Contributor: Henri Azibert
Much concern has been expressed on the troubling trend that experienced workers are leaving the workforce at a faster rate than younger workers can be trained to replace them. While there is an alarm to find a way to fill the void, should we be concerned, or perhaps, encouraged?
There is no question that some extremely experienced and valuable employees are leaving essential positions in industry. It is primarily a function of demographics, as many experienced workers have now reached the retirement age, independently of any recent political or economic trends.
As an experienced professional myself, I have some concerns over the knowledge that will be lost, and the avoidable mistakes that will be made. There will be preventable machinery failures, unnecessary production downtime, and worse, potential human harm. So, is there much cause to be alarmed? Or perhaps not?
In the case of truly experienced and conscientious professionals, activities, design parameters, and special considerations would have been properly documented. Others would have been trained in the subtleties of the duties. Safeguards would have been put in place to prevent mishaps. Potential failure modes would have been designed on the equipment or process. If none of these precautions were put in place, the departing individual cannot really qualify as an experienced worker whose continued presence would be sorely missed.
And let’s face it, experienced older workers are not always what they are cracked up to be. Is it possible that you may have encountered some who never seem to follow their own advice? Some who tell everyone what to do, but don’t do any of it themselves? How about the ones that forget the point they are vehemently arguing for or against in the middle of a heated discussion? Taking naps during meetings? How about those who are a legend in their own mind, conveniently forgetting the massive quantity of mistakes they made along the way?
Indeed, there are aging workers whose retirement is long overdue. We should not confuse wrinkles, bushy eyebrows, or too much hair growing out of the nose or ears as a substitute for substance.
New technology adoption is more widespread among younger employees than among the older experienced workers who are more likely to be set in their ways. Many of the modern computer tools, such as finite element analysis (FEA), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and the newly emerging artificial intelligence (AI), are supplementing and in some cases, exceeding the expert knowledge within an organization. Communication channels among the newer generations are more effectively utilized. Whether it is the use of social media or searching for answers to specific problems, the reliance on in-house knowledge is no longer as important or necessary as it once was.
And then, let us not forget that the experienced older workers were once new engineers, inexperienced mechanics, young technicians, naive professionals. They became experts because of the mistakes and errors they made. I have often had to console younger engineers, after miserably disappointing test results, that if everything they came up with always worked perfectly on the first try, they would not be at their place of employment. They would be so rich they would not need to work any longer.
Learning is not a perfect process. Meandering through failures is a superior education method compared to rehashing old textbook principles. As a matter of fact, it is the only way progress is made. Without experimentation there is no invention, without finding what does not work, there is no way to avoid major oversights. Restricting knowledge development to what has been achieved so far only maintains the status quo. Progress can only be made through change.
It is obviously important to avoid negative change, and not learning from your failures is not acceptable, but some incidental blunders are the unavoidable price to pay for major successes. There are some dangers in letting others make foolish mistakes similar to the ones that were once made, but it is the only way to generate the experience and expert knowledge of the future. So, with this admittedly optimistic viewpoint in mind, it is a good time for me to move on. Over and out!