Food for thought

 A holistic approach to skills shortages

Right now, the job market in North America is a bit of a double-edged sword for businesses. While the low unemployment rate is a positive sign that the economy is growing, it presents its own set of challenges for manufacturers. In the US, there are 0.7 people available per job opening. In Canada, the picture is only slightly different, with 1.3 people available for every job opening.

This situation makes it difficult for manufacturers to fill positions on production lines. When a manufacturer expands capacity on an existing line, or adds a new line, staffing issues become very real. Add to this that the average worker in North America stays with their employer for only 5.2 years, you can start to see why businesses don’t see the same positive economic picture that their respective governments do. Staffing can be a determining factor in an organization’s decision to expand or add new lines.

Adding yet another wrinkle to this is the skills gap in this region. Particularly in production positions, this gap in experience and knowledge between older workers eyeing retirement, and incoming untrained workers – or lack of them – results in a looming labor shortage. Canada is looking to address this shortage in part by planning to accept nearly 1.5 million immigrants by 2025. Meanwhile, in the US, immigration policy remains stalled, exacerbating the situation. Additionally, North American manufacturing companies have been slow to implement European-style apprenticeships, keeping the number of well-trained entry-level workers very low. This is changing to a degree, but not at a pace fast enough to have any real effect on the current staffing situation.

The pressure this employment landscape puts on manufacturers is not insurmountable, though. There are several ways North American processors are addressing these challenges while improving operations, making the most of their installed base, cutting operational costs, and perhaps even making progress in corporate sustainability goals.

Automation plays a key role in improving operations where staffing is an issue and can take an organization a long way towards highly efficient production, even with a reduced workforce. In the milling industry, for example, automation has reached a level that allows “lights out” operation – meaning that the mill can run entirely on its own with a crew of only one or two people to oversee and address any issues. While not every industry can take advantage of such a level of automation, many solutions are available that can drastically improve production efficiency and reduce energy consumption.

Today, automation solutions are incredibly diverse and feature software and hardware components that can be easily integrated into new and existing lines. They can be end-to-end solutions or can focus on a particular operation. Digital products can also have a significant impact here, leveraging data collected from smart and connected devices to improve efficiency. Using algorithms based on years of process expertise, real-time analytics of this data can find areas for improvements and then, using automation tools, adjust the process to optimize towards those improvement targets. This can be done with little to no human intervention and at a far superior speed. Even small improvements from digital tools can deliver significant positive impacts to the bottom line. Bühler has developed a sizeable portfolio of services to help processors grow their operation even in this climate.

An expanding economy and insufficient human resources are conflicting forces. Taking a holistic approach to supporting challenged production operations with considered equipment and services designed to address this dichotomy can help to meet these challenges in a way that benefits all involved.

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