OEMs, machine builders and food and beverage processors fight for the same few job applicants, especially in geographical areas where there is a dearth of technical education. The bad news is: There is a real shortage of tech people (engineers and technicians). But the good news is: There is light at the end of the tunnel, as the government, academia, tech corporations, public schools and organizations work to find solutions.

In a Solutions Theater event at FE’s 2018 Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference, Cory Garlick, Rockwell Automation North American industry manager, pointed out some grim facts about older automation equipment, tech personnel and the need for smart manufacturing. “Smart manufacturing has become a business imperative. Why? Two million manufacturing jobs will go begging by 2025, there are $65 billion worth of automation systems reaching the end of their lifecycle, and 76 percent of recalls cost as much as $30 million each.” 

Garlick further noted that less than 14 percent of plants are completely integrated, and 54 percent of facilities suffered an intellectual property loss in the past year due to Wi-Fi. Making matters worse, 21 percent of all manufacturing workers will retire in the next five years.

Jorge Izquierdo, PMMI vice president, market development, says the lack of tech people has a ripple effect on processors and machine builders—from maintenance to machine design. “More and more, there is less engineering in manufacturing operations [at food plants]. The engineering staff has been shrinking. Twenty years ago, you were looking to have a mechanical and electrical engineer on staff. Now, you’re thinking [you need] somebody that can handle data, [determine] how to collect all that data—and start developing that preventive part of the maintenance based on the data specific to your plant.”

Izquierdo says food processors, OEMs and component suppliers are all facing the same dilemma—finding engineers and skilled technicians. But food processors with limited tech and maintenance staffs now expect machine builders to provide the technical expertise and maintenance capabilities people in their positions once had. Izquierdo sees remote troubleshooting and training as potential solutions to food processors’ staffing woes.

There’s yet another issue taken for granted concerning skilled technical people and maintenance. “The job of maintenance, more than any other in the manufacturing profession, requires a specific skill over and above technical know-how,” says Samer Forzley, CEO of Simutech Multimedia. “That skill, unfortunately, is not taught in schools, and except for a very few people who can do it intuitively, does not come naturally to most people. That skill is troubleshooting, and with the increasing complexity of modern manufacturing equipment, it’s becoming harder to easily acquire it.”

Easing the pain

What’s being done to help alleviate the pain? Rockwell Automation has found an excellent source for disciplined, highly motivated, and often already trained, tech prospects—former military members. “In closing the skills gap, Rockwell has set up a corporate program aimed at training and certifying up to 1,000 veterans for high-tech roles in manufacturing,” Garlick said at FE’s Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference. “As 175,000 veterans leave the military each year, Rockwell saw an opportunity to train highly skilled, motivated and dedicated people who will become experts in automation technology.”

On the Department of Labor’s website is the newly available final report dated May 10, 2018, “Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion,” which was commissioned by President Trump to look more closely at the apprenticeship model, where Americans can experience new educational opportunities while on the job. Think apprenticeships can’t work? According to the report, Washington State found an apprenticeship program yielded a $23 return for every taxpayer dollar spent; at the Federal level, it was a $27 ROI.

Get kids involved in STEM

Getting kids interested in STEM subjects early on (elementary school level) can provide tomorrow’s tech experts. But just getting them to read about these subjects isn’t enough. There’s nothing like hands-on activities, and that’s where an organization like FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology) comes in. 

FIRST has STEM-related, hands-on programs for kids from K-12, including FIRST LEGO League Jr., FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge and the FIRST Robotics Competition, which was held this April in Houston and Detroit. Presented by Qualcomm Inc., the FIRST Championship in Detroit drew more than 40,000 people who came to watch students compete with team-built robots.

According to FIRST President Donald E. Bossi, more than half a million young people on 61,000 teams directly participated in FIRST programs this year, a 23 percent increase since 2017. 

When local tech people are in short supply, one candy company recommends going to middle and high schools and talking up STEM jobs in manufacturing—and working with colleges, tech schools, community colleges and automation suppliers to set up curricula if they don’t exist.