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Robots Apply Here: Why Automation Is Key ForField Service Skills Gaps

by jcp
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By: Sara Cerruti – senior director of global customer transformation at ServiceMax.

A shrinking, ageing workforce is piling pressure on businesses to maintain uptime of equipment assets

It’s a fact of life that the global population is getting older. As the World Economic Forum recently claimed, “there will be a shift in the global ageing population from seven percent today to 20 percent in the next few decades,” adding that this growth will be “one of the greatest social, economic, and political transformations of our time.”

For many organizations, this may seem like a far-off challenge and not yet worthy of consideration but for Darrell Bricker, author of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, there are already signs that this is starting to have an impact.

“With populations aging and declining almost everywhere, countries may one day be competing for immigrants,” he writes back in 2019, which now, after the past couple of years and the skills challenges now being faced across industries, seems like a premonition.

This was highlighted recently by the UK Government’s dramatic U-turn, abandoning its post-Brexit policy on foreign labour, by setting-up a temporary visa scheme for overseas HGV drivers, to ease a fuel delivery crisis.

It’s a sign of things to come. The pandemic has accelerated change across industries and across the globe. More businesses than ever before have undergone rapid digital transformation, to cope with remote working and the servicing of customers. This has led to increased demands on technology skills, higher costs and inevitable gaps in capability, leading to service delays, operational downtime and product shortages. In short, there are just not enough skilled people to meet current demands and there is a belief now, that there never will be.

What this means is that organizations must look to areas where they can automate. In some industries this is relatively straightforward but what about field service? How can businesses plug skills gaps using technology, such as AI and robotic process automation? There is an additional problem here. Organizations still require sufficient skills to enable these new technologies. According to Gartner, IT executives see the talent shortage as the most significant adoption barrier to 64 percent of emerging technologies, compared with just four percent in 2020.

For field service teams to continue to operate effectively against this maelstrom of change and influencing factors, identifying how and where to automate is now essential. Almost certainly IoT will continue to play a significant role – a WBR report, Future Trends in Field Services Benchmarkclaims that 81 percent of industry leaders surveyed believe IoT is the future of field service –but it’s about using intelligent data more effectively, to gain even better insights into machines and operations.

That demands increased analytical skills, alongside engineer optimisation, remote service and intelligent self-service capabilities. If businesses are to overcome the challenges of an ageing workforce and increased competition for tech skills, understanding where and how technology can plug gaps is going to be increasingly key. While this will mean different things to different teams, the fundamentals are the same and Covid has managed to shine a spotlight on where potential weaknesses lie.

As a McKinsey report, COVID-19: An inflection point for Industry 4.0 recently put it, the pandemic has been “a wake-up call for those that hadn’t started on their Industry 4.0 journeys,”and the urgency continues to grow every day. Service teams need machine and device data, but they also need skills to analyse that data and action it. As a Vanson Bourne / ServiceMax report, Asset and Service Data Gravity finds, this is not that easy, with 77 percent of respondents agreeing that the pace of data intelligence digitally collected by their organization’s assets is outpacing the skills of those responsible for using the data.

Clearly there is work to be done. Field service teams have had to evolve quickly, to learn and deliver services despite the challenges of the pandemic. There has been much to gain here, as an EY report, Why contactless field service presents an opportunity beyond COVID-19 suggests, remote servicing has had efficiency benefits but has also afforded businesses an opportunity to use new digital tools and technologies to overcome those remote challenges.

This bodes well for the future, and as we have learned from the pandemic, there is no time like the present to start preparing and using automation to enhance field service teams now, and not wait until the skills gaps bite.

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