Sonata Notes: Surviving the “Great Shift Change”

Two technicians wearing hard hats review data on tablet

A friend of mine worked for a European electrical infrastructure company.  Some of the equipment they produced was the size of a small building, and cost a fortune to transport overseas.  This led the company to reopen an old U.S. plant which used to make some of the same products back in the 1970s.  But there was a huge catch: only 2 of the original engineers from the plant were alive and available to help the company’s team bring the facility back online.

The above is an extreme example of the “great crew change” that manufacturers of complex equipment are facing post-COVID, with two experienced workers leaving for every new worker coming in.  After a decade of unheeded warnings, many companies are caught between mass Baby Boomer attrition, a shortage of Gen Xers, and skill gaps among millennial and Gen Z workers.

Unfortunately, most equipment manufacturers are struggling to find solutions:

  • Many have incentivized aging engineers and technicians to stay on a little longer, or continue working as consultants. However, absent effective coaching and mentoring programs to encourage skills transfer and a well-defined knowledge capture and management strategy to document the expertise of outgoing workers, this is merely a short-term stopgap.

  • Some companies have started hiring non-traditional candidates: for example, retraining residential handymen or automotive technicians to install industrial equipment. But while this can bring in more candidates, these candidates require more training, at a time when there are fewer experienced technicians available to train them.

  • Finally, retaining young engineers and technicians is even harder than hiring them. Gen Z workers with engineering degrees are extremely sought-after, and the current generation has no memory of a time when most workers didn’t switch jobs every 3 or 4 years. As a result, a survey found 70% of younger workers have seriously contemplated leaving their current employer for a better offer.

Most forecasts predict the labor supply will return to equilibrium sometime around 2027 or 2028. In the meantime, do equipment manufacturers have to resign themselves to endless shortages, growing service backlogs, reduced profits, and lower quality? Or is there a better way to address the labor/skills gap right now?

A few steps companies can take include:

  • Formalize knowledge capture and transfer. Most companies have a small handful of experienced technicians who know everything about their products, but no formal plan or process to capture those technicians’ knowledge in a form that can be shared and preserved.  The solution could be as simple as offering a bonus for producing smartphone videos of common tasks on site, or hiring a technical writer to interview key staff and document what they know in an online knowledge base.

  • Modernize your approach to training. Informally “showing people the ropes” might work if you have a very small team and plenty of time to bring new hires up to speed. However, if you need to close significant skill gaps quickly and consistently, a more formal training program is essential.  While it doesn’t have to be a full-blown degree/apprenticeship type program, it’s important to make sure everyone receives a consistent onboarding experience, versus having new hires shadow random team members with no specific plan.

  • Digitize everything. In an age when you can find a video on how to install or repair just about any simple appliance on YouTube, capital equipment and infrastructure companies should be able to provide comparable digital resources to staff in the field, on demand. That said, building up a library of digital content and working out an efficient delivery system is an investment.

  • Your products and/or service approach are unique, to a point where someone with general experience couldn’t simply step in and immediately perform to your standards.

  • You want to prevent competitors from reverse engineering your products or discovering your trade secrets.

While companies who did not prepare for the current workforce crisis cannot expect to solve their labor problems immediately, the above strategies are a good start for accelerating your recovery time from the current workforce crisis.


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