In the coming months, we’re going to hear a lot of conversations about what should be done with the $1.2 trillion just allocated to the restoration and expansion of critical U.S. infrastructure. How will transportation and telecommunication funds be allocated at the project level? And is it more important to expand utilization of artificial intelligence for cyber intelligence or modernize archaic operational technology systems charged with keeping the power grid online?
These aren’t going to be easy decisions, and we’re sure glad we aren’t the ones who must make them. However, there is one investment we believe requires universal commitment: that which ensures front-line workers are well-equipped to drive forth these modernization projects.
Nearly half of America’s current infrastructure workforce is over the age of 45, according to the Brookings Institution, with many nearing retirement age. Furthermore, its data shows more than 25% of the current infrastructure workforce will need to be replaced over the next decade, and more than 10% of the workforce will need to be replaced each year in certain sectors due to retirements and other employment shifts. This checks out.
The Department of Energy expects a quarter of the electric utility workforce to retire by 2023, and skilled workers in the construction and transportation sectors are quickly becoming scarce, too. A recent headline from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey says it all: “New Report Finds Construction Contractors Struggling to Find Workers, Building Materials.”
With so many infrastructure projects now receiving green lights, the labor gap challenging current day-to-day operations is bound to widen. This is true even in the IT space, where technical support is needed for front-line workers, project managers and others charged with installing, inspecting and repairing infrastructure. Some industry leaders are already raising the flag saying projects may not get done on time, or at all, even though they are fully funded.
So, I checked in with two experts who have spent decades working with utilities, governments and telcos to design, execute and maintain technology solutions in support of critical field workforces. Steve Wright, Zebra’s Global Government Practice Leader, and Eric Williams, Zebra’s North America Sales Manager and Tablet/Rugged Field Service Team Lead, explain what must be done to close the skills gap and the role technology can play:
Chris: We know the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is intended to modernize the nation’s aging infrastructure while simultaneously giving millions of Americans a path back into the workforce. Yet, many job candidates may not have the experience requested for these roles. What options do organizations have to ensure they’re sending people to job sites with the right skill sets?
Steve: First, they should understand the provisions in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that directly address workforce development activities. As an example, the transportation programs within the IIJA will allow states to obligate money from four programs authorized by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act toward workforce development activities. This includes pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs as well as on-the-job training. Being engaged with your respective State office responsible for implementing these programs will be vital. The IIJA allows these uses under the following four programs:
- The National Highway Performance Program
- The Surface Transportation Block Grant Program
- The Highway Safety Improvement Program
- The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program
The second big piece that addresses the workforce is the Needs Assessment & Planning that Title V, Sec. 25050 of the IIJA requires. This will require the Secretary of Transportation to conduct a needs assessment that analyzes the education and recruitment of transportation workers and the barriers job seekers face when looking for employment in the industry. It will also establish a working group to consider a “whole of government” approach to leverage registered apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs as well as “re-skilling” workers. This working group will be required to submit an implementation plan to Congress one year after the needs assessment is complete.
You can see that with all this coming down the road, it behooves any organization that is affected or concerned with this topic to be engaging with their state and local governments, industry groups and any public/private partnerships early and often.
Chris: We know from our work with utility, transportation and public sector customers that many workflows are still being managed manually. Organizations have yet to digitize their data much less digitalize processes. Though many of the projects funded by the bill require very manual, physical work, I would imagine workers – and the nation – stand to gain a lot if paper schematics, work orders and such were to be replaced by digital tools. Would you agree?
Steve: Absolutely. Government agencies and the citizens they serve are always seeking more efficient ways to save time and money and deliver a better result. Having digital tools and processes that increase accountability and reduce the risk of fraud, waste and abuse will be key to these programs. We know that these digital processes increase traceability as well as safety and will make our dollars go farther in these historic programs.
Eric: Something else to remember is that many government agencies are still managing workflows manually and have yet to digitize the data or the processes due to funding. Some agencies are looking for more efficient ways to save money and deliver better results and others are following the same processes just because that’s the way they have always done it. By incorporating a return on investment (ROI) into the result along with safety and traceability, this will help this program along.
Chris: What about automation? Could some of the technologies used in other sectors to automate assignments, data flows and even decision-making help here?
Steve: Inside the four walls of warehouse and factories, robots are being used to fill labor gaps. But those who want to augment field-based workforces with automation will have to take a different approach.
Eric: My team and I have had several conversations with rugged field service and government organizations lately about how they can better flow information between business systems as well as front-line workers, operations managers, and corporate office teams. It’s interesting because we’re hearing a lot from our colleagues about how workflow automation has become an urgent investment area in retail, healthcare and supply chain environments. But it is just as important in the government, utility and field service sectors. The digitalization of data is maturing, and the physical distribution of the workforce is growing by the day.
So, they are looking at how rugged tablets or handheld mobile computers can be better equipped with software that can act as an intelligent project manager. And the same combination of technologies that help retailers and warehouse operators identify and assign tasks to associates, track task status and provide remote assistance are being used in the field quite successfully.
Chris: Given how much training and upskilling is going to be required to build a workforce for these new infrastructure projects, some project leaders might argue that now’s not the time to introduce new technologies. Those workers are going to have enough of a learning curve, and they don’t want them to spend any time also learning how to use mobile computers, tablets, RFID printers or even a new app. Do you agree? Or is there another factor they may not be considering?
Steve: I would argue that now is precisely the right time to introduce new technologies. Our world is more digitally connected than ever before and more and more workers are used to having these digital tools in nearly every facet of their life. They expect easy-to-use devices that provide a great user experience and help them achieve their mission faster, not antiquated processes and tools that slow them down. And the long-term benefits and efficiencies that come with new technologies will outweigh any initial learning curve.
Eric: I agree. It may surprise everyone how much the workforce already knows and is willing to learn. Though, the best workforce technology solutions are the ones that are so simple to understand that a new hire just needs a rugged mobile computer in hand to be fully productive on day one, even if they’ve never done this type of job before. They just need to login and follow instructions. The software – or perhaps a remote expert – walks them through every task step by step. They’ll know where to go, what to do when there, and how to get assistance if a problem arises that’s not easily answered by the mobile app or digital manuals available on the device.
Chris: Like anything, there must be a business case and a clearly defined value proposition to get buy-in on any investment, especially workforce technology solutions. Can you articulate the potential return on investment for fundamental, rugged mobile or barcode scanning technologies?
Eric: It may seem like it’s so basic that it can’t be that beneficial, but when you can send workers into the field with rugged mobile computers that can essentially walk them step-by-step through their day, it takes a tremendous burden off the organization. It also drives better outcomes. With labor shortages plaguing every sector, and especially sectors that traditionally need skilled labor, being able to close that skills gap or get a worker to a higher productivity level every day goes a long way financially speaking.
Steve: Just consider the amount of time and energy used to consistently track and account for assets, which can be very daunting and manual. Utilizing RFID tags and Zebra’s rugged and reliable scanners to quickly accomplish this frees up hours of manual labor, increasing accuracy and accountability. It also lets our front-line workers focus on the mission at hand. Let’s take for example a typical Army National Guard unit. Conducting a property audit would historically take three to four soldiers half a day to an entire day to complete. With RFID technology, one soldier can complete this task in a matter of hours with confidence that the final product is accurate and assets are accounted for. That kind of real-world ROI is powerful and can be applied to any police or fire department as well, not to mention any other government organization with valuable property where the workers and citizens need to feel confident in its location and condition.
Chris: Should RFID and other automation technologies be considered in the same vein as mobile devices and digital workflow software given the heavy lift of these infrastructure projects? If so, what type of return should organizations expect?
Steve: Yes, they absolutely should be considered and are often overlooked due to the fact that the technology has been around a long time and not always considered “cutting edge.” The reality is that RFID and automation are essential to efficient operations and should be a key aspect for almost all these projects. As software, hardware and our telecom infrastructure continue to evolve, it makes the usefulness of RFID all the more relevant. This technology ensures asset traceability, so that the taxpayers know they are getting the most “bang for the buck.” Also, for the work to be completed efficiently, it serves as a catalyst for the “seven rights” of logistics: right product, right customer, right quantity, right condition, right place, right time and right cost.
Chris: Over the years, we’ve seen many customers very successfully digitize and digitalize their field operations. Yet some are still hesitant to give front-line workers mobile devices, much less intelligent technology tools that could make first-day workers seem like pros with decades of experience. What are the potential risks and consequences of sticking with “the current way” of capturing and sharing data? Are the cost savings of not going paperless or upgrading legacy systems really enough to justify the larger implications of understaffed job sites and potential project delays?
Steve: I think it’s hard to make an argument against technology to save a few dollars at this point in time. Front-line workers are the perfect users for rugged and intelligent devices to accomplish their mission in a safe, smart and reliable manner. We are doing so many exciting things at “The Edge” that to not take advantage of them for these National projects would be a lost opportunity. There have been many examples of delaying technology upgrades in favor of a piecemeal approach; typically, these decisions result in cost overruns and a poor user experience. We should look at this Infrastructure Bill as a once in a lifetime opportunity, as well as an investment to create long-term value for our Country for today and future generations to come.
Chris: So, do you see this effort to modernize utility, telecommunications, transportation and other publicly managed infrastructure a catalyst for the modernization of business and information systems in these sectors?
Steve: Yes, I absolutely do think this is a catalyst for a broader modernization effort that will play out over the coming years. We all know that every organization is collecting more and more data but doesn’t always utilize it efficiently or even know what to do with it. Government is no different in this regard. But the potential to capitalize on public data to better serve an audience of hundreds of millions of users is enormously impactful and a big responsibility for all involved. It’s one that we at Zebra are passionate about and feel we can help with in a variety of ways, by utilizing our cutting-edge products, services and solutions.
Eric: Agreed. Collecting the data is one thing but understanding and utilizing the data is something different. Being able to utilize it to better serve the user and the public can boost productivity and drive progress in these sectors.
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