I recently connected with Adrian Heaton, Global Service Manager for ABB Measurement, to discuss the global skills shortage for technical talent in our industry.

A 2021 study conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute (MI) predicts that 2.1 million manufacturing positions will go unfulfilled by 2030, partly due to an increasing skills gap.  

Following are several points Heaton made during our conversation.

Heaton works in the Measurement and Instrumentation group of ABB focusing on services. He told me that from a service resources point-of-view, finding technicians who want to work in the area and have relevant skills is difficult. In Europe it can take 6-12 months to fill a spot.

He told me, “This is reality—not fake news.” (OK, the US meme has reached Germany, from which we connected.)

It appears to be a pretty global situation that tech colleges are an important source for people with technical skills. I’ve witnessed that in the US for several years. Looks like the same in Europe. He also mentioned that that can be a problem as students graduate in one country where opportunities are not abundant, so they move to other countries to find appropriate jobs.

I asked about something I had heard years ago where the large automation suppliers may have an advantage hiring talented people over smaller companies. He said that sometimes customers are having trouble finding people while the large automation suppliers have brand awareness that helps attract applicants. While marketing is key to attracting talent, training and employment contracts that offer more potential for development are also important.

Training, has always been a strong suit at ABB, but they are standardizing more, making it consistent across lines. E-learning of instrumentation is an adjunct to the classroom. Training is prepared as part of product launches so that all concerned can get thorough updates. “It’s the DNA of the product program.”

Safety is an important part of training at ABB. They are taught to evaluate what is risk. Perhaps instrumentation is low voltage but there are enclosed spaces, and underground places to consider. The global services team puts on as many miles driving to sites as miles around the Earth. So driving safety is another part of the service training DNA. “It’s extensive so that the team gets home at night.”

Heaton confirms my observation that Virtual Reality technology seems best suited for training. But it is very expensive to develop the visuals for VR in order to achieve good industrial training.

I asked about Augmented Reality (AR). ABB has a program Visual Remote Support that allows remote experts to “look over the shoulder” of the on site technician. This program was a success during COVID. People couldn’t travel and customers found the experience quite good. But after COVID, people wanted to meet people face-to-face again, so the program has dropped off some. It remains useful for checking things out prior to a visit such that the traveling technician can bring the right tools and parts.

ABB put together training using AR/VR technologies during COVID. They found customer experience was quite good. There were a number of programs where customers could “send” multiple people to training without travel cost. Students could actually manipulate instruments and valves from their remote locations. 

AR remote support faces one major challenge for in oil and gas plants and other plants with hazardous areas—you can’t take an iPad in.

I haven’t had a talk with ABB for quite some time. It’s good to see how a major automation company responds to the skills crisis.

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