As I travel in the Middle East, I am becoming more acutely aware of a common problem we all share: the lack of skilled labor throughout our respective industries. I had the pleasure and honor of chairing the 4th Annual Plant Shutdown & Turnaround Conference in Doha this past week. In addition to chairing, I was asked to provide a keynote and master class workshop. I presented “Turnaround Optimization” and was greatly surprised when, after each session, I was surrounded by people from the region that wanted to discuss, at length, the issues particularly related to the skills shortage for their region, in relation to the United States is experiencing mentioned during the presentation.
It seems this problem is common in many regions of the globe. The question remains, “What are we going to do about it?” As the workshop portion of the conference continued, we discussed the issue and possible ways to begin to combat it. The discussion centered on contractors providing properly skilled labor during turnarounds, but this subject goes deeper than just turnarounds. It affects daily maintenance as well.
As we discussed the opportunities, there was clear evidence of wanting to place blame on the contractors, but I suggested that this problem must be addressed in a regional effort if there is to be a chance of resolution.
Some of the following ideas were presented for consideration:
- Form a regional council which consists of company leadership, contractor leadership, and regional educational leaders. The group’s first order of business would be to understand each other’s issues and how the skills shortage is affecting them.
- Establish and enable constructive dialogue. The company leaders (Maintenance Managers, Turnaround Managers, HR Mangers) should present their concerns/gaps to the group (shortages in quality/quantity of skills, internal and external). The contractors, likewise, must be given ample opportunity to express their concerns. Educators must then respond from their context and describe their own concerns and obstacles.
- Strive for comprehensive solutions. Move forward as a team to tackle this regional concern. Company and contractor leaders must provide support to educational bodies to produce the necessary skilled personnel. This support may look like instructors, training equipment (old machines, pumps, valves, etc.), or other resources. Companies and contractors must partner with educators and embrace more On the Job Training (OJT) with internships, apprenticeships, etc. to ensure new learners can apply their educational knowledge.
Obviously there is no single answer and we must move forward together. Once everyone has had the opportunity to express their concerns, the next step is to create possible solutions which will help all parties involved. As a former member of the Advisory Council in my local operating region, I can tell you that educational bodies want and need your help. Industry can provide older equipment which is no longer needed but viable for training students. We could also provide the training curriculums specifically addressing the shortage of skills. Another thing that was noticeably missing from companies was On the Job Training. OJT and apprentice programs were utilized much more in the past, but it seems we do not have the time or money to train people these days. If you think training is expensive, imagine what you are paying for the lack of training now? With our pooled resources of targeted curriculum, relevant instructors, equipment for training, and jobsite experience, students will have the proper guidance to exit technical schools with the skills needed to enter the field and be productive from the start, whether they enter a particular site or join a turnaround crew.
This issue is not going away, nor is it going to solve itself. It is only going to get worse. In the U.S., we push our young people into college, telling them they are “never going to amount to anything” without a degree. Then they come out of college with huge student loans that will take forever to pay off, a degree which everyone else has as well, and in many cases no jobs in sight, related to their education.
We, as leadership in our industry, must find ways to spread the word that there are plenty of good-paying jobs out there if they are only willing to apply themselves and learn a skill. Skilled labor can take them anywhere they would like to work these days, and it demands top dollar as well. We must encourage our young people to get technical degrees, participate in OJT and apprenticeship programs, and become one of the highly-skilled personnel that all industries are in dire need of.
Many companies, attempting to apply a global perspective, think they can outsource to get what they need. There’s just one problem with that… everyone else is in the same situation! You may be surprised to find outsourcing to different countries may actually be worse. We must get started in each of our respective regions, working on this epidemic now, if we are to continue to grow and be prosperous globally.
What are you and your company willing to do to begin addressing this issue for your region?