The skilled trades industries are aging. Fewer skilled workers enter the trades every year and more and more are retiring or nearing retirement age.
The challenge facing field service employers in this unprecedented market isn’t just a simple labor shortage. The growing knowledge gap that has been revealed may prove, over time, to have more significant consequences for the industry than the well-documented labor gap.
The Knowledge Gap vs. the Labor Gap
It’s not just labor hours that are being lost as this current generation of experienced workers heads toward retirement. The loss of accumulated wisdom and institutional knowledge as experienced workers leave the field is exacerbating the labor shortage and is already having a profound impact on providers and their customers. With retirement rates poised to cascade in the coming years, many contractors fear that significant declines in quality, service, and productivity are on the horizon.
Intangible Soft Skills to Close the Skills Gap
Over the course of a 30- or 40-year career, skilled workers accrue a vast amount of useful information and knowledge. There are, of course, essential technical skills required for the job. But many other forms of knowledge and expertise aren’t as easy to measure:
These are just a few knowledge-based skills, that an employer can leverage:
• Soft skills necessary for successful interaction with customers and colleagues
• Institutional knowledge about the industry and local service areas
• Diagnostic abilities that depend on intimate familiarity with a range of products and brands
Formal training for field service professionals typically happens once or twice a year in a highly structured format. While that method has its place, employers can find more sustainable results through a continuous on-the-job, informal education. Accumulated specialized knowledge is often the result of mentor relationships and on-the-job experience.
Shared Earned Knowledge
Sharing earned knowledge from generation to generation ensures continuity. It also plays a key role in a company’s productivity. Younger workers benefit from the lessons senior employees have already learned, helping them avoid costly errors. Informal mentor relationships also support and reinforce formal training, enhancing the value of an investment in ongoing education opportunities.
In the absence of shared knowledge and experience, service companies operate with less efficiency.
There is a range of potential negative impacts:
• Younger workers may take longer to advance their skills.
• Younger workers, frustrated by their lack of progress, may leave the industry, amplifying the labor shortage and skills gap.
• Experienced workers are expected to serve as in-house support, spending more time training green techs than out in the field.
• Experienced workers may feel overworked, reducing their effectiveness in the field.
• Overall team morale declines. Retention and recruiting suffer.
• Customer experience declines, resulting in lost revenue and lack of growth.
Unfortunately, there is no immediate solution to the acute shortage of skilled trades workers. However, contractors don’t have to simply watch valuable earned knowledge leave their companies as their most experienced technicians retire or pursue other options in the latter stages of their careers.
A technician-first strategy that prioritizes field workers can help contractors optimize and stabilize the vast banks of skill and experience shared among veteran team members. Focusing on earned knowledge and implementing tools that help them catalog accumulated experience, can enhance operational efficiency and productivity in the field, and help young workers in a challenging industry, develop more quickly while making fewer mistakes.
Prioritizing field techs is a proven method to help contractors improve the job experience for their most valuable workers and maximize customer experience, accuracy, and efficiency.
The emergence of tech-enablement technology solutions presents a unique opportunity to transform the field service industry. Empowering field techs with tools driven by data, analytics, and artificial intelligence appears to be a reliable strategy for contractors to successfully adapt to the chronic challenges of the employment market. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology, for example, allows field service techs to instantly capture equipment and service data that can be accessed by other members of their team or on future jobs.
Minimizing the disruption and volatility that too often define the industry’s relationship with talent in a turbulent economic climate, can be an important way for contractors to build a competitive advantage. Tech-enablement technology has a crucial capacity to help service teams document and catalog a tech’s experience on every job.
Collecting and indexing essential job data and applying powerful real-time AI-driven analytics and insights, allows contractors and their teams to streamline workflows and boost productivity. As a result, younger technicians are equipped with tools that help them operate with unprecedented effectiveness, while more experienced techs are relieved of the support roles, they too often find themselves in.
The key to a tech-enablement approach is simply starting with a technician’s perspective. We should be guiding our decisions on the curb-to-curb experience of people on the front lines of our industry, not ideas from previous decades about what their roles should be.
Adam Jaggers is the Chief Technology Officer at XOi Technologies with a history of working in the Enterprise Software industry. Skilled in Big Data technologies, leading software engineering and devOps teams with Agile Methodologies, and Machine Learning Techniques.