Insane Hydraulics

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What is Happening With the Hands-on Workforce in the Fluid Power Industry?

Well, today it is going to be a different one...

It's going to be me talking about the state of the hydraulic world in my current location (Portugal). I am not that old (yet... and a smiling emoji here) but I will rant anyway. Like Peter Griffin's “What really grinds my gears”, only about local hydraulics.

Most of you already know that I am inserted in a small branch that sits next to a large copper mine in the South of Portugal, which is why most of our clients are connected to the mining industry. The rest of the local hydraulic market revolves around agricultural equipment, with some forestry machinery in the mix (not as much as it used to be some ten years ago, but I still occasionally get a pump that comes from a forwarder or a processor). And that pretty much sums it up.

But even though my industrial horizon may be narrow due to the off-the-grid location, and I don't work around as many industries and clients as I used to when I was stationed In Lisbon, I keep coming across the same patterns (for lack of a better word), and this is what I want to talk about today. I want to share what I believe to be happening with the hands-on workforce in this so under-appreciated field, and I believe that working at a company that occupies a significant part of the Portuguese industrial hydraulics market gives me the privilege of expressing a valid point, that may even “stretch beyond borders”. And maybe throw in a couple of predictions for the future.

Once again - I am not talking about the hydraulic industry in itself here - I am referring to the “applied human component” of the industry - i.e. the hands-on specialists that carry it forward by keeping machines happy.

The industry is more than OK. It is obvious to me that oil hydraulics is not going anywhere. It will keep evolving towards digitalization, IoT, and electronic controls, but the principle of mechanical movement by means of pressurized fluid will never have “real” competition. No matter what anyone tells you. Nothing will ever beat a hydraulic actuator, linear or rotary. So, the technology is safe to invest in and has a very bright future.

But despite all of this, the human component that is currently available in the field of industrial hydraulics is in a very, very bad shape, in my opinion. Let me explain what I mean by that.

We work directly with many large companies that own and operate hundreds of pieces of heavy mobile and stationary hydraulic equipment. And I constantly hear the same things:

This is the situation I come across every day. The constant demand for fluid power savvy techs and constant complaints that it is impossible to find them.

Usually, when I hear something like that, I always say two things - first of all, I inquire what conditions the “complaining party” has to offer for the position they are trying to fill, and second I point to the fact that there are several very highly skilled mechanics (who are actually ten times better than I will ever be in all aspects, hydraulic included) - and I ask if they ever considered hiring them.

The answer is always the same. Something along the lines of “...that person is already well employed, and well known, so for him/her to even consider switching for a different company we would have to offer unacceptably high wages/benefits...”

Always. The same. Answer. And, in case you didn't notice, the question “why can't we find a good mechanic?” has just been answered.

This brings me to my first point:

I have to (sadly) state that nowadays, even with the lack of qualified fluid power specialists, the conditions offered by the job market are merely “slightly above average”, which, in its turn, makes choosing the fluid power career a hard choice given the number of other tech offerings on the job market. "Slightly above average" may not cut it to compensate for the drawbacks related to this métier (even with all the good things in sight).

And now here's my opinion about the phrase “nobody wants to work (often rephrased as “get their hands dirty”) anymore”.

I believe that 99.9% of the traditional industrial maintenance companies fail to see that in the modern world, most people who are looking for a job, are no longer looking for a means to survive, but rather for a place to feel good at. And “feel good at” does not mean “always be in the most comfortable conditions”, but rather to feel like they belong. And this is only possible when a company is focused on creating an appealing culture rather than a set of rules to follow.

Take, for example, in-house learning. This is very important for a hydraulic business, don't you agree? But if you ask around - you will often (I should say always, at least that is how it's been in my experience) hear something like “we did try to introduce some training, but our guys didn't like it that much and it seems the sessions made no effect, even though we spent tons of money on them.”

When companies say that their employees don't want to learn, very often this means that they only provide mandatory training with the purpose to tick the box in their trimester reports, rather than concentrate on creating a culture that encourages learning, knowledge-sharing (as opposed to knowledge-hoarding), and self-education.

Imagine that a boss of an industrial hydraulics shop decides that it is a good time for his beloved employees to learn something new, and imposes a series of mandatory training sessions. A schedule is established and an experienced “guru” is hired to give lessons in industrial hydraulics. Mechanics attend the lessons, of course, because they were told so, even though they didn't feel like going. And when the sessions (tortures?) are finally over - about 10% of the attendees feel like they learned something. Maybe even less. So, the company invests in education, but the results are mediocre at best.

Now, imagine a similar company that does in-house learning differently. For example - whenever an interesting and unusual pump failure is detected on a test stand, the shop foreman responsible for the test halts the shop operation for a couple of hours and makes sure that every mechanic in the shop observes the failure happen firsthand and then also the steps necessary to fix the problem. This is what I call a proper learning culture. Whenever a situation happens that can be beneficial for the collective knowledge, the first instinctive action of every shop member should be an effort to make the exclusive piece of knowledge available to all the shop members. Same thing in a single word? Teamwork! Modern job seekers want to be a part of a team. Part of a crew. And this can't happen by itself. This requires a conscious and continuous effort from the management.

And second - modern job seekers also want a future. They want to know exactly where their job will take them. If you don't give them a concrete answer, or even worse, if you give them a promise and then fail to deliver - they will never make an effort to improve or stay. Bad for them, even worse for the company.

And, finally, I reach the point where I give my predictions.

I believe that the current situation will gradually become worse over another twenty - twenty-five years. So far there are still enough good fluid power professionals in their forties actively working in the field. They are a scarce resource, but scarce does not mean nonexistent, and since they are already used to the conditions they currently have, they will stay with roughly the same (comfortable) salaries to the end of their careers, which will happen in about 20-25 years. This also means that the job market average salary for an average fluid power tech will remain roughly at the same level, and the companies will continue to operate with all the usual complaints that "nobody wants to get their hands dirty anymore" and that they "don't make techs like they used to"… And, of course, young adults will continue to prioritize higher-tech digital careers, while the wheels will somehow keep on rolling.

But in about 20-25 years, when my peers will begin to gradually leave the market and enjoy their retirement, the inevitable increase of the equipment failure rates will become a serious issue. Much more serious than it is nowadays. And when the big players (mines, factories, etc...) will find their operations stop for days in a row due to hydraulic failures and there won't be anybody capable of quickly diagnosing and fixing the problems, it is only then, unfortunately, when the paychecks will start to grow. I actually believe that the average salary of a "proper" hands-on fluid power specialist then will be five to ten times as big as it is today.

This brings me to the sad conclusion that at his moment pursuing this trade is a good choice, but it is not a great choice. In about twenty years? Sure thing! It will be the best choice you'll make! Now? Either settle for a comfortable "slightly above average living" with certain industrial perks, or, if your objective is still to pursue the fluid power path and you want something more than "above average", make the hands-on part of your career an entering point in this field, but make sure that you don't get stuck in the same position for more than a couple of years - and then transition to a higher position - taking either the engineering or the commercial route.

Am I being too pessimistic?