If misery loves company, then there’s plenty of it around when it comes to hiring qualified maintenance candidates, and it’s a situation that’s not likely to improve anytime soon.

“The one thing that will impact everyone is the talent shortage” said Rowdy Brixey, founder and president, Brixey Engineering Inc. “If you haven’t felt it yet, you will. You can’t let this curve blindside you, or you’ll never recover.” 

In today’s job market, there are two types of skilled candidates, noted Mark Luccitti, a veteran operations executive and a consultant to the industry. The most common one has the prerequisite mechanical background along with electrical troubleshooting skills and some PLC experience.

“If you can find that person, you’re doing really well,” he said. “Most often, you’ll find someone with the basic mechanical skills and, outside of wiring a three-phase pump motor, doesn’t have a whole lot of electrical troubleshooting skills.”

Holly Gilbert, vice president of operations at Awakened Foods, Loveland, Colo., calls these techs the cowboys of the baking industry.

“They can crawl up a cooler where the belt slipped, flip it over and get it running,” she said. “You need people like that, but that person probably would be completely lost if they were trying to fix a robotic stacker.”

The best candidates are the most highly coveted, especially by bakeries that have invested in automation in recent years.

“You must have one person in your facility who can read programming language, electrical drawings and do basic troubleshooting. If you don’t, you need a local contractor that is familiar with your facility that you can count on to be there 24/7,” Mr. Luccitti explained. “You’re going to pay more, but I’m a firm believer that you get what you pay for. You may be able to get by, but you’re not going to get the performance that everyone wants if you don’t have a strong maintenance program.”

Contractors, however, don’t come cheap.

“It’s best to have someone doing maintenance in-house if you can find them,” Mr. Luccitti said. “You may have to pay four times the amount for a qualified electrical maintenance consultant.”

Mr. Luccitti suggested searching for qualified candidates who served in the military.

“I’ve had great experience hiring engineers out of the Navy, and especially people who have worked in the nuclear program,” he explained. “I reached out to them because they are highly qualified. They not only have leadership skills being in the military, but they’re also experts in troubleshooting. They had been out in the middle of the ocean in a submarine, and when they had a problem, they had no one to call. They had to fix it.”

Mr. Luccitti also recommended creating internships. This allows bakeries to provide hands-on experience and see if interns are a good fit for the bakery.

“Not everybody succeeds in a manufacturing environment working weekends, holidays and nights,” he said. “We had one person who worked for us for several months, so he knew exactly what he was getting into. He got an engineering degree, and he probably will have a great career in the baking industry.”

Training candidates is another cost to consider. 

“A good rule of thumb is that it takes a good year for a maintenance person to learn everything around a plant. It’s truly a live-and-learn experience,” Ms. Gilbert said. 

She recommended establishing standard operating procedures, which are lacking in many maintenance departments, and more interactive training programs.

“Most maintenance people are hands-on learners,” Ms. Gilbert explained. “The traditional way of writing things down might not be effective for them. Using a Go Pro is a good way to create learning materials for maintenance techs to learn.”

So is the glass half full or half empty when it comes to finding qualified candidates?

“We’re at a tipping point,” Mr. Brixey said. “For some people, the leak in the bottom of the glass is bigger than others because of a bakery’s location and Amazon just took all of their labor.”

For some bakeries, time is not on their side, especially if they have older equipment and are looking to automate to become more competitive in the market but don’t have a properly trained maintenance department. 

“For them, the glass has already tipped over and everything’s spilling out,” Mr. Brixey said.