Much has been said about the manufacturing skills gap, the disconnect between capabilities manufacturers expect from their workforce, and the knowledge and expertise that workers actually possess. However, another skills gap is emerging and is likely to impact virtually all industries — the electrical skills gap.
With more emphasis than ever on digitalization, electrification and energy efficiency, most experts agree that we will need more employees adept in electrical and electronics technology to ensure economic growth and meet future sustainability goals.
That certainly holds for the fluid power market. Industrial applications are seeing a greater reliance on sensors, digital controls, variable-speed drives and communications networks to improve productivity, increase efficiency and use data for predictive maintenance. And mobile electrification is well underway in machines like forklifts, utility trucks and small construction equipment.
Therefore it is critical to develop and strengthen electrical skills in a wide range of workers. We recently asked Mathieu Plourde, Electric Power Technology Product Manager at Festo Didactic in Quebec, Canada, how fluid power experts can bridge the electrical skills gap.
FPW: Does the electrical skills gap pertain to the typical fluid power technician or engineer?
Plourde: It certainly does. Workers need to understand the full spectrum of possibilities pertaining to the application they create or maintain. Fluid power experts are responsible for creating smarter applications by integrating new sensors, communication devices and smarter controls to create more reliable and energy efficient applications.
In some applications, the technician or engineer must apply critical thinking to recognize when it might be more advantageous to integrate electrical actuators instead of fluid power actuators, in terms of energy consumption or complexity to integrate. Embracing and fine-tuning these skills enables them to work better in interdisciplinary teams and adapt to opportunities and complex situations ahead that will come with the general electrification and digitization of many industries.
FPW: Would the skills needed for fluid power personnel be different from those required of the electrical technician?
Plourde: The skills needed for fluid power workers are not as deep as they are for electrical technicians. However, FP professionals would certainly benefit from the same basic concepts an electrical technician needs, including a strong understanding of technologies that fit FP applications. Knowing basic electrical concepts is definitely required. Additional competencies regarding industrial controls, such as PLCs and sensors, helps the fluid power professional perform initial diagnostics and speed-up troubleshooting to minimize downtime in a production facility. An electrical technician should also have some fundamental knowledge of mechanical engineering.
Closing the skills gap is not meant to replace one type of worker with another, they all have their own expertise. But in today’s world, there is almost no industrial machinery without electrical components. A technician should have the basic understanding of the required technologies even to find the cause of a simple failure. Both hard and soft skills are required more than ever to communicate a problem on a machine.
FPW: Would the fluid power technician follow much the same learning path, or have different requirements?
Plourde: Requirements would be different. Even for an industrial electrician, the learning path would be flexible and scalable to align to the specific needs of the institution, the individual and the industry, all which influence program requirements. For example, an industrial electrician in the oil & gas industry will likely acquire more skill development around process automation in order to work in this area.
The same goes for a fluid power technician. Certain topics will be customized to fit current fluid power technician training programs. However, the fluid power topics still need to get an “electrical revamp.” For example adding sensors and monitoring topics, to build smarter fluid power applications, enables remote monitoring and data collection to the cloud to evaluate necessary maintenance and ensure reliable operations.
FPW: How does a technician acquire the needed skills? What kind of education or training is available?
Plourde: In today’s world, the various skills needed can be acquired through different learning pathways. Of course, there is always the traditional educational institution program which is still relevant for teenagers wanting to develop a certain skill set. But nowadays, the same institutions offer micro programs tailored to individual learning needs. If you need knowledge in only specific new topics, you certainly can enroll in on-site classes with those institutions or training experts, which will get you what you need without going back to school for two to three years. The same can be done in collaboration directly with a company where multiple workers experience the same skills gap and align a program tailored exactly to the company’s needs. Technicians can also develop their competencies through resources available online. Festo LX is our online learning portal for high-tech industrial career training.
FPW: Festo is a major producer and user of fluid power components and systems. How do you train your own fluid power technicians so they have the electrical knowledge required for today and tomorrow?
Plourde: Industrial professionals need continuous learning and training beyond what’s required in their day-to-day role in order to adapt and evolve in the complex industrial environment. Digitalization in the workplace has caused the expectations for current and future technicians to change as a result.
Today’s fluid power technicians need electrical training and a basic understanding of connected factory systems. Festo integrates electrical, mechanical, pneumatic and fluid power concepts in its overall training approach. We cover this comprehensive approach to training in Festo’s Industry 4.0 Certification Program (FICP). We also use simulation software (FluidSIM) to upskill and ensure employees and students have access to the most up-to-date industry training.
FPW: Will the traditional fluid power technician become obsolete?
Plourde: The fluid power technician role will not become obsolete. Rather, the role will evolve and that is the important message for most technical jobs out there. Adapting to new technologies and applications in the digital era is of extreme importance for any type of technician, such as the fluid power technician, as well as for educational institutions and companies.
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