Staying Ahead of the Aging Field Service Work Force

Nov. 9, 2009
Most manufacturers recognize knowledge transfer as an issue, yet fail to act on it -- especially when it comes to field service.

Service manufacturers worldwide are in the thick of a perform storm: A "graying" workforce is fading off into the sunset, with hundreds of years of collective expertise. In most cases, left behind are underserved, smaller workforces -- without the keys, strategies and processes that had kept businesses thriving. And in a time where resources are stretched thin, and the requirement to "do more with less" is as loud as ever to keep customer satisfaction, loyalty and brand protected, it sets up a gap carrying grave implications.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the median age of U.S. employees, some 64 million baby boomers -- more than 40% of the American labor force -- are poised to retire in the next three to five years, leaving fewer experienced workers to take their places. Similar changes in workforce demographics are occurring in Europe and Australia. In its 2004 Eurostat population projections, the European Commission predicted a substantial decline -- about 20% to 30% over the next few decades -- in the age of the working population within the EU.

Despite these figures, little is being done. Most manufacturers recognize knowledge transfer as an issue, yet fail to act on it -- especially when it comes to field service.

According to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), only 29% of responding organizations report that they incorporate retirement forecasts into their knowledge transfer practices. Furthermore, i4cp found that only a third add "skills gap analysis" into those forecasts, less than half say they train their managers to identify critical skills, only 23% are educated in critical skills transfer, and most companies admit they do not formally measure the effectiveness of their knowledge transfer practices.

Complicating matters is that older workers possess years of experience that young workforces simply lack. Both groups have different skill sets and knowledge. Some of these are no longer relevant, such as fixing an Apple II computer. But some will still be needed and must be preserved and transferred to the younger workers -- like the tasks requiring a lot of experience, as often happens in utilities, HVAC and even domestic "white goods." Older workers also tend to approach problems and challenges differently from younger ones, sometimes acting less quickly, but applying their experience and maturity to act more effectively.

Putting Service under the Microscope

The lack of adequate retirement planning places most businesses in an uncompromising position -- around service, which is becoming the barometer for how businesses gain profit, market share and revenue.

Competition is getting tighter, demanding that field service teams find ways to be profitable even as they are pressed to raise their service quality as well as compete on pricing. The nature of the game keeps changing, with new technologies, new government regulations (e.g. having to do with sustainability and "green" operations), and with the changes brought about by the effects of the economic downturn as well as the first hopeful signs of a new upturn. Juggling all these balls in the air requires both up-front planning and the agility to change plans quickly as the unforeseen inevitably happens.

Five Actions To Keep Knowledge In-House

To ensure businesses proactively get in front possible knowledge gaps when it comes to service, here are five steps to take:

Don't homogenize -- diversify. Instead of trying to teach all workers to work the same way, it is often more productive to plan for, and benefit from, a diverse workforce combining older and younger workers on the same teams and crews.

This achieves benefits such as additional safety (as the grayer heads use their experience to steer their colleagues away from danger), coaching and cross-training (in both directions), and knowledge transfer, while getting the job done.

In fact, this may be the best way to achieve knowledge transfer -- "on the job" often beats classrooms and meetings. Diversification creates some challenges: It is much easier to plan and schedule when all people are interchangeable, but in real life you do need to take into account that no single worker can do everything. Fortunately, technology exists today to handle the complexity of forecasting, planning, schedule and managing such work.

A good workforce plan starts with gap analysis, and thinking: What do you need? What do you have? First, approximate workload for the coming years by forecasting future demand for services. Then, estimate resources' availability by collecting data about current employees, including key skills and expected retirement dates. This information will let you assess the gap between the expected workload and the available capacity to fulfill it.

It is critical to understand this gap at the most granular level, down to specific skills in specific regions or districts, and if necessary, further broken down by organizational segment. Now you can build an action plan that will detail the best ways to bridge this gap. For some skills or regions, the actions may include a combination of hiring and knowledge transfer. For others, this may involve transferring a larger part of the work to subcontractors, etc.

Work together with employees who are nearing retirement to proactively plan the future path. According to Mark Penn's 2007 book, Microtrends, 75% of "baby boomers" have no intention of full-time retirement. Some of them may be interested in working past their retirement age, as part-time employees or as independent subcontractors. If this is of interest to your organization, you need to define the rules of engagement long before the retirement date. In any case, you'll need to work out your knowledge transfer plans, starting with the most urgent cases -- among those with the most crucial skills, who are retiring soonest? How do you set incentives for knowledge transfer, for both the knowledge giver and the knowledge receiver? How do you define and measure successful transfer?

An organization-wide challenge requires an organization-wide response. The Human Resources group needs to work with the business forecasters and planners, but this is just the start: Increasing the use of part-time employees and subcontractors requires new processes, legal contracts, review of insurance and medical issues, Information Technology solutions for sharing information and for getting maximum efficiency out of such a diverse workforce, and so on.

Utilize technology to solve problems in new ways. Some older employees may no longer be interested in spending the whole day on the road, but their expertise is still priceless. Could they work from home, using social media to deliver tips and advice, possibly via sharing audio and video with the field teams? Could they form a new stage in the process of problem handling, via calling the customer to ask a few questions in order to determine what skills and parts are required? Such stages have been found to be quite effective in resolving the problem on the first site visit, or sometimes even avoid the need for a visit. Could they use M2M (Machine-to-Machine) technologies to remotely connect to the equipment being serviced, isolating the problem and speeding the solution? The technology already exists to facilitate the whole cycle, from real-time communication and remote coaching to sophisticated gap analysis, planning and scheduling. Once you have determined what you need, you'll probably find that the solutions for your needs are already here.

While service manufacturers cannot freeze the hands of time for long-term success they can ensure information remains at home where it belongs.

Hannan Carmeli is president and chief operating officer of ClickSoftware, a provider of mobile workforce management and service optimization for hundreds of utility, telecommunications, home services and capital equipment manufacturers.

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