While skills shortages are a widespread issue for almost all of our industrial customers, in the water industry it is one of the most critical challenges faced by end users in this segment. As expert staff (like operators and maintenance personnel) in Water & Wastewater (WWW) plants start to retire, the new generation of workers does not come with enough deep-seated knowledge of WWW processes to be as effective and efficient as their predecessors – rather they have more skills in IT and mobile technologies. Don’t take this as a criticism of the millennial generation; it’s a call for action.
To cope with the dwindling talent pool, what WWW plants desperately need is to be able to capture the knowledge of their retiring expert staff in intelligent systems that are able to support process and business decision making for generations to come. Things like predictive analysis and decision support systems are needed NOW to support the new generation of workers who will operate and maintain the WWW infrastructure of tomorrow.
It boils down to a major generational change – very experienced plant operators and maintenance personnel reaching the end of their working lives, and the issues their employers are having, not only replacing these people, but also capturing and preserving the huge amount of knowledge they have.
Simply replacing retiring skilled workers is just not as easy as it sounds. Firstly, any new recruits need to have the right profiles and the right skills – this is not always easy to find exactly when and where you need it. Secondly, just recruiting a whole bunch of new people will place an unwarranted burden on operational expenditure. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, is capturing the knowledge that these very experienced people have and making sure that knowledge can be used to continue to facilitate decisions for operations and maintenance actions in the future.
So how can we meet this challenge?
Well, I’m glad you asked. There are tools available now that can help you achieve more with less in your WWW plant. These tools bring efficiencies to the operations and maintenance phases of your plant lifecycle, and they can definitely help you cope with the dwindling talent pool.
Two examples I can give you today are user interfaces and libraries. Simplified and unified user interfaces mean that new people can get up to speed much more quickly. In addition, object libraries provide a lot of functionality and flexibility through process standards, diagnostic features, specific objects and related support that help you truly run a productive and efficient process.
For instance – and especially in the water segment where we have less and less staff onsite – it makes a big difference if operators and maintenance personnel are immediately informed about the root cause of an issue and guided through the complete process of solving it with access to all the necessary documentation and repair steps. In addition, standard objects and libraries bring with them the benefits of being well maintained, tested and documented.
This all means that as you lose more experienced operations and maintenance personnel, and gain new employees, you have your specific business and process knowledge built right into your process, rather than inside the brains of those retiring. Or in other words, essentially what you have today, unstructured in the brain of an operator or maintenance person, can now come codified within your system. And now that it’s inside the system this “documented” information and related assets can be used to help train new employees.
One last example for the WWW industry is the efficient operation of the aeration of a wastewater treatment plant – which is among the most energy consuming part of such a plant. While this multi-variant process control was fully based on the experience of highly skilled process experts in the past, intelligent control systems, based on collaborative and fully integrated automation architectures like PlantStruxure, can be used to improve such complex processes today, supported by predictive advanced process control technologies.
What measures are you putting in place to secure your business from the effects of skills shortages?