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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

The Invisible Labor Shortage of Technicians Who Keep Things Running

June 11th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

The pressing need for engineers of virtually all disciplines has become increasingly urgent as relatively few students view and pursue engineering as a career.  Business seems more attractive to many, and yeah, there’s always psychology (the “new” liberal arts degree) that has a lot of sellers, but relatively few buyers, at least at the BA/BS level.

Yes, engineering education and engineers are vital for keeping our technological world moving ahead, but who keeps the underlying machinery, tools, and software moving at all? Technicians.

Whether you recognize them, or not, there are technicians in just about every field and industry. For example, automotive mechanics, machinists, cosmetologists, electricians, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) — the list is about endless. If it’s “technical,” the odds are extremely good that there is a technician involved somewhere in the chain, and that may include many links in the chain.

So, what exactly is a technician?

Technicians can be classified as either highly skilled or semi-skilled workers, and are usually an integral part of a larger process. They work in a variety of fields, and they usually have a job title with the designation “technician” following the particular category of work. For example, an engineering technician is a highly skilled, highly educated occupation requiring several years of post high school training in a formal apprenticeship and probably college (usually two year) for further education.

Experienced technicians in a specific domain typically have at least an intermediate understanding of theory and expert proficiency in technique. Because of this practical knowledge, technicians are generally better versed in technique compared to average laymen and even general professionals in that field of technology, namely engineers, for whom theory often trumps practice.

What is the Future of (Automotive) Technicians?

By now, most of us are aware of the shortage of qualified skilled workers (including technicians) in the manufacturing domain, but let’s take a look at a couple specific industry categories where growing worker shortages are particularly acute: information technology (IT) and additive manufacturing (AM).

IT refers mainly to technology and business applications of computing. Several new professions have appeared relatively recently within computing to support big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, cyber security, IoT, and so on. Not all that long ago there was a sharp drop in enrollments in computer science departments around the world, to about 50% percent of the 2000 peak. Many considered this a paradox because computing jobs were growing into every field and business.

In 2007 CS enrollments bottomed and began to rise steadily, attaining in 2013 75% of the peak level. Surveys show students are taking up computing not so much because they expect good salaries, but because they perceive computer science as compatible with almost every other field. In other words, a major in computer science gives the flexibility of deferring a career choice until graduation.

The surge in formal CS/engineering education diverts attention from an underlying big, messy problem. Most CS university graduates are heading for the currently plentiful so-called “elite” design and engineering  jobs, where they will create new computing technology. Unbeknownst, there are many more unfilled technician jobs and more will be needed to support the infrastructure of the newly created and existing computing technology.

Who will operate and maintain the information infrastructure on which so much else depends? Universities say they are not preparing technicians because “training” is outside of their scope. Supposedly, technician jobs, which do not pay as well as the designer jobs (though this is not necessarily always true), do not attract university graduates. For their part, community colleges and two-year colleges do not seem to have enough capacity to meet the need, and there are few programs to transition workers displaced by digital automation into digital technician jobs.

Of course, there is controversy around whether there is actually a shortage of IT workers at all. When considering the whole market of IT jobs, maybe not. However, when considering the technician segment by itself, there is definitely a shortage, and one that grows more critical every year.

The U.S. Labor Department defines IT technicians as those who diagnose computer problems, monitor computer processing systems, install software, and perform tests on computer equipment and programs. Technicians also set up computer equipment, schedule maintenance, perform repairs, and teach clients to use programs. Technicians need strong knowledge of computers and how they operate, including a broad understanding of hardware and software, operating systems, and basic computer programming. Many technician must be familiar not only with electronic equipment, Internet applications, and security, but also need good communication skills because they interact frequently with people who have varying levels of IT knowledge.

The U.S. Labor Department reported in September 2014 that 16 million mid- and low-skill workers had been displaced by automation and would presumably become employed if they could be retrained. If those people and the underemployed (people with part-time jobs seeking full-time employment) were counted in the unemployment figures, U.S. unemployment rate would have been 11.8% rather than 5.9% in that September. Even some retrained workers have had difficulty finding employment. One reason is that employers prefer people with specialized knowledge of their systems — fortunately, this can be changed. Another is age discrimination—people in their 50s have a much more difficult time finding employment in IT companies than those in their 20s and 30s — unfortunately, age cannot be reversed, therefore the bias remains.

So, who is focusing on the computing technicians? Not the computing departments in four-year colleges. In fact, they call that form of education “training” and say they do not do training. They leave the “training” to two-year colleges, career academies, and a growing number of private firms that offer training certificates.

As for meeting technician needs in AM, I recently came across an interesting article in SME’s Manufacturing Engineering by George Aslanidis, Program Manager, Additive Manufacturing Cuyahoga Community College Unified Technologies Center.

In the article he says that as additive manufacturing gains momentum, so does the need for skilled technicians to man and maintain sophisticated 3D printing machines—in addition to those who design 3D parts and print programs. Under a grant from the US Department of Labor, Cuyahoga Community College located in Cleveland, OH, recently launched a certificate program for individuals interested in taking advantage of the rising opportunities in additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3D printing.

Students can earn 16-credit hours in the one-year program, which can be applied toward a two-year degree at the Community College or two-year advanced manufacturing and four-year engineering programs at any Ohio university.

Participants learn how to use 3D computer-aided drafting software, 3D scanners, 3D printers, reverse engineering software, rapid prototyping and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) programs, as well as general manufacturing technology and engineering principles, which basically covers everything from product development to product launch.

Below is a video from British Columbia Institute of Technology’s (BCIT’s) School of Manufacturing, Electronics and Industrial Processes: Machinist Apprenticeship Program.

BCIT Machinist Apprenticeship Program

 In August 2014, an analysis by Wanted Analytics found that the number of job ads requiring workers with 3D printing skills increased 1834% between July 2010 and July 2014, much of that growth occurring in the final year. That analysis found that 3D printing and additive manufacturing skills were the most sought after engineering jobs, representing 35% of all engineering ads posted in the previous 30 days.

Few technologies match the promise and potential of additive manufacturing. Since additive manufacturing is increasingly used in a variety of industries including aerospace, biomedical, automotive, defense and materials manufacturing, trained technicians are going to be needed.

Cuyahoga Community College has put together a program that it believes will help deliver the additive manufacturing technicians of the future.

So, while technicians may be shunned by four-year institutions, they are welcomed and embraced by two-year community colleges, technical and vocational schools, and apprenticeship programs where vital skills can be learned. Grants may be available and the opportunities are boundless for technicians.

I have my own short apprenticeship story. When I graduated from high school, I thought about a career as an electrician and entered an apprenticeship program. I remember hearing at the time something like, “Apprenticeship is the original four-year degree.” I didn’t exactly maintain an electrical feeling being an electricians apprentice for long, and went to college instead, but have always looked back fondly at my days as an apprentice and all the things I learned, along with cultivating a good work ethic. My personal experience in an apprenticeship has given me a lifelong appreciation of the broad range of things technicians know and can do.

So, while engineers create stuff, technicians keep stuff running. While certainly a matter of opinion, the work may not be as sexy, but technicians’ work is every bit as essential as that of engineers. Educational and opportunities and employment possibilities offer a very bright future indeed for technicians.

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One Response to “The Invisible Labor Shortage of Technicians Who Keep Things Running”

  1. […] The Invisible Labor Shortage of Technicians Who Keep Things Running – as well as general manufacturing technology and engineering principles, which basically covers everything from product development to product launch. Below is a video from British Columbia Institute of Technology’s (BCIT’s) School of Manufacturing … […]

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