How many tradespeople do you really need?

Several years ago, when I was trying to get approval to hire an additional machinist, my boss, who was a very smart mill manager, said “Don, I do believe that if you had twice as many men you’d keep them all busy. And I also believe that if you had half as many, you’d keep the mill running”. As it turned out, over the next couple of years we were forced to substantially reduce our maintenance work force, and the mill continued to improve its reliability and increase its daily production – so he was right.

I’ve often been asked what is the right number of tradespeople. Of course, this depends on several factors, but as a minimum there needs to be a core of skilled and experienced people who understand the equipment and can repair most of the problems that are likely to be encountered during plant operation. There also needs to be enough people to carry out routine inspections and servicing to ensure reliability.

The factors that affect the number of people required include:

Plant design and equipment selection.

Maintenance can not compensate for equipment that is just not up to the job. Selection of equipment that is inherently reliable, correctly installed and run by experts who know how to operate equipment to do what it was designed to do has the greatest impact on the amount of maintenance needed.

Plant condition

Preventive maintenance is only effective if it is applied in a plant where the equipment condition is maintained to be within the manufacturer’s specifications. Bearings and other components that are excessively worn will have a short life.

– Plant location and climate

Remote operations where access to outside help and expertise is difficult and expensive will require more on-site tradespeople. And severe climates increase maintenance needs.

– Regulations

Inspections and component replacements required by regulations may greatly impact the amount of maintenance effort. Operations, such as nuclear power stations, may be incredibly reliable, and virtually all of the maintenance effort will be focused on plant inspections and servicing.

– Experience of tradesmen

Any tradesperson knows that its much easier to do a complex repair job the second time. Where there is a high turnover in tradespeople, more will be needed.


“A job well-planned is a job half done”. Consistent, diligent detailed work planning will ensure that the minimum number of tradespeople are required to maintain a reliable operation.


Scheduling is often the biggest opportunity for improving maintenance performance and productivity.

Bad scheduling habits waste maintenance effort. Such habits include scheduling two people to work that needs only one. I suspect that some of this can be attributed to laziness – its easier to plan 6 jobs than 12 – but some practices, such as always assigning two electricians to any job, may be well-established and difficult to change.

Careful scheduling by people who understand the operation, the work and the people can greatly improve maintenance effectiveness. As an example, scheduling two one-man jobs close together so that tradespeople can help each other for heavy lifts or other activities that need two people for short periods should become a core part of scheduling.

Tools and equipment

Nothing moves a job along faster, and to a higher quality standard, than having ready access to the right tools and maintenance equipment, such as lift trucks, cranes, etc.

Materials management

Similarly, arranging the right materials in “work kits” prior to a job will also greatly reduce the time it takes. However, the use of work kits will only be successful if the work is planned in detail and if most work actually gets done at the time it is scheduled.

– The strength of the Maintenance/Operations partnership

Without close cooperation on activities such as setting maintenance priorities and scheduling, trades effort will be wasted on low-priority and emergency work.

Access to maintenance information

Maintenance computer systems must have a primary purpose of giving key maintenance people, including tradespeople, the information they need when they need it. Accurately recording costs may be important, but it does not help to get the job done.


The last word

There is one other factor that can greatly influence maintenance productivity and effectiveness, and that is the observance of artificial work restrictions. The “tradelines” that were common in unionized plants a couple of decades ago, and which still exist to some extent today, can double the number of man-hours required to complete many maintenance jobs.

Work restrictions, such as not allowing trades other than welders to weld, allowing only pipefitters to disconnect flanges on operating equipment and so on benefit one entity only, and that is the union as an organization because it forces the hiring of additional employees. Work restrictions have a strong negative impact on the employer and individual tradespeople. They make the work that tradespeople do less interesting and rewarding, they discourage innovation, they deny people many opportunities to learn new skills and their jobs, as many have found, are made less secure.

But there is another downside to tradelines. A welder once came to me and complained that a pipefitter had prepared some stainless pipe for him to weld, and as he said, “the gaps I had to fill were more than any rod is supposed to bridge”.

However, his next comment was the most significant – “So now there’s a job out there that is a very poor quality job and IT HAS MY NAME ON IT”.

In my experience, most tradesmen take a lot of pride in the work they do, and there are some amazingly talented tradespeople in industry. Forcing a good tradesperson to work with someone who does not share his standards can be very frustrating and eventually demotivating, especially when he has all the skills and experience to do a very good job on his own. This is something that supervisors and schedulers should always take into account when assigning work.


I was instrumental in eliminating many trade restrictions in one plant, where we had sold the changes only on the benefits to the tradespeople and without any reference to any “company” benefits. The most satisfying day in my career was my last day in this plant because, to my surprise, many tradespeople dropped by my office to thank me for helping them to “just get on with the job without having to look over my shoulder”.

In another plant where a similar change was initiated without such consideration for the tradespeople, the effect was disastrous and resulted in a strike that lasted 10 months.

To make any change, especially one with such an emotional history, the “four steps to successful change” do need to be followed.


So, the “right” number of tradespeople is not easy to establish, but the difference in the number of people needed to maintain a desired level of reliability between a well-managed and a poorly-managed maintenance department can easily be factor of two or more.



Don Armstrong, P. Eng


Veleda Services Ltd