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Have you noticed shortages of food products, lumber, concrete, parts, supplies, and power tools, among other things? Many people are puzzled by shortages of what used to be common items in the marketplace. There are other shortages as well. COVID-19 and a volatile political climate seem to have stopped up many of the “supplies” needed by manufacturers. That’s a big, big problem. 

Equipment and process reliability and availability depend on a reliable supply chain. Understanding the bottlenecks and pitfalls can help businesses recover. Let’s look briefly, and in no particular order, at some of the issues involved with the various shortages in today’s supply chain.

With the global pandemic raging for nearly a year, there’s been a wide range of responses from “official” sources on how to prepare for and respond to returning workers. Building-occupancy limits, barriers, and social distancing have all taken a toll on how businesses operate, in many cases, with skeleton workforces. Emergency and executive orders, health guidelines, mixed messages, and the need to restore the economy have caused much confusion.

Labor shortages (and skills shortages) are running rampant in some areas. While big government may issue COVID-19 orders and guidelines, the economy is driven locally. The big factories, utilities, mom-and-pop businesses, and big-box stores all respond to local laws, rule, guidelines, and degrees of enforcement.

What happens, though, when the business supply chain spans several communities, counties, states, or countries? Their respective laws, rules, and guidelines are different and not in lockstep for restarting a supply chain. Thus, the flow of raw-material supplies is sporadic, rather than smooth and on-demand.

Of course, some businesses may be pursuing creative sourcing from alternate suppliers. Buyers look for price, availability, and delivery timeframes. But the opportunity for shortcuts and counterfeit items to creep into the supply chain grows exponentially. History has shown us that counterfeits thrive when shortages of commodity materials and goods occur and opportunities to charge whatever the market will bear present themselves.

Generational skills shortages, especially in the trades, are caused by our economic, political, and societal policies and actions. I’ve seen and experienced the dramatic, almost catastrophic downsizing of vocational-industrial education in our schools that started back in the 1980s. In the decades since, welders, machinists, tool makers, mechanics, millwrights, pipe fitters, electricians, and electronic technicians have all experienced employment resurgences and shortages. Yet schools, in turn, have cut back on the technical education and training programs related to such jobs.

When major plant closings and layoffs make the news, many skilled trades are negatively impacted. Young, up-and-coming skilled tradespeople often become discouraged from pursuing such jobs based on their own families’ experiences.

Note that the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) protects workers, their families, and communities by requiring at least 60 calendar days advance written notice of a mass layoff. Advance notice gives workers and their families some transition time to adjust to the prospective loss of employment; seek and obtain other jobs; and, if necessary, enter skill-training or retraining programs that will allow individual workers to compete successfully in the job market.

Unfortunately, when the Federal Government revokes permits for a major pipeline project, thereby shutting down thousands of skilled jobs, it is exempt from the WARN Act. This situation sends a devastating message to the future generations of skilled tradespeople and their families.TRR

Bob Williamson is a long-time contributor to the people-side of the world-class-maintenance and manufacturing body of knowledge across dozens of industry types. His background in maintenance, machine and tool design, and teaching has positioned his work with over 500 companies and plants, facilities, and equipment-oriented organizations. Contact him directly at 512-800-6031 or bwilliamson@theramreview.com.


Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, supply chain, counterfeit parts,
workforce issues, training and qualification