The Industrial Revolution in good part was driven by reformers heralding state funded universal schooling that helped supply educated workforce to man innovations and drive prosperity. There is no disputing, underpinning the success of any business is its staff – skilled and competent – to deliver productivity targets. This is particularly so in manufacturing and high-tech sectors where companies need to constantly keep abreast of progress in scientific and technical developments and exploit them for business success. In sugar industry in particular, because factories are processing large volumes, incremental gains in productivity can translate into significant returns. Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests, that in the sugar industry, investment in training employees, similar to many manufacturing industries, is not viewed with the same long-term investment decision-making process as the purchase of factory equipment or infrastructure. The Human Reliability Maintenance paper published in this issue proposes that industry applies this same decision-making process to training investment in order to effectively respond to changing economic and environmental conditions.
To some extent, it is apparent why there is complacency in the industry, particularly in the processing sector. Compared with the high tech sectors (e.g. IT, industrial biotechnology, pharmaceuticals), sugar processing is not that knowledge intensive. The process chemistry and engineering principles informing the production of sugar have been known for a long time – despite significant advances in technology, which has revolutionized other sectors, the science behind juice extraction, purification, evaporation and crystallization has practically remained the same over the years. There has been no leap frogging along the process-intensive value chain. Yet to hold this view, misses the point. Arguably, technological advances whether through automation, improved sensors, machinery and equipment and processing aids support productivity gains as do improved understanding that comes from published R&D work.
Agricultural productivity advances have significantly been greater than in the processing sector over the last five decades or so, bolstered by the rise of mechanization, plant breeding, precision agriculture and, with it, improved crop management. While beet growers (in the west) have a fine collaborative network with sugar factories and research institutions and are able to secure around 70% of potential yields, in the cane industry, 20% is the norm. Part of the problem is that small holders who dominate cane production globally are poorly educated and not as receptive to scientific progress. But equally damning is the lack of initiative from state governments and millers to provide the educational support.
Doubtless, the refrain from company CEOs is that solid evidence of return on investment for workforce-development programs is scarce. This lack of proof suggests why many employers are reluctant to participate in workforce programs, much less to pay for them.
In their paper published in this issue, Clift and Russell make a compelling point on the cost of not investing in training: “Where investment in time and money for training and support of staff is limited there is likely to be a reduction in the rate of production, product quality and processing efficiency. These negative consequences can occur when employees don’t perform their jobs confidently because of a lack of understanding and practical knowledge. Unskilled employees could spend considerable time seeking help to perform their jobs or they could perform tasks to the level of their understanding to the detriment of the work process, leading to errors, stress and injury.
Regular quality training inputs can keep employees up-to-speed with new technologies and the most up-to-date operational practices, leading to increased employee efficiency and productivity. Training is most valuable when it is constantly updated and improved with relevant information, and its effectiveness is measured on its ability to influence performance and create a positive business impact.”
Sugar companies are having to diversify to remain competitive. To fully exploit opportunities from diverse revenue streams companies will need to constantly equip their workforce with skills and knowledge to stay abreast of technical and technological advances. Investment in training is a must for growing challenges to be addressed successfully, and doubtless profitably.