Bridging the skills gap with connected workers

Posted: March 21, 2024


connected worker

A whole generation of industrial workers is about to retire, taking extensive knowledge and skills with them. How can companies attract new high-quality workers and quickly give them the skills previous generations took years to develop? New information technologies, called connected-worker solutions, are helping new workers get up to speed faster than ever before—and making their jobs more safe and attractive as well.

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From AVEVA Studios, this is Our Industrial Life, the podcast that brings you stories from the essential industries and investigates how data and technology are shaping the future of the connected industrial economy.

I’m your host Rebecca Ahrens, and today we’re going to be talking about a kind of crisis that’s brewing in industrial operations. I don’t care what industry you’re in, you’re probably going to be affected by this in one way or another.

In a 2021 report, McKinsey discovered that 87% of companies say they have a skills gap, or expect to in the next few years.[i] And a pre-pandemic survey of U.S. manufacturers in February of 2020 found that the inability to attract and retain a quality workforce was their primary business concern. We also know from some of our own research that 63% of manufacturers say they lack the capability to manage safety and risk effectively.[ii]

A generation of workers with deep institutional knowledge is starting to retire. The new generation of workers have experience with different ways of working. They’re digital natives, but they lack the hands-on experience of more seasoned workers. And no matter what generation you come from, improving worker safety should always be a priority.

Dealing with the skills gap, attracting quality workers, and managing safety issues might seem like separate problems.

But what if there was a way to start to address all of these issues at once?

In this episode we’ll learn about how a set of technologies sometimes referred to as “connected-worker solutions[iii] can help with all of these challenges and more. 

[Music interlude]

If you don’t know what people mean when they talk about a “connected worker,” you can listen to our first episode[iv] where we spend some time defining what industrial connected-worker technologies are.

But, to give a little context here at the beginning for those who haven’t heard that episode, broadly speaking, when we talk about connected-worker solutions, we’re talking about software tools that help people access, share and understand data.

That data can be operations data from the plant floor, training data, analytics data, engineering data, environmental data, and so on. The key is that this data is presented in the right way, meaning with the right kind of context, and that workers can access it from wherever they happen to be located.

If you’ve listened to the first episode, you already understand how connecting workers with data can improve processes and increase productivity. But how can these technologies help with something like the impending loss of institutional knowledge when a generation of workers retires? How can we use technology to reduce that skills gap and make sure new-starters benefit from the experience of their colleagues? 

The skills gap and training


When you have somebody that's a design engineer that's 20 years in the field and you have a field service technician that's been working on all of the sites across the Americas, how do we get that knowledge into somewhere that a new engineer can use? That's not something that's easily attainable.


That’s Beatriz Blanco from Mitsubishi Power,[v] during a panel discussion at AVEVA World in 2023. She was discussing a problem that we’ve heard, through our conversations with customers, is common across many industries.[vi] I spoke to John Krajewski, Vice President of Product Management for the HMI and SCADA[vii] business unit of AVEVA, about this problem in a bit more detail.


The average tenure for someone in industrial operations, it well—in years past, that may have been ten, 15, 20 years—we're now seeing that it's shortening. It’s shortening to—most of the people I interact with, when I asked them, you know, when you hire someone into your organization in this space, how long do you expect to keep them in their operations teams? Typically, the answer is somewhere between two to three years. And if I ask them again, how long does it take you to get them properly upskilled, so that they can do their job without guidance? Usually, it takes them about a year.

So that often now they're spending between a half to a third of their role in their time within an organization not being completely up to speed in the things that they do.


Yeah, so it’s not hard to see how this kind of dynamic could pose a challenge to companies who want to create and preserve working knowledge and experience within their workforce. So what can companies do about it?


So finding ways that we can take the knowledge out of those that have gained that experience, take that knowledge and preserve it, make it the intellectual property of the organization, so that when someone else becomes a new part of that organization, right—and so, you know, if someone comes in and only been there for six months, how do we empower them? Systematically, you need to figure those things out.

And so you have to put the processes in place. Sometimes you'll find that, you know, when it comes to people, they don't even have official training in place. And so everybody's just forced to learn by making the mistakes first.


One good example of how to use software to facilitate skills transfer and improve training comes from Fauji Fertilizer Company[viii] or FFC, one of the largest chemical manufacturers[ix] in Pakistan.

Like most manufacturers, FFC operators get the bulk of their training on the job—but the company wanted to make sure that new hires could perform at a level as close as possible to experienced operators. The trick was figuring out how to expose new hires to critical and emergency scenarios that only happen once in a while.

FFC introduced an operator training simulator that empowers operators to respond confidently and consistently in real time.[x] The system basically allows users to simulate any plant emergency any number of times, helping employees understand how to respond. Employees memorize the correct critical actions by repeating them again and again in a simulation that is identical to the real control room they’ll be working in. They have virtual training on almost all possible disruptions, which has significantly reduced the number of unscheduled shutdowns for FFC. The simulator ended up reducing training time from years to months.

Of course, having access to this kind of training also helps companies safely increase the numbers of new people they can train without impacting the success of the training. A white paper published by the World Economic Forum in 2022 on the augmented workforce noted that “businesses reported gains in training effectiveness, compared to in-person training, of up to 80%.”[xi]


Companies starting to implement these digital training programs are also discovering that addressing the skills gap with training is—perhaps unsurprisingly—also having positive impacts for safety.

BASF,[xii] one of the world’s leading chemicals companies, was facing the huge challenge of losing half of its plant operators to retirement in the upcoming decade.[xiii] The company developed an immersive training experience for its employees, with detailed explanations and animations of its chemical plants and a virtual model of its training center. This immersive training helps apprentices understand not only the correct processes,[xiv] but also the consequences of different actions, enabling them to safely manage complex chemical processes.


So when I think of safety and accuracy, a lot of times I think I fall back on some of my experience with abnormal situations in industrial systems. And the reason I mention that is that some of the research that we engage with that indicated as much as 80% of the abnormal situations that are introduced in industrial processes are caused by human error—and caused by people that are either not doing what they're being asked to do, and not being provided with the right tools to execute it, don't have the proper education, or for a variety of reasons that these human errors can occur.


80% is a huge number! So I guess the idea is that if we can make more use of software, we can start to remove some of the opportunities for human error. Is that how you’re seeing that connected-worker tools can help make some safety improvements?


So as the implications of how connected-worker tools can help, they're often, you know, guidance.

Very often you’ll see in your workforce, your workforce will vary in its capabilities. You'll have some people in your organization that may have years—if not decades—of experience. You can lean on them, in most circumstances, independently to do their thing. You may have somebody that just got into the business last month, and they're not going to be able to behave similarly. So, how will you be able to take the knowledge that sits within your organization's best staff, and utilize that to empower the other people in your organization—who maybe have knowledge gaps? And how do you continually repeat that process? I think connected-worker solutions are really going to be in service of that in a number of ways.



As we already have heard, virtual training is one type of connected-worker solution that can help get new workers up to speed faster and more effectively than in-person or real-world, on-the-job training. But it’s not the only digital tool that can help preserve worker knowledge and facilitate knowledge transfer between generations of workers.


With predictive analytics, we could create models.

We had faults associated with those models, and the engineer can go, “oh, this engineer saw this 15 years ago on this site. Well, I'm going to apply it across the board to see if I can catch that at another site.”

And that really helped us. I mean, there have been instances with our predictive analytics that we were using that we caught something a month in advance. And that gave us time to take action on it, whereas in another instance we were down. And with us—gas turbines, you're down, you know it's a million dollars a day. It's a lot of money.


Predictive analytics[xv] can help engineers learn from the past and predict future problems. But it can also help give people the time to focus on what they’re best at.


We wanted to really elevate what we were doing with a data historian. Okay, we have the data coming to us, we're doing real-time monitoring—how do we take that next step? And our focus was: we need to figure out how I can get my SMEs doing their job and not other jobs.

And the transition to PI Web API was really important to us, in the sense that that’s really what pushed us into a performance and analytic center. No longer just real-time monitoring—oh, we collect the data, we kind of look at it—now we're doing something with it.

The benefits that we've seen was, with the development team that we have, and integration, we used to keep track—manual entry—of events that happened at all of the sites. Now as you can imagine, when we started the monitoring center, we had five sites—no big deal if it takes me ten, 20 minutes, an hour to collect all of that data and write it out. But that's a very big deal when you have hundreds of events a day that you want to keep track of.

So with event frames, we were able to capture the data automatically. And then the development team was able to use—with some back-end Python coding—publish it directly to SharePoint. So that saved us hours per day. So that gave the opportunity for the SMEs to really focus on the troubleshooting and the analytics aspect.

So the predictive analytics that we used and then getting our SMEs to do the actual troubleshooting and not data entry, and not things that are not their skill set. Even the development team—with these application that we created for performance that really helped us transition to the performance analytics center we want to be—do I need them to create a historian? Do I need them to create all this other software? It's like, no, I want them working on what they do best.


So sometimes this concept of the connected worker is about capturing and documenting domain expertise from experienced workers and making it available and useful to workers with less experience. But it can also just be used to connect people directly.


I need to find a subject matter expert who can help me out with this because I don't know this asset well. And so how do we facilitate those types of things? So, guidance is one of the reasons why I think these things are very good because they can either give you access to the standard operating procedures, to the prior ways people have done things, or the lifeline that's necessary when you just need help from someone else.


Back on stage at AVEVA World, Beatriz talked about Mitsubishi Power’s journey of implementing connected-worker technologies, and how the software and tools they’ve adopted are helping the company improve collaboration across the board and better prepare for the future.


We spent a lot of time talking about, in the beginning, ten years ago: is being connected worth it? Check. We already agree and we already know that being connected is worth it. But now, with the massive amounts of data, it’s like, well, how do I get the data in a concise form that is beneficial to my employees right away? How do we filter? What kind of processing do we have?

And so we're going to take all of those lessons-learned so that we can incorporate machine learning, incorporate AI and get to those solutions integrated into our solutions faster.

When it comes to the battery industry, it’s a completely different ballgame. With, you know, a gas-start power plant, you may have 20, 30 thousand tags for the whole plant. Maybe more, but, you know, around that. But when you’re talking about a battery energy storage site, you could have 3 million tags.

There's a couple of different solutions that we've seen and impacts that we've seen. One is in collaboration. The team that developed this, they don't live in Florida, right? So we're working in a collaborative space. The data that we have is reliable, it's in real-time, and we have the ability to collaborate in a way that we hadn't before.

I don't have to worry about my field service technician having a piece of paper that has data on it that he doesn't know, or she doesn't know, is the most recent data, right? Open up my phone, open up the laptop, I can see everything that's happening in real time. And it builds confidence and they can focus on, “Okay, now I got to do my troubleshooting steps and figuring out what I need to do,” instead of not trusting the data that you have. And I think that's a really big one.

Collaboration aspects as well: we are a Japanese-owned company. We have global teams. And if everybody is coming into the data and seeing it all at once in one central space, that's really what has made it easier for us to move forward.



We’ve heard a lot about how we’re using the tech now – how it’s plugging the skills gap by making training more accessible, improving safety and enabling collaboration between workers. I want to end on the idea of the evolution of the connected worker—what will the connected worker of the future look like?


We are all shaping the future in a certain way, and I have a strong feeling that not everything that can be done is already done.


This is Christoph Jandl. Christoph is the CEO of HENNgineered and a member of the corporate management team at HENN Connector Group, a German company that produces industrial connectors or couplings for the automotive industry.[xvi] You may remember Christoph from our first episode on the connected worker.


I see a lot of things that can actually happen if we would allow people to access our production data or if our clients would allow us to access their data to a certain extent.

I cannot tell if it is about me—this will be my vision, yeah? Wherever I supply to, I want to have some uses-data. Wherever someone is supplying to my business, I will be more than happy to share some data because ultimately it means that everybody can improve based on the data.

We will discover a lot more possibilities when it comes to data. We will discover a lot more possibilities when it comes to connectivity. We will discover a lot more new things when it comes to using data collaboratively cross-industries, cross-companies.

What I always have in mind is that with connected data, you can start doing very transparent benchmarking[xvii]—online benchmarking of certain suppliers, of certain tasks, of certain other things that happen in a production process, for example—that help you to know your position better than you have been knowing it in the past.


The kind of data connection and data sharing Christoph is talking about here really goes beyond what most companies are doing now. In fact, there are many companies that still lag behind when it comes to even making data accessible between workers within their own four walls.

But the future of the industrial economy will look like what Christoph is describing: a world in which industrial companies share data securely with other companies within their ecosystem. These other companies could be your partners, they could be suppliers—even your customers, companies within your industry, or companies in other industries.

The future will be about building a data-sharing ecosystem where companies can mutually benefit from sharing the right kind of data with others outside of their own enterprise.

How do we know all this is what the future will look like? Because it has to. Because if we want to solve some of the major challenges facing us as a planet, companies have to figure out how to collaborate better. And that starts with working together from shared, trusted, secure data.


Ever more importantly, it is a sustainability price. Yeah. Because I think what happened in terms of growth in the last hundred years, right, the way we have transformed the planet—to attain this really unbelievable standard of living that we have now, with clean water, you know, in a lot of the world, with a very pleasant life, right—is not sustainable—this type of wasteful growth. So that’s the price.

So let’s go to how to attain that price. We know that the answer to the problems of our age—to sustainability, to being more efficient—are not limited to the transformation within companies, but to the joint transformation of ecosystems—of industrial ecosystems. Otherwise, we will not be able to generate that multifaceted value and efficiency that then translates into, you know, companies, countries meeting their sustainability targets—unless we do it for everyone together, and unless everyone together works from the same platform, and ultimately from the same trusted data.


That’s our show for today. If you’d like to learn more about any of the companies, stories or solutions you heard us talking about in this episode, you can find a link to our website in the show notes. There, you will find links to resources, related content and transcripts from today’s episode.

Please be sure to like and subscribe on whatever your preferred podcast platform might be and feel free to send us an email with your questions or suggestions. Our email address is We look forward to hearing from you and we’ll see you next time on Our Industrial Life.



[i]A 2021 McKinsey interactive on how companies are building workforce capabilities.

[ii] An ebook from LNS Research on how industrial companies are implementing connected worker initiatives.

[iii] Learn more about how companies are using connected-worker solutions.

[iv] Listen to the first episode in our series on the connected worker.

[v] Visit Mitsubishi Power

[vi] See Beatriz Blanco speak on power plant analytics.

[vii] Learn how new connected-worker solutions are transforming HMI and SCADA.

[viii] Learn more about how Fauji Fertilizer Company improves training using software.

[ix] Visit Fauji Fertilizer Company

[x] More on the operator training simulator FFC uses.

[xi] Read the World Economic Forum’s 2022 white paper, Augmented workforce: Empowering people, transforming manufacturing.

[xii] Visit BASF

[xiii] Watch how BASF built the capacity to train 600 operators every year.

[xiv] Learn more about the extended reality (XR) and operator training simulators (OTS) that BASF uses to train its operators.

[xv] Learn how predictive analytics give workers no-code access to actionable information.

[xvi] Visit HENNgineered at the HENN Connector Group.

[xvii] Learn more about how HENN uses data sharing to manufacture reliable products more efficiently.


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