let's build that into the product itself."

That all means systems and tools will need to be more intelligent. It also means technology will take a higher share of the workload so the new generation coming in dealing with the new manufacturing paradigm will feel more at ease with proper training.

Having software-driven systems in place that already have the intelligence to measure and assess the situation and take corrective actions automatically will ease the generational shift. But this change doesn't happen automatically. Companies need to recognize it and understand it is an opportunity to allow for change.

"If vendors and systems integrators are doing their jobs right, then we are building solutions that can let people know when something is running normally; or, if there is an abnormal condition, what is the reason for the abnormal condition?" said Tony Paine, president and CEO at communications software developer Kepware Technologies.

"There is the younger generation coming into the workforce," Paine said, "and they don't know everything that someone with 30 to 40 years of experience knows. What we can do is make their life easier through diagnostic tools, asset management tools, and condition-based monitoring tools. If we can create our magic such that we can team up with other companies or team up with systems integrators to put their touch on it, that problem goes away."

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