by Colin Elkins, Global Industry Director for Process Manufacturing at IFS
Why were skills shortages in the past, less of a problem than they are today?
Primarily it is because we can no longer use the solutions of the past. In the past manufacturers simply employed technology and new ways of working to fill the gap. The solutions weren't about education, apprenticeships or training, the solutions were about doing things differently, removing the 'intelligence' from the process and taking a new and often automated approach to solving problems.
Techniques like "replace not repair," "automate and de-skill" have nearly reached their pinnacle and cannot bridge the current skills gap. What is worse is that these solutions have left us with an even bigger problem "a disappearing middle," a gap in knowledge that allows us to understand and question a problem or action rather than simply accepting it.
Replace not repair syndrome
When I was a young engineer, I would think nothing of lifting the hood of my car, popping open the distributor cap, cleaning the contacts and adjusting the points. An engine rebuild was a routine annual event taking up an enjoyable, but oily, weekend. Now I open the hood of my car and gaze at the mass of sensors, wires, and other objects and don't know what they do. I sigh and simply shut it again.
In today's world, products are designed to be replaced, and manufacturers make it simple to do. You no longer need traditional engineering skills to fix a faulty washing machine pump, you simply need to buy another pump and after a few minutes of watching the process on YouTube, it's fixed.
The skills you need now are: can you use a spanner and a screwdriver, and can you find and watch a YouTube video?
With replace-not-repair there's little disassembly and reassembly, no replacing bushes and bearings, no soldering or fitting, just plug and go. We are losing the need for these foundation skills in the middle.
Automate and de-skill
As an ex-works manager, I once struggled to employ skilled manual lathe operators, so we introduced CNC lathes and moved the skill from the operator to the production engineer. After one person had the skill to manage a whole line of machines, we introduced automated self-inspection with the invention of the Renishaw probe. The need for inspectors with their vast range of measuring equipment became a thing of the past.
We can now take digital engineering drawings and turn them into machine programs at lightning speed, throw AI and vision systems into the mix and we only need to tell the lathe what we want, and how many, and it will simply do the rest.
The ability to machine by hand is slowly disappearing, that middle-skill is being lost to technology.
I hear you say, "so what! We don't need those skills," to which I must agree in part, while everything is working as it should you are correct. However, what if you suddenly need one of those skills that have disappeared?
Well ask yourself this, what do you do when you are entering a new city to meet a very important client, you have their postcode stored in your navigation system and suddenly you have no signal! GPS has failed! You have no paper back up, you don't know how to read a map and in fact, you don't carry one. You are completely lost and stuck in a city with no hope of getting to your destination.
This happened to me during a snowstorm, no GPS, for a few minutes I was like a blind child, I had no solution other than to stop and wait for the GPS to come back on.
Education can't replace the middle anymore
The world of technology, robotics, Internet of Things, and Blockchain, new innovative technologies appear every day to disrupt what we once knew. The learning process has had to become more focused.
When I was at University, I studied for three years on a broad range of subjects specializing in my last year. Now that specialization decision needs to happen much earlier, sometimes the courses are specialized or specialization happens after the first year.
As an example, I studied Engineering, there were four choices of course; Production, Mechanical, Civil and Chemical Engineering.
Now at that same university, there are 41 different Engineering courses, With titles like Civil Engineering with Sustainability, Coastal Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and even Digital Engineering.
In summary, we have lost skills to technology, the middle is disappearing, new subjects' specializations are needed that education cannot hope to fulfill. To make things worse manufacturing companies are typically obsessed by owning everything and every skill, employing specialists and outsourcing as little as possible. New departments appear overnight, or departments are split and then allowed to grow individually.
We are told that there is a lack of skills, well is there?
Does a pie manufacturer really need a data scientist, do salad growers need a cloud architect, why does a pump company need a machine learning engineer?
The answer is they don't, the skills are available from many providers, and outsourcing is the obvious solution. However, to be able to engage with a supplier of those services you need to have a basic understanding of what you are looking for, which unfortunately is learned in the middle.