The Cultural Impact of IoT on Maintenance Organizations – Addressing the “Aging” Workforce.

IoT and the Aging Workforce

When engaging a customer on current challenges they are facing within maintenance operations, they inevitably begin a discussion of the “aging out” of their current workforce and inability to replace them.  Interestingly, this has been a concern for quite some time.  I liken it to the Y2K hype in the late 90’s with one exception – nearly every company updated their systems to prevent widespread havoc.  Unfortunately, few companies have prepared as well for the current workforce situation.

My esteemed colleague, Terry O’Hanlon, discussed this in an article he wrote back in 2006.  At that time, seasoned veterans were also disappearing from the company ranks, but for somewhat of a different reason – companies were being short-sighted and cutting costs in the form of what then appeared to be expensive labor assets.  Terry went on to discuss how companies were being impacted as talented individuals, in all age groups, began leaving to find work at companies that valued their skills.  He also suggested that within 5 years companies workforce’s would begin to retire.  His comments were supported by a National Association of Manufacturers study that showed 80 percent of manufacturers had a moderate to serious shortage of production workers, machinists, and craft workers. The group predicted that manufacturers will need as many as 10 million new skilled workers by 2020, in part to replace the aging boomers who make up a large part of the 14 million manufacturing jobs today.

Well, here it is 2019 and the problem of the “Aging” workforce is in full swing and current estimates suggest that 2 million of the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will potentially go unfilled. Whoa.

At the time Terry wrote his article, he spoke of rapidly changing technologies throughout the plant floor and strategies that companies can put in place to manage these challenges around workforce shortages. All of which are still valid today.  My guess is that if IoT solutions were in full swing then, he would have also written of how these solutions could be part of a company’s workforce strategy.  Contrary to the naysayers, who suggest that IoT solutions will remove workers, it is my contention they actually attract the right workers.

Technology has always had an interesting impact on the maintenance workforce – whether it was the complex manufacturing systems, software systems like Maximo, or evolutionary access to mobile devices. IoT solutions, from simply connecting “things” together to advanced analytics and augmented reality, can have an impact far beyond cost savings – it can be leveraged to change the way a maintenance position is viewed by the available labor pool.

My view is that IoT can have a critical cultural impact in three primary ways:

Applications of IoT solutions move maintenance positions out of a pure “blue collar” perception.

This change in perception has been occurring for some time as the complexity of manufacturing plants and facilities has steadily increased.  IoT solutions bring a whole new level of sophistication to managing and maintaining these assets.  It is an interesting combination of hands-on work and pure brainpower.  I like the term “new collar” jobs, coined by IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty.  Re-branding maintenance as offering “new collar” makes the job intrinsically more attractive to college recruits who may of looked past engineering as a career choice.

IoT Solutions create a more diverse workforce.

Maintenance has typically been a male-dominated environment.  The changes in how assets are diagnosed and repaired create an opportunity for a more non-traditional workforce.  The increase in the percentage of women entering STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) careers has steadily increased over the years and I see this spilling over into Maintenance.  Anecdotally, I have witnessed this with the significant increase in the WIRAM (Woman in Reliability and Maintenance) membership.

IoT knowledgeable workers add value and subsequently cost more.

Higher paid workers seem counter-intuitive to reducing costs.  However, the value that will be created by these new workers will outstrip the rise in cost associated with the position.  Furthermore, higher salaries inherently attract qualified candidates with greater long term potential to impact operations.

Of course, this impact will not occur overnight, but deploying IoT is a sure way to attract the next wave of maintenance professionals.  And before I forget – be sure to check out Terry’s article – so much is still relevant after all these years.