Workforce Challenges: The Technical Side
By Jeff Dearduff
If you create a work environment that is tolerable, a schedule that is enticing and benefits that are second to none, you should be able to attract the right applicants to work in a bakery maintenance environment.
However, as a maintenance manager, you face yet another dilemma that affects your ability to attract good hires — namely, advances in technology. Because the role of the bakery maintenance mechanic has changed, the prime candidate has to bring a technical aptitude to the table in order to fit the bill. Now, you are looking for the mechanic who can change out your proofer drive chain today and replace and reprogram an operator interface tomorrow.
Let’s call the ideal person for this job the “hybrid technician.” If you have a job opening, and it draws 10 applicants (yeah, right!), one of them might fit the “hybrid” category. In the past, the pool of applicants might consist of nine mechanical guys and one control specialist. Today, you might get five mechanics and five controls specialists. So what do you do?
Hiring a mechanic who also wants to learn the controls side will pay off more than if you hire a controls guy and expect to train him to graphite an oven. In addition, you always have to evaluate your current crew and fill your deficiencies. If you are designed to have a controls specialist on staff (lucky you!), and that’s where you are short, always lean that way. When you do this, though, make sure everybody understands the deal ahead of time. The last thing you want is to hire a controls guy where only he knows his role.
The basics of technical advancements easily can be explained by using motor controls as an example. Back when the electric motor was controlled by an electro-mechanical contactor, a magnetic coil received a pulse from a push button or other simple device. With a simple push of the button, the magnet pulled in a set of silver contacts, and off we went. A mechanic with some basic electrical aptitude could learn the system in short order and solve most of your problems. Manual operation for the contactor, however, could lead you to a problem in a hurry.
Today, a motor control is a bit more complex and requires a different aptitude. When you walk up to an electrical control panel and pop the doors open, you rarely find that electro-magnetic contactor anymore. Instead, there is a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) with a special card in one of the slots that will communicate with a laser sensor, fiber optics device or some other trick device. The PLC receives the signal, thinks about a couple things and sends a command to a Variable Frequency Drive (VFD). The VFD then sends the power to the motor based on its parameter settings for torque and rpm, along with maybe 50 other settings.
The mechanic, controls specialist or that “hybrid technician” is not going to solve your problem as quickly. He might have to go through the parameters either on the VFD’s face or through a laptop screen. If the drive is checking out okay, then he has to head for the PLC — and you’re not doing much on it without a laptop connected. Eventually, you might get to the sensor or its card, but the bottom line is you’re not going to “jack in the starter” in order to identify your problem.
Finding a new employee who can solve problems in an increasingly complex bakery is difficult, but not impossible. We know the talent pool is shallow, and those wading around are fairly picky.
So how do we prepare for coming of the “hybrid technician”? There is no easy answer or plan for this. The opinion today is that we have to create this person. The first place to look might be right in your own shop. Maybe you have one or two mechanics with the controls specialist aptitude. If you do, work with them. Controls schemes are going to make sense quicker to the mechanic who already knows what makes the bread “go round” from the mechanical side. If you try to create the “hybrid” person from the controls specialist, it may take a little longer to get the full understanding of what makes things click.
When developing mechanics into the new discipline, find ways to get specialized training for these employees and provide them shop time and test benches where they can work on controls components and ideas. The work for the maintenance manager will be to track progress so that you know you truly are heading in a productive direction for the long term. The hard call comes when you have to try some other candidate because maybe your first choice isn’t developing quickly enough or is becoming disinterested. If that happens, going back to square one is sometimes the necessary call.
With all of that said, now you have to find a way to keep this person in full development mode, make them happy on the job and encourage them to learn more. That leads us back to job development with an improved quality of life. The bottom line: The best way to recruit and retain usually involves what you can provide for them to make their lives better.
Keep your technicians happy and interested, and you’ll keep them working. Good luck!
Editor’s Note: In this monthly column, Jeff Dearduff, director of engineering at East Balt Inc. in Chicago, addresses the responsibilities of the bakery engineer. Jeff got his start in the baking industry at Perfection Biscuit Co., now Aunt Millie’s. He is a member of the American Bakers Assn., the Baking Industry Sanitation Standards Committee, the American Institute of Baking and the American Society of Baking. You can contact Jeff at