Across industries, managers are having a hard time finding technicians, the people who work with that perfect combination of their head and hands to keep the world up and running. Car dealerships and repair shops can’t find people, airlines struggle to find trained aircraft mechanics, and both facility and maintenance managers are facing labor shortages.
There’s no single reason behind the shortages, so there’s no single solution. But there’s a lot you can do to find and keep maintenance technicians at your facilities. And the good news is that everything you do to fix the maintenance tech shortage makes your department a better place to work for everyone there.
Before looking at how to solve it, you first need to understand it. So, what’s behind the shortage of maintenance technicians?
Understanding the maintenance technician shortage
Combinations of demographic shifts and cultural changes are behind the shortage. As the older generation of techs retire, the younger generation’s lack of overall interest in entering the trades means there’s fewer new techs to replace them. But even if the number of new techs coming into the field matched the number leaving, they’d lack those senior techs’ decades of experience.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “About 160,100 openings for general maintenance and repair workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”
It’s that last part that’s likely the most important. As a general trend, the Baby Boomer generation has been steadily leaving the workforce for years. But recently, they’ve been leaving in increasingly larger numbers.
Back in mid-2020, nearly 30 million Baby Boomers retired, with many being pushed out because of the pandemic. A year later, the number grew, and the theory is that a lot of people decided that, basically, enough was enough and it was time to start enjoying life now, not putting it off.
The result is that maintenance, just like every other industry where a lot of the workforce is made up of Baby Boomers, is losing people faster than it can replace them.
And the reason the industry is finding it hard to replace maintenance techs is that Baby Boomers have traditionally pushed their own children toward university, not trade school. The result is a lot more people going for four-year degrees, a lot fewer entering the trades and apprenticeship programs.
But it’s more than just the parents. In the past, many young people got their first taste of the trades through school shop classes. It’s also where they fell in love with everything from wielding to automotive repair. From there, they followed their new-found passion into the trades. Now, those classes are gone, and with them, the opportunity for new generations to discover the value of working with your head and your hands.
There are different theories why schools dropped shop classes. There’s the idea that it was where school shuffled off the “less academically gifted,” so the average student avoided them because they didn’t want to appear less smart than their peers. Another possibility is that, once funding was tied to standardized testing, schools were incentivized to focus all their efforts on increasing math and language scores.
Solving the maintenance technician shortage
In the same way that there’s more than one reason behind the shortage, you need more than one solution.
Keep senior techs from retiring completely
Looking just at the raw numbers, keeping a tech is about the same as replacing them. If you start with five people on the team and end up with five people on the team, number-wise, it’s all the same. But is that all you should be looking at?
No. With a senior tech, you have a known commodity. You’re not gambling on them being as good on the ground as they were in the interview.
And it’s not just what you know about them. It’s what they know about the job.
Someone with decades of experience at your facility is worth more to you right now than someone with an equal number of years on the job but on a different team at a different organization. But you’re likely not going to get someone with decades of experience anyway. Instead, you’re working with a junior maintenance tech.
So, it’s often in your interest to have senior techs stay. To make that happen, you need to make it in their interest to stay, too. One way is by offering them reduced hours in their current position. After 20 years on the job, the idea of a 40-hour, five-day workweek has lost all its appeal. But what about 20 hours? Or three days a week instead of five? Another is having them assume a consulting role in the department.
Entice junior techs with opportunities for education and advancement
Part of getting young people into maintenance is knowing what they’re looking for—and it’s not a job. They’re looking for a career.
What’s the difference between a job and a career?
A job is static, meaning someone with just a job is stuck doing the same things forever. But a career has a clear path for advancement and room to grow. A job is something you just do for money. A career is a life-long project, packed with different roles and responsibilities, education and experience.
So, it’s important to create opportunities for education and advancement in your maintenance department. That might include outlining a clear path new technicians can take to move their way up the ladder. It can also include a formal mentorship program.
You can also actively encourage new technicians to pursue more industry-relevant certificates, and licenses by supporting tuition and offering more flexibility in work schedules so they can attend classes.
There are currently many different options for maintenance technicians looking to acquire or update their skills sets.
Certified Maintenance & Reliability Technician (CMRT)
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals (SMRP) manages this comprehensive certification covering general maintenance management, maintenance practices, preventative and predictive maintenance, troubleshooting and analysis, and corrective maintenance.
Certified Maintenance & Reliability Professional (CMRP)
SMRP also has a certificate for business and management, equipment reliability, manufacturing process reliability, organization and leadership, and work management. It’s accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Certified Plant Engineer (CPE)
Association for Facilities Engineering (AFE) delivers training and certification for facility maintenance, electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering, OSHA safety, and energy management.
And the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters also offer a wide range of certificate programs and workshops.
There’s more than one reason behind the shortage of maintenance technicians. Part of the problem comes from the mass retirement of the Baby Boomer generation. Although the effects on the workforce have been clear for a long time, the pandemic quickly added to the numbers.
Another reason why it’s hard to find new maintenance techs is the relatively smaller number of people entering the trades. For a long time, parents and teachers have been steering kids toward four-year degrees and away from trade schools and apprenticeship programs.
For the average maintenance manager, it’s time to get creative to attract talent. One way is to not lose it to begin with. So, you can try to keep your senior techs around longer by giving them more flexible work schedules and moving them into positions where they work more as departmental consultants.
To attract younger maintenance techs, the focus should be on offering a career instead of a job. So, positions in the maintenance department should come with clear paths forward and opportunities and support for professional certificates and licenses.