Developing a Multi-Skilled Maintenance Team

Developing a Multi-Skilled Maintenance Team

 Developing a Multi-Skilled Maintenance Team

No other area of industry has experienced the broad change in skill requirements brought on by new technology and increased attention to production efficiency than has maintenance. Today’s maintenance professionals are often expected to perform tasks from a multitude of diverse craft areas encompassing electrical, mechanical, electronic, and even computerized systems requiring a broad base of knowledge and skill.  In spite of these evolving requirements, schools at all levels and many apprenticeship programs continue to graduate participants who are proficient in one skill at best forcing industry to develop internal solutions for modern maintenance challenges. 
The consensus is that today’s industries need maintenance workers who are proficient in multiple skills in order to compete effectively and efficiently. Whether you are dealing with head count freezes or in inadequate labor pool, the days of strictly single-craft maintenance shops seem to be over. Another contributing factor in many areas of the US is the low unemployment rates particularly for skilled workers. This environment has created a market where companies compete for fewer personnel. A smart response is to train existing personnel to perform the jobs needed. A properly designed, developed, and implemented skills training program, whether through a local learning institution, an external vendor, or an internal training department, is one of the most cost-effective solutions available. All of which serves to make multi-craft skills training a hot topic.

Unfortunately, the skill level of many companies’ existing maintenance staff is well below acceptable industry standards even in their primary craft areas. Data gathered through assessing the skill level of thousands of maintenance craftsmen in the US and Canada shows that 80% of those assessed scored less than 50% proficiency on the basic technical skills needed to perform their jobs and this gap only grows wider as companies modernize and existing employees retire.

How Is a Multi-craft Program Different?

When designing a multi-skill program, it is essential to accurately identify the needed skills as well as to look at the individuals who will be performing them. What constitutes a good program? First, the training must be focused on the correct skills to give results as quickly as possible while also addressing the plant’s long-term business goals. Through needs assessment, job task analysis, and skills assessment, true training needs can be identified to avoid training for activity rather than improvement. Second, the company and all its personnel must be 100% committed to the program.  The companies that have been the most successful have demonstrated both financial commitment and patience from their highest echelons of management on down. 
Well-conceived training programs can certainly help companies save money, increase productivity, and improve employee morale. Yet there are reasonable concerns that any training program may be successful only from a training perspective and not actually cause the changes needed in the plant.  Only skill increases that are properly identified, utilized, and encouraged will effect change. Once an individual is trained on the right activities, he must be provided with the time and tools to perform this new skill, be held accountable for his actions, and be recognized for following through.  Without total commitment, this key element often does not occur and the program is judged a failure.

Skills Assessment

There are two general types of multi-skilled programs. In the first model, the cross training occurs between two distinct fields. For example, an electrician may be trained in some mechanical tasks or a mechanic may be trained in some electronic tasks or any combination that makes sense. In the second model, new skills are added within the employee’s current discipline making him more versatile.

Designing the Program

Regardless of the model chosen, a systematic approach to training identification, design, and development is the best insurance that genuine business needs are being addressed. This is also the step most companies ignore going straight to purchasing and implementing training instead. The analysis phase is, while often viewed as an expense, actually the single best investment a company can make in ensuring the desired outcomes are achieved.  
A comprehensive analysis phase typically includes three components: needs analysis, job task analysis, and skills assessments. The initial step, needs analysis, examines the problem to first determine whether it is an equipment issue, a personnel/policy issue, a skills issue, or some other type of problem. Sometimes training is not the best answer. Gathering needs data up front allows for informed decisions regarding the changes being desired or demanded and how to best address them.    

Needs Analysis

Needs analysis provides three distinct and critical pieces of information by:
  1. Documenting current practices     
  2. Identifying desired outcomes     
  3. Providing cost justification for intervention 
Needs analysis begins by examining today’s practices, gathering comprehensive data on the equipment, personnel, policies, training, and other issues related to the problem area. It is the “big picture” look. That data is then compared to the desired performance outcome to determine the gap between where the company is now and where it wants to be.  Next, it compares the costs of achieving that goal and its associated return on investment with the cost of continuing the existing program. If change is indicated, recommendations for a path forward are generated.
Too often, companies either skip the needs analysis step or get bogged down in it. Neither extreme is productive. Although the study can be as general or as detailed as the situation indicates, an in depth, long-term study is rarely required. The main purpose of the needs analysis is to determine baselines from which to measure future interventions. That also provides solid justification for the program since it is based upon those measurable criteria and their associated returns. Training is often called upon to justify its existence and must be prepared to show how it benefits the organization. Perhaps learning a new process or skill saves time and money. Perhaps it lengthens the life cycle of the equipment or facility. Maybe it increases productivity. Needs analysis is a starting point for showing that training earns more than it costs. 

Job Task Analysis

Job task analysis is the next step in developing a quality multi-craft program. This process is designed as an effective and efficient method to capture all current activities in order to determine the tasks, skills, and procedures that must be performed by employees and management who wish to exhibit successful behavior. Management then has a tool for determining whether the workforce is performing as desired or has experienced some type of job distortion. There are several accepted methodologies. The analyst may choose to shadow a crafts-person, detailing the observations and questioning him about other activities. Or a focus group of subject matter experts may be assembled to brainstorm all the tasks performed by their group, developing a duty and task list along with associated conditions and standards. Those tasks are then rated according to frequency, difficulty, and consequences, and the ratings used to identify critical tasks that should be targeted for training. A facilitator guides the discussion helping the group think about daily routines as well as periodic events. 

Recently, the focus group approach has added a new dimension using a database as the brainstorming tool. Core duty areas and tasks are preassembled and used as the basis for discussion. Rather than writing from scratch, the group can edit. Do we do this task? Do we do it this way? Do we do something else instead? Using the database approach cuts analysis time dramatically and usually produces a more comprehensive document.

Skills Assessment

The third component of the analysis phase is skills assessment. The maintenance skills assessment is a valuable tool in determining the strengths and weaknesses of a given group of employees in order to design a high impact training program which targets those documented needs. Maintenance personnel have often found it difficult to upgrade their technical skills because much that is available is redundant or does not take their current skill level into consideration. The assessment is designed to eliminate those problems by facilitating the construction of customized training paths for either individuals or the group based upon demonstrated existing knowledge and skills. In addition, when planning a multi-craft program, the skills assessment helps profile core aptitudes to indicate logical areas of crossover. 
When the skills assessment is used in conjunction with needs and job task analyses, gap analysis can be performed to determine both what skills are needed in order to perform the job effectively and what skills the workforce presently has. The overall analysis process also ensures that the resultant training is EEOC compliant.

Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS/EAM)

The real impact of multi-skilled training, however, is realized through the effectiveness of day-to-day implementation which can only happen if the new practices and processes are assimilated into day-to-day activity. One method of assuring this integration is through the site computerized maintenance management system. A fully optimized CMMS/EAM houses the corrective tasks and their associated standards as utilized by the facility. Also, tasks that were identified as critical during the analysis phase should reside within this system. The procedures developed for the CMMS/EAM should reflect best practices and the training on the related critical tasks should match. Only through such an alignment of practice and training will the program succeed.


Training, like maintenance, has often lived in a reactive state only addressing needs when it is too late to do an effective job. It has responded to perceived problems rather than root causes.  Before designing any skills program, it is essential to identify the business need, the local strengths/limitations, and the desired outcome. A quality multi-skilled training program allows to a company to do more with fewer, more highly trained people which in turn creates a positive effect on the bottom line. If you need additional ideas contact me at [email protected]
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