There are two key things going on in the manufacturing workforce at the moment. First, a lot of the low-skilled jobs are disappearing. The ‘Robot Revolution’ is sweeping across the world, taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with it. In the cement industry, a plant that was once staffed by many hundreds of people could now be run by less than a hundred and perform more efficiently than ever before.
At the same time, manufacturing is plagued by a major skills shortage. The cement industry has failed to attract talent over a number of years and now the combination of the ‘silver tsunami’ (as Baby Boomers age out of the workforce) and job losses related to M&A activity have left the industry up the proverbial creek. They’ve got the paddle, but not enough people understand how it works.
In all this time, the cement industry hasn’t magically become less complicated. In fact, advances in manufacturing, the increased use of alternative fuels and raw materials, and the ability to cater specifically to customer demand, has made everything significantly more complex. Add to that the greater demand for profitability amidst the global economic downturn and ever-increasing emissions regulation and you begin to have a picture of the quality of engineer needed to get the job done. It begs the question: what happens to the plant as the number of those engineers falls?
Has the ‘Robot Revolution’ dulled our intelligence?
The rise of automation has led to a kind of complacency, whereby there is an impression that this lack of skills can be mitigated by machines. While there is no doubt that intelligent automation has enabled great advances in manufacturing, we are not yet at the point where a cement plant could be left to run itself.
Part of the problem is that automation doesn’t encourage free thinking. It presents operators with reams of data, but data without knowledge and understanding is not worth much.
Data, in turn, encourages the mindset that everything can be standardised – processes, targets, both within the plant and within the company, wherever in the world you happen to be. What you end up with, largely, is more data for data’s sake and, without knowhow and experience, it does nothing to help operators develop skills or further insights into the process. It becomes a vicious circle.
How can you bridge the skills gap?
Many cement companies have begun programmes to encourage talent into the workforce, but obviously there is going to be a time lag while this new generation of workers builds their experience. For some global conglomerates, this deficit can be managed by utilising the resources of the corporate technical centre, although these resources are being rapidly depleted. And what about the smaller players?
Our experience at JAMCEM is actually that innovation often thrives at smaller companies that are not bound by the restrictive standardisation of processes and targets that takes place in multinational companies. However, while these smaller companies have the appetite and the freedom to be innovative, they don’t always have the expertise to make it happen. With that in mind, JAMCEM launched the Virtual Technical Centre – an unbiased source of expert advice available to all. This service performs essentially the same function as a traditional technical centre, advising on technical and operational queries as they arise on the plant. It’s an affordable first point of contact for troubleshooting as well as being a great resource to bounce ideas around that might otherwise be lost for lack of a sounding board. We hope that it will bridge the gap left by the skills shortage and promote greater innovation in the cement industry. For more information about the VTC, visit our website.