How the industry is responding to develop curriculum and training opportunities for the next generation.

You have heard it all before. We are losing our best employees. Decades of industry knowledge are walking out the door every day as more and more people retire. The skills gap is going to lead businesses to suffer. What we do not talk about much is what people are doing to combat this problem.

Pumps & Systems decided to find out, and after speaking with industry executives, it is clear that the various sectors of the pumps industry are not facing this challenge lying down.

The Numbers Do Not Lie

In 2017, Siemens distributed a survey by research firm Tech-Clarity in which 201 companies were asked about their needs as older employees retire. Many companies—69 percent—said they expect to grow their engineering department in the next five to 10 years. Eighty percent said “hiring the right engineers will be either highly or very critical to the future success of their business.”

These statistics reflect what the editors of Pumps & Systems have heard at industry events and on the trade show floor.

“Maintenance managers are facing a new reality: the loss of experienced millwrights and mechanics,” said Dieter Seidenthal, LUDECA Inc. co-founder and chairman of the board. “Baby boomers are retiring in droves. This threatens to leave a huge void in the manufacturing facilities. The boomers are being replaced by millennials, a generation with an underdeveloped work ethic born into a digital environment. The retiring boomers depart with many years, if not decades, of mechanical knowledge and experience. The millennials have a lot to learn and considerable time must be spent to train them. Yet they tend to job hop much more often than older generations of workers.”

Attract & Retain

The solution for many companies facing a looming dearth of knowledgeable employees is to attract and retain new people with the right talents. According to the Tech-Clarity study, top-performing companies are 96 percent more likely to consider hiring the right engineering staff as highly critical to the success of their business. Those top performers, who reportedly do a better job at hiring and retaining the right employees, have employees that stay at a company 7.2 years— 39 percent longer than they remain at average-performing companies, the study shows.

“The fact that many people in the current manufacturing workforce will be retiring in the next five to 10 years is not new,” said Doug Keith, large drives business unit lead for Siemens Process Industries & Drives Division, U.S. “It remains a critical management topic that manufacturers attract early career talent into the manufacturing workforce. The next generation of workers are digital natives and expect to work with the most modern tools and platforms. In order to attract and retain talent, chemical companies will need to apply the most modern automation technology, engineering tools and data analytics.”

Bring in the Right People

Companies are attracting great employees by:

  • Julie Buscher, vice president of human resources for Crane Pumps & Systems, said the company has an apprenticeship program to attract career vocational talent.
  • John Lord, HOMA Pumps’ national sales and business development manager, said they “offer new and existing employees that have the potential and desire to improve, training, either on site, or externally. To work toward and maintain a skilled workforce requires a continued investment in employees, which in turn is also an investment in the future of the company.”
  • Henk van Duijnhoven, Nidec Motor Corporation CEO, said the company has a “robust internship program, which provides opportunities for college students to work in our manufacturing and office facilities. This allows the intern to gain experience in their chosen field and learn more about the company. It also gives the company insight to determine if the intern might be a good fit for a position after graduation. We are also highly engaged in a number of STEM-related outreach activities, and collaborate regularly with high schools, technical colleges and universities.”
  • Proco Products, Inc. vice president of administration Mike Lassas said, “The biggest challenge that we have in our geographical location is competing against bigger warehouse/distribution facilities like Amazon or Tesla. Wages play a huge role in finding capable warehouse personnel. Proco has raised our base hourly rate in order to be competitive and draw quality workers.”
  • SEEPEX human resources manager Ginger Brooks said, “SEEPEX is a member of local Clark State Community College’s Manufacturing Partnership, which examines future skills needs and provides guidance to the college in setting curriculum. The company also participated in successfully obtaining permission from the Ohio legislature to allow Clark State to offer a Bachelor of Science in manufacturing technology management degree...In order to attract millennials and younger [workers] to manufacturing, SEEPEX has been refining our benefits package to make it more attractive.”
  • Kevin Clark, vice president of Fluke Accelix, said, “We have a partnership with the Reliability and Maintainability Center at the University of Tennessee, and we work with other universities to make sure we provide support and training... As a technology company, we also provide technology that allows M&R personnel to do their job more efficiently and safely without the reliance on as many route-based activities.

In the Classroom

Industry executives said continued, and even more, collaboration is needed between companies and universities to ensure engineering students receive the type of education and experience they need. According to the Tech-Clarity study, “Most companies (75 percent) want students to be able to apply the technology to solve problems, not just know the ‘picks and clicks’ of the software.” The study found that companies are likely to “favor students with in-depth project experience involving multiple roles, complete life cycle stages and simulate a corporate environment.”

One university program known for being dedicated to preparing students for work in turbomachinery is the Texas A&M University Turbomachinery Laboratory. Eric Petersen, Ph.D., director of the Turbo Lab, said, “For graduate students the primary mission is a combination of coursework and research work in the laboratory. In many cases it is the thesis work and research that gives them the most exposure for the skills that is helpful for working in the industry. The coursework gives them the foundation.”

The program gives graduate and doctorate students a balance of general performance and reliability research with specific electives in turbomachinery performance, rotordynamics and more. To keep the curriculum up to date, Petersen said the courses are set up in conjunction with an advisory committee with representatives from different companies, including both manufacturers and end users.

“In many cases they are the people who end up giving the course [at the Turbomachinery & Pump Symposia]. The short courses at the symposium are done by the industry representatives,” Petersen said. “We have longer [continuing education] courses, that are several days, done by faculty members and industry members. [These are] not completely dictated by the professors.”

The Turbo Lab works with companies who sponsor research to help them network with students. Internships and career fairs also make those connections. The Turbo Lab sees itself as helping form the next generation of engineers.

“It’s a major responsibility,” he said. “We want to make sure we are producing graduates that will fit right in and maintain the workforce and they have the skill set to do that, have the coursework and the laboratory work.”

A big part of this effort, Petersen said, is attracting students to this type of work. He said this is often done at the grassroots level, with the professor talking about their work and the symposium showing what is done.

“We want to produce the students that are ready to fill the [skills] gap,” Petersen said.

Be Proactive & Pave the Way for Success

The results of the Tech-Clarity study, and input from companies and organizations in the industry, show that the skills gap poses a challenge. But it is not insurmountable. Mersino president and CEO Gino Mersino said his company has changed their approach to attracting the right employees.

“There simply isn’t a large pool of trained labor out there to pull from, so our company has found it important to recruit people based upon core value alignment, with the intention of providing them the education and tools to succeed in a growing marketplace in our industry,” Mersino said. “People are your greatest asset. I used to pay lip service to this axiom. I understand now, better than at any other point in my life, that this is more than a simple saying. It is an absolute maxim.”

Fostering Innovators

In addition to building enthusiasm with the next generation of engineers, organizations are also at work to foster relationships between innovators and corporations. The Water Council in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, organizes a program called the BREW Corporate Accelerator, which offers participants the ability to advance their startup with framework, funding and access to resources with pre-existing interest and committed funding from a corporate partner. The latest BREW Corporate Accelerator, which accepted applications through the end of November, is in partnership with A.O. Smith, which provides water heating solutions through its brands A.O. Smith, American Water Heaters and Aquasana. BREW Corporate Accelerator “is designed to solicit viable technical solutions for specific real-world challenges that have been identified and outlined by the funding corporation. The funding corporation, along with coaches and technical advisors, will help optimize each winners’ business model, speed up its technology’s commercialization and directly support the startup’s entry into the marketplace,” according to The Water Council’s website. Dr. Robert Heideman, SVP and corporate technology officer at A. O. Smith Corporation, said the company enjoys participating in the program because “we realize there are great ideas out there outside of our four walls.” Heideman sees the program as mutually beneficial; A.O. Smith’s employees experience serving as a mentor to the participants, and the company gets leads about potential new products, and the participants get feedback from a potential investor. “The people who get to work with the startups get to see what it means to be to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “People who work in corporations are a little more conservative, so it gives [our employees] the perspective of entrepreneurs—the risk they are taking. But the mentees get to see what it’s like to put someone else’s brand on your product and how a corporation works.” The participants may end up working with A.O. Smith after the program is over, or they may discover another investor who better fits their business. “It’s one of the objectives for that employee for the year to determine feasibility with the winner and work with the business development [to see] if the technology works, if there is a path for it to be a real business either with A.O. Smith or through a partnership with someone else,” Heideman said. “It’s about letting people on the outside of A.O. Smith be able to express solutions they believe they have,” he said. “Sometimes the less they know, the easier it looks. They may think they have a great solution, but then they see the inside and it looks a lot more difficult. It’s exciting to talk to people, learn about their ideas, [and] sometimes we have to go through a couple rounds of ideas to find a winner.”