Manufacturing Industry Needs Education, Not Nostalgia

Invest in Human Capital Through Industrial Training

Economists are nostalgic for the Golden Age of American manufacturing. But times have changed – we must invest in human capital through industrial training to see new growth.

American economists can be as nostalgic as fans re-watching “The Bodyguard” or recalling dozens of New Year’s Eves with “the world’s oldest teenager.” Some of us are awash with a sense of loss for Whitney Houston and Dick Clark. Well, some economists can’t help but long for America’s manufacturing prime—that era from the 1950s to the 1970s when the economy was robust and inflation was a mere blip. Jobs sprouted like weeds, income levels were strapped to rocket ships and the words ‘Made in America’ meant something.

Unfortunately, economists touting a return to the golden age of American manufacturing are somewhat mistaken, but their wistfulness snagged the attention of yet another president.

President Obama continues efforts to jumpstart American manufacturing in hopes that factory jobs will start growing on trees. He’s made some impact, but not nearly enough. Finance professor and international trade expert Jeffrey Bergstrand says the manufacturing decline cannot be reversed. It can only be stabilized. To be frank, labor costs in the U.S. will never compete with Latin America and parts of Asia. Low-technology manufacturing will never be what it was. And high-tech goods manufacturing—like iPads and iPhones—requires education, technical knowledge, industrial safety training and beyond.

As Bergstrand points out, the industry doesn’t need investment and support, the factory workforce needs investment and support. We need to invest in human capital by educating workers with basic teaching like industrial safety training. Specific skills can be learned, sharpened, retained and passed on, but only with a program that starts with fundamentals. Unemployment doesn’t just cripple our economy; it cripples our workers by depreciating their skills over time. Manufacturing high-tech goods will create employment opportunity. But that changes nothing if our workers aren’t ready.

Complex products that require research, development and widespread industrial aptitude can offer vast job potential. But if our unemployed don’t have the education levels and skillsets to match, the opportunity fizzles. Better training means managers can meet plant safety considerations and satisfy customer demand because of increased output and improved processes. Giant manufacturers like Boeing and the stimulus-revived U.S. automakers wouldn’t be reporting such success (or creating jobs) without investing in both plant safety training and factory worker safety training.

Can factories replenish the 6 million jobs lost since 2000? Probably not. But as economic advisor Gene Sperling stated in his speech at the Conference on the Renaissance of American Manufacturing about President Obama’s industrial policy, investments in human capital and education are non-negotiable. The middleclass is stagnating along with American manufacturing, but nostalgia won’t conjure jobs or income growth.

It’s time to change the game. Start by arming the manufacturing industry with employees bursting with industrial training.

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Instrumentation Training: Achieving Safety and Control the Cost-Effective Way

Whether you’re installing, operating, or maintaining large voltage electrical power plants, instrumentation training is paramount to safety and control. As you know, there’s a vast collection of electrical power components for the various control circuits, protective circuits, generators and beyond. And when it comes down to learning the ins-and-outs of AC power theory, diesel engines, and cable splicing, the need for some academic or classroom training is inevitable. Some things must be taught and practiced before they are performed in real scenarios with machinery that’s both expensive and dangerous.

But not all power plant workers have a formal classroom education beyond high school, and many companies can’t even afford to pay for classes at community college prices. The widespread availability of industrial online training, however, makes learning about instrumentation and control systems convenient for anyone with access to a computer. This accessibility for instrumentation training allows your entire team to rehearse protocol so equipment and processes are handled with the utmost safety on a daily basis.

Some managers and instrumentation technicians balk at virtual education, adamant that power plant training is most effective when done in person. But frankly, we can buy our groceries online, pay our bills online, and get the benefits of a classroom education online. It’s a cost-effective method to get basic concepts and fundamental principles out of the way so hands-on learning is that much easier. Instrumentation and control systems technicians also receive a degree of cross training, yet another cost-efficient advantage.

Instrumentation training is even more economically worthwhile because the series cross-trains workers on various topics. Since the roles of electrical maintenance and instrumentation and control systems overlap somewhat, instrumentation training targets both. When your employees have other skills for other positions, they can help educate new workers or provide assistance during transitions. Instrumentation and control systems training is uniquely useful in transitional periods because you’re able to add your power plant-specific information to the curriculum.

Being able to customize your courses and overall industrial training solutions increases safety, regulates control, and helps facilitate your hiring process. New employees are able to learn about actual equipment in your plant and the nuances of your programming. Older employees who may be nearing retirement can impart some of their irreplaceable knowledge before they leave, which can be used to train workers for years to come.

If there are instrumentation wrinkles in your plant, or if it’s about time to reinforce safety and control protocol, training can smooth out the hiccups. Online education will help your team grasp the basics, widen their skills through cross training, and customize their curriculum based on your electrical power plant.

Industrial Aging Workforce: Retain or Recruit?

industrial aging workforceThe Baby Boomer generation began turning 65 this year. Over the next 19 years, roughly 10,000 will reach retirement age every single day. As they consider whether to retire, work part-time, or continue to work beyond retirement age, their employers are trying to decide the best way to retain the tacit knowledge they’ve amassed over the years. Do you invest in retention programs, designed to keep existing talent happy?

Do you heavily recruit from a seemingly dwindling talent pool to replace those who do leave? You might be surprised to know that roughly one-third of companies are doing absolutely nothing.  Perhaps the reason is that both sides have their caveats.

Retention

Studies show that Baby Boomers want and need competitive healthcare and benefits packages. That’s not difficult for a company to provide. However, in a panic, some companies go above and beyond that, offering other, extremely expensive incentives. These companies often do not consider the employees that retire, but are willing to continue to work on a part-time or contract basis. That’s a great way to keep the knowledge, but save a little money on salary and benefits. The problem is that a huge investment in retention programs has the potential to become unsustainable. It’s estimated that industrial companies can expect up to forty percent of their workforce to retire in the next ten years. Can you really afford to offer over forty percent of your workforce a retention package?

The good news is that the Baby Boomer generation is not just interested in money and healthcare benefits. While those things are important, they are also more likely to stay with a company that offers intangible benefits, such as schedule and work location flexibility, an environment that utilizes their experience and opinions, and the confidence to know they are welcome to work as long as they are able. Those things won’t cost you anything, and they make for happier employees. Many potential retirees may also be interested in receiving additional industrial training to learn new skills or technologies. The cost to offer these employees a variety of industrial training solutions is minimal, your employee feels more accomplished and has the opportunity to learn new things, and you benefit from the additional knowledge. It’s a step worth taking. Ultimately, the question becomes: how valuable is that tacit knowledge that is going to walk out the door, and can you afford to keep these people?

Recruitment

On the other hand, some companies choose to recruit new talent to replace those who retire. There is a perception that older workers are “set in their ways” and do not want to learn new processes, procedures, and equipment as technology changes and advances. They are often seen as more expensive to retain and less productive than younger workers. This has been found to be largely untrue. In fact, studies have shown that motivation increases with age, and experience offsets the natural cognitive decline that can come with age. However, there will be those that leave the company.

When it comes to recruiting new talent, it seems the pickings are slim. Or are they? One mistake many companies make is being too selective in education or experience requirements, which results in an apparent labor shortage.  The solution for this is really company-specific, as you need to look for talent who meets your own needs. Just remember that the younger generations may or may not have comparable education and experience levels. Consider setting up a mentoring program, in which retirees serve as mentors to incoming employees. This can ensure effective knowledge transfer and help with training. You also have eLearning and other online industrial training courses available to help new employees learn your equipment, processes, and procedures. These have been proven to increase productivity and reduce certain risks. They’re also a convenient and affordable way to bridge the knowledge gap. Also keep in mind that, as technology advances, some positions become automated or even eliminated. This can create one of two scenarios: the vacated position is now easier to learn, making training easier, or the position is no longer needed.

The solution

The reality is, there really is no right or wrong answer when it comes to retaining tacit knowledge. You can develop sustainable retention incentive packages. You can recruit competent new talent. The best solution probably lies somewhere in between. It can be done, but you need to start working on your solution now.

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