Highly qualified, experienced field service technicians are aging out of the workforce and into much-deserved retirement. They’re leaving behind a trail of field service organizations (FSOs) that find it increasingly difficult to replace them.

Author Radiana Pit | Copperberg

Photo: Freepik

As if the discrepancy between an aging workforce and the next generation of field technicians wasn’t enough to create the skills gap, the rift is further widened by ever-evolving customer demands, reskilling necessities, and pandemic-driven regulations such as limited time-on-site and remote work.

The skills gap is costly, not affordable 

The bottom quarter of the field service workforce costs organizations 80% more than the top quarter. To elaborate, the skills gap results in heavier workloads for already overburdened experts, increases in service costs, lower customer satisfaction rates, increased customer churn rates, less capacity for organizational resilience, and hindered growth.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there is an urgency to fill this gap, especially considering the current circumstances. Besides the retirement wave affecting the talent in the field service industry, there are two major factors widening the gap: digital transformation and remote work.

How digital transformation is impacting the skills gap

Emerging technologies can boost the safety and productivity of field agents. Although this is extremely important at the present time, the effects of advanced technology will make a long-term change in the field service industry.

The change has already started as sensor deployment became a widespread phenomenon and IoT-enabled technology permeated the industry. Data analytics and the remote management of devices are now helping businesses build customer knowledge while also focusing on equipment, machine performance, and automation.

Everyone in the industry had to adapt to these changes and field technicians have come to accept that their ability to inform customers and be on the frontline for their company has gained strategic importance.

Now, with experienced technicians getting closer to retirement, the next generation of field engineers must master the knowledge of their older peers in terms of support and maintenance while also working with data in the age of digital transformation. 

The next generation of field agents undoubtedly needs training in order to be prepared for the wide range of incidents that may occur. In the meantime, however, visual assistance can close the knowledge gap by providing technicians with real-time AR instructions on their very own mobile devices. In case a contactless approach is needed, this can also be extended to customers. 

In sectors such as manufacturing, utilities, and even consumer electronics, visual assistance has guided field agents through a wide range of use cases. Additionally, new developments in AR field service solutions can provide field technicians with access to senior remote experts while also enabling remote customer assistance.

The impact of remote work on the field service skills gap

For field service workers, the idea of working from home is not as appealing as it may be to employees in other industries. Most of the work field agents do is right in the field. And since this type of work involves careful planning, including route optimization, inventory locations, service locations, and more, binding this type of activity to a home office can be cumbersome. Especially because it involves learning new skills, understanding new applications, and operating differently.

Aspects that pertain to customer relationships, efficient communications, and schedule alignment are greatly affected by the work-from-home policy, too. On top of that, the lack of appropriate tools for remote management can create a surplus of hurdles in field service management. 

But there’s also an optimistic side to the situation. Besides the schedule alignment issue that can be transformed into an advantage based on flexibility, the pandemic has proven that the best way to take action is predictive, not reactive. This means that predictive maintenance will become the main preference in the industry. 

Predictive maintenance enables technicians to provide fix-before-break services and pinpoint the most suitable times for appointments in order to limit contact as much as possible. Moving forward, this will help companies maximize the field technician utilization rate and boost productivity. But, once again, predictive maintenance involves understanding data and field technicians must learn to do that while companies must accommodate that through training.

But, going back to the home office, communication is undoubtedly impacted by it, and having no contact with peers often results in alienation and corrosion of soft skills. To ensure employee wellbeing in such circumstances and to preserve soft skills as much as possible, communication tools are essential. And they must be the professional type. Informal communication tools can cause problems in professional environments. For example, using an informal communication tool to discuss work can lead to unintentional leaks of private information. 

As such, companies are advised to invest in a communications provider that focuses on the field service industry as such providers can enable software integration with existing systems or recommend system upgrades. But most importantly, with a formal communication tool, field technicians that are not as experienced as their older peers can access the information they need from their seniors in a controlled virtual space.

Preparing for a contactless future

The pandemic has definitely pushed the industry toward digital transformation and remote operations. However, it hasn’t changed the course of the industry as the industry was already heading that way. The digital transformation and automation endeavors prior to the COVID-19 pandemic were slowly but surely preparing the field service landscape for a more contactless way of doing business. However, not everything can be fixed remotely. There will always be a scenario when a field technician must visit a customer location to solve an issue or prevent one. 

Luckily, emerging technologies can help companies rethink the ways their field technicians operate and implement sustainable processes that minimize human contact, empower remote work, and fill the existing skills gap.

From here on out, field service tasks will only become more complex and technicians with a high level of expertise will be required in order to meet customer demands. With AR technology, FSOs can ensure remote collaboration between seniors and the next generation of field techs, thus preserving skills while facilitating new ones.

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