What industry is doing to address the shortage of experienced technical employees

Our expert panel discuss how to find experienced technical employees who can design, operate and maintain the new generation of technology and equipment for years to come

By Mike Bacidore, editor in chief

As consumers grow hungrier and hungrier for packaged goods that satisfy their appetites for variety, it is having a profound effect on manufacturers that reaches all the way back to the machine builders that make the packaging equipment used in these production operations. Our panel of experts answer questions on topics ranging from changeover and retrofits to skilled employees, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and moving components out of the cabinet.

SPECIAL REPORT: 2017 Packaing Automation Trends

What is being done or can be done to address the shortage of experienced technical employees who can design, operate and maintain the new generation of technology and equipment and also have the ability to do the same with existing automation whose useful life will continue for years to come?

Stacy JohnsonStacy Johnson | senior marketing manager, Dorner Manufacturing; Hartland, Wisconsin

Finding skilled workers who are interested in manufacturing or packaging is a challenge. Here at Dorner, we have always taken steps to promote the manufacturing and packaging industries as viable, exciting careers. We depend on those highly skilled employees for our long-term success. The key is raising awareness to this industry and the possibilities it holds.

One of the things we’ve done at Dorner is work closely with the local high school and community technical college to advocate for the engineering, manufacturing and packaging career paths.

For example, the local high school’s trades program taught “how,” and the engineering program excelled at teaching “why.” But students in either program didn’t have technical skills or the desire to take the jobs in manufacturing that local companies were looking to fill.

The head of the high school’s technology and engineering department reached out to us and other local manufacturers to find out what they wanted from a manufacturing program. What emerged was the Design, Engineering and Manufacturing Center, comprised of an innovation lab, two state-of the-art design labs and a high-tech manufacturing shop.

More importantly, the center’s curriculum seeks to engage students in the process of design and manufacturing, not just the end product. Instead of just following directions to make a flashlight, a desk or a fidget spinner, they design it from the ground up, learning about materials, tolerances, budgets and timelines along the way.

Students also see how what their learning fits into the manufacturing industry at large. The local business alliance has set up an annual tour where students visit manufacturers and the local technical college, where they see the same cutting-edge technology being used in the real world (Figure 7).

Plus, 20 to 30 of these high-school students apprentice each year at local companies such as Dorner, starting full-time over the summer and then 10 to 12 hours each week during the school year. Of the two to three apprentices Dorner has each year, we make a point of rotating them around the shop floor, so that they learn the entire process that goes into manufacturing our products.

Dorner also participates in the Amazing Packaging Race at Pack Expo 2017. The Amazing Packaging Race involves students studying engineering and packaging in colleges from across the country to race around Pack Expo to solve packaging problems and learn about the possibilities of a career in packaging.

Manufacturing and packaging are great industries to be a part of. These are just some of the steps Dorner is doing to advocate for our industry.

Jim HulmanJim Hulman | process, packaging, printing, converting—business development manager, Bosch Rexroth

Education, Education, Education. Many companies are teaming up with their local universities and technical schools to offer degrees in mechatronics and industrial automation. We need to do a better job creating interest in these careers at an early age. Field trips to OEMs, end users and trade shows with an emphasis on sustainable employment and the need to focus on STEM courses even in high school should be the foundation of every elementary-school education.

Don Pham head shotDon Pham | senior product marketing manager, IDEC

One of the main ways to address this issue is by making automation systems easier to operate, especially remotely. Easier operation requires less training, and remote operation allows each employee to maintain more machines. For example, the PLC should have Web-server functionality built in, with the capability to create Web pages without any required knowledge of HTML programming. These Web pages can be viewed remotely via any Web browser from any Internet-connected device such as a laptop, smart phone or tablet, allowing fewer employees to support more machines, no matter where the employee is based.

Remote access is made even easier when the PLC supplier provides app access via smart phones and tablets. As compared to browser-based access, apps are faster to activate and provide quicker interaction with the PLC. Because of these and other benefits, apps are taking over the commercial world for accessing services via smart phones and tablets and will be making similar strides in the industrial arena.

Another important aspect of remote access is email and FTP support. Email support allows the PLC to push notifications and alerts to users, and FTP support allows users to transfer large files to and from the PLC.

Balluff ShishirRege sbShishir Rege | marketing manager, networks and safety, Balluff

If we could automate the format change in the machines, error-proof the systems to ensure correct formats are set for the upcoming production schedule and provide visual alerts for the problems areas with little more details, it will allow us to have fewer experienced or highly technical maintenance staff, and line operators would be able to assist in ensuring that the machines are production-ready.


John KowalJohn Kowal | director, business development, B&R Industrial Automation, Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) member

Machine design is going to require ever more talented engineers, and this will continue to be a challenge. Likewise, the skills to handle mechanically complex legacy equipment and non-intuitive legacy controls will remain in high demand and low availability. The justification for new capital spending on systems that provide order-of-magnitude better diagnostics, work instructions, HMI graphics and predictive-maintenance monitoring will come about in part because of the skills gap.

What does not work is to try and retrofit advanced capabilities into 20- and 30-year-old machines. Much of the hope for IIoT is to make brownfield assets more productive. Again, there will be incremental improvements with this approach. Automated changeover is one such retrofit gaining in popularity, using networked, machine-mounted, sealed drives to do things such as precisely and quickly adjust conveyor guide rails. The brownfield is really an interim step, and a worthwhile one, to get familiar with new technologies before committing to wholesale change.

Craig SouserCraig Souser | president, JLS Automation

We are using technologies such as HoloLens from Microsoft to augment reality and bring our techs to the site virtually and fast.



Francois SYCHOWICZ HeadshotFrancois Sychowicz | industrial equipment industry solution technical manager, Dassault Systèmes

The capacity to capitalize and transmit the knowledge to the new employees has become critical for manufacturers to stay competitive.  The use of the digital twin, which allows manufacturers to capitalize on the knowledge, and related technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality can help the technical employees with less experience to get up and running faster.


Show Comments
Hide Comments

Join the discussion

We welcome your thoughtful comments.
All comments will display your user name.

Want to participate in the discussion?

Register for free

Log in for complete access.


  • Good one Mike, very important article too. An interesting tangent discussion might be 'What is being done to identify and create solutions for the #HiddenSkillsGap ?' It is a common talking point now, the retiring baby-boomer created skills gap, and how to get new young people interested in the industry. But that skills shortage is compounded by what I call the "Hidden Skills Gap". Like technology evolving so quickly and existing employees wearing so many hats, they don't have time or budget for training to keep up with all the new technology introduced. (not effectively, efficiently, safely, reliably) This would be interesting to hear if other readers have identified other hidden skills gaps, and their ideas for solutions to them. Like with keeping up with the technology evolution, part of the solution is to do training and testing of existing and future employees in problem solving skills, ability to figure things out on their own, how to google (research efficiently), computer literacy, etc. I feel that if society is to get this right, they need these solutions implemented in high school as part of the core curriculum. I have ran into many college grads who don't know how to backup their computer, many India web developers who don't know what HTML5 canvas is, and didn't think to google before asking client. :) There are many current day example of the 4 core skills mentioned above missing, across just about every industry. Others reading this will most like come up with more. Like attention to detail is a skill that our multi-tasking society is deteriorating. People are wasting a lot of time and money, because they only had time to skim over something. It would be interesting to hear other's ideas and comments on hidden skills gap.


  • Wow. How disappointing. Not one of these folks concentrates on providing training to existing or older employees or other talent pools such as Veterans. The problem with STEM is that the businesses treat employees as disposable goods, providing no ongoing training or hanging long hours on their salaried staff so they have no time for ongoing training. Many existing employees can be converted to technical occupations but most companies want the lowest labor cost and don't value the experience or qualities of older workers. In today's market, you are useful for 10-15 years without training/degree work in newer technologies. You aren't providing a career opportunity, just a few years until you lay them off in favor of younger, less expensive employees. I spent 15 years in Silicon Valley watching companies advertise with low pay scales so they could certify for more H-1B workers. As a technology sector, we're drunk on cheap labor that we can work to death with promises of stock options and then wash the employees out as the investors cash in. Look at Apple or Google - they tell their female employees that the company will pay to freeze their eggs - because mothers can't put in the 60-80 hours weeks common in the Valley and those companies can boot the ladies at 40 to take their maternity leave on someone else's payroll.


  • Interesting what people think the answer is..... I agree that we have to show kids early (elementary school) how cool manufacturing is.....when I was a kid we had plant tours all the time and we thought they were the greatest thing. Once they realize how cool this stuff is.......then they need to work on the car with Dad (or Mom), they need to cook recipes with Mom (or Dad), they need to put models together etc. to love MAKING.... Then they need to be "guided" by parents toward STEM goals....without parental involvement, it fails as our school systems no longer provide this guidance. Shop classes ie "Industrial Arts" are considered fill in classes to meet guidance standards. And you are deemed a "loser" if you take shop (being blunt). I have 2 sons who are Engineers in the manufacturing sector and that didn't happen by accident. (and PS, They took almost every shop class). They were told that society demands a degree (and told we didn't agree with it) so go get one and then if you want to be an Electrician or Auto Mechanic, we would pay for that for them. We need more Mike Rowes and his organization MikeRoweWorks (Google it) and we need a cultural change that doesn't label a kid a failure for pursuing a vo-tech craft training Electrician, Instrumentation, Welding, Millwright, Carpenter, etc, until this stigma changes, we are in trouble. Lastly our country functions on supply and demand.........I do not believe there is a shortage (tongue in cheek) for if there was, demand says that price goes up. All of these companies want their cake and eat it too. They want Automation professionals to increase their productivity, but they don't want to pay for them. They want to reap the benefits of reducing head count with Automation, but don't value the craft of Automation people. My company has not replaced 90% of our retiring workforce and it is starting to show. Or if they do replace someone it is 6 months after the "Knowledge worker" (my term for who is walking out the door), retires. Raise the wages and they will come.......it will take years to turn the ship but when word gets out about the great pay and benefits of these in "Demand" job (if supply is truly missing) they will come. Unfortunately it is much larger than Virtualization and knowledge transfer programs and a couple talks at the high school. And we have been talking about it the last 15 years of my career and yet no real changes.... Dave Ferguson Control Systems Engineer


RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments