Back to school

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The shop floor needs to be an ongoing classroom, experts say. Here are tips and resources for getting your technicians the training your fleet can’t live without.

Sometimes Brian Strach gets frustrated. He’s Midwest regional service manager for Hendrickson International, maker of complex parts – suspensions, brakes, springs, axles – used by countless truck fleets. He spends a lot of time on the road, training fleet technicians to maintain and repair these systems.

Sometimes the harried shop manager tells Strach in advance that he has only two hours, no more, to explain everything that needs explaining about, say, front axles. Strach then arrives on the shop floor only to be told, “Sorry, you’ve got one hour. Here are your 16 students.”

“It is difficult for fleets to give up the floor time,” Strach concedes, “but you have to be willing to give up that time, and get your people out of the pit occasionally.”

Increasing numbers of fleet managers agree. “You’ve got to get out there and promote training among your technicians, or you’re not going to have any technicians worth training,” says Lee Long, manager of fleet services for Southeastern Freight Lines in Columbia, S.C.

A good shop manager is a good educator, says Mike Jeffress, vice president of maintenance at Maverick Transportation in Little Rock, Ark., and immediate past general chairman of the Technology and Maintenance Council.

“You’re seeing more and more training available,” Jeffress says. “If anything, there’s so much of it out there that the hard part, for the fleet manager, becomes getting it organized and implemented.”

The traditional method of “showing the new guy the ropes” is insufficient but all too common, says Alan Hertzog, director of technical dealer and customer training for Mack and Volvo. “Take an 18- or 19-year-old and put him with old Herbie in the shop, and the first thing he learns is all old Herbie’s bad habits, then all the techniques that old Herbie learned back in 1926.”

Just as buying a piece of equipment commits you to an ongoing investment in its maintenance and repair, so hiring a technician commits you to an ongoing investment in his training and education, Strach says.

Hendrickson’s goal is 24 hours of training per technician per year. Eight to 16 hours per technician per year should be a fleet’s bare minimum, Strach says, noting that a single good engine class can last three days.

“Technicians are a very important part of this industry, just as important as the drivers, and training is something that you could do every day,” Strach says. “There are lots of ways of getting the information into the technicians’ hands.”

Training resources and allies include OEMs, America’s technical colleges, the Technology and Maintenance Council’s new Professional Technician Development Committee, and the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE, the flagship certification organization for truck technicians.

ASE itself does no training, as that would be a serious conflict of interest, says Chuck Roberts, ASE’s executive director for industry relations. It does, however, offer a wealth of free information about the specific skills that it tests, criteria that can be used as a blueprint for any in-house training program.

Educational outreach to high schools and technical colleges is part of the fleet manager’s training mandate, too, Jeffress says. He looks at this not as charity work, but as a necessity in keeping his fleet running.

“I manage a thousand trucks, and I constantly run into trouble finding someone to repair my trucks in a timely manner because there are not enough technicians to go around,” Jeffress says. “As a result, I’ve got to get involved. Fleet managers have got to accept that there is a technician shortage and that they each need to do something about it.”

Working with manufacturers
The truck or component manufacturer is the first resource for training at Southeastern Freight Lines. Any company selling new equipment to Southeastern – from truck and engine makers down through the tiers of suppliers – has to sign an agreement to provide training to the Southeastern employees who will be working with it, Long says. “At the moment, ConMet is doing training for us on wheel-end hubs and Kaiser on fan-hub assemblies.”

In the automotive industry, Strach points out, manufacturers are notoriously secretive about their systems, parts and techniques. Hence the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right To Repair Act, introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). This legislation would force automakers to give independents the same repair information and tools given to authorized dealerships.

This sort of cold war doesn’t exist in heavy-duty trucking, Strach says. “The OEMs want to train other people to work on their trucks, to work on their equipment.” That’s why Strach often spends a long day, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., working with several different shifts of a fleet’s technicians. “Fleet managers need to take advantage of this,” Strach says.

Mack’s North American Institute, based in Allentown, Pa., offers two- to five-day training seminars year-round, not only in Allentown but in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Salt Lake City and Greensboro, N.C., at per-student fees ranging from $320 to $800, Hertzog says. In response to fleet demand, the institute has created a five-day course for entry-level technicians, offered in both Mack-specific and Volvo-specific versions.

Hertzog says the course emphasizes the tasks that fleets most often ask new people to do, including replacing water pumps, valves and wheel seals; doing basic maintenance on kingpins and drivelines; and reading malfunctions in the electronics system.

“The response from students has been excellent,” Hertzog says. “On the shop floor, it might take months for a water pump situation to come up. Here they can get that experience right out of the chute. I came to Mack out of a steel-mill fleet 27 years ago, and I would have loved a one-week introduction class like this.”

Strach acknowledges that manufacturers can be as shorthanded as everyone else in the industry, and that getting quick information from a manufacturer isn’t always simple. Some manufacturers’ websites, for example, seem to offer more information for corporate investors than for shop supervisors.

Jeffress cites another problem with manufacturer-sponsored training these days: “Technology is sometimes rolling out faster than the OEM can train its own personnel, much less the customers’ personnel.”

But no one has more expertise than the manufacturer, either, and its willingness to do on-site training and work around a shop schedule makes the manufacturer a vital training resource for TMC’s Professional Technician Development Committee.

Chaired by Mike Walters of Marten Transport, the committee aspires to be one-stop shopping for technician training, says Strach, a member of the committee.

For that to happen, however, TMC member fleets must let the committee know what they need, so that the committee can coordinate efforts geographically, Strach says. “If training is needed in a given area, the committee will work with a supplier to do one day or several days of training at a hotel or a dealership.”

Teaming with technical schools
The more involved each fleet manager gets with state education councils and local schools, the better, says Jeffress, whose fleet works closely with vocational programs in Little Rock public schools and with a number of public and private technical colleges, including Wyotech and the Nashville Auto-Diesel College.

Schools always need help updating their technical curricula, recruiting technical students and faculty, even scheduling their classes to reflect workplace reality, he says. “If you’ve ever had a third-shift technician try to go to a training class at 8 a.m., you know the retention level is very low.”

Technical schools need help with placement, too, Jeffress says. True, demand is so high that schools have no problem finding technician jobs for graduates. But fleets have a problem if all the technician placements in their neighborhood are going into heavy industry or construction – and not into trucking. You can change that by getting more involved, Jeffress says.

Helping private employers get the employee training they need is a big reason technical colleges exist in the first place, says Phyllis Dupuis, dean of instruction and Gulf Area Campus dean at Louisiana Technical College.

“At our school, our focus is on work force development, and specifically on quick response to work force needs,” Dupuis says. “We often hear companies say, ‘We’re tired of being in the education business. We just want to focus on the bottom line. Can you handle our training for us?’ ”

Dupuis’ advice to fleet managers? “Call your local technical schools and ask what courses are available and offer to partner with them. We offer lots of customized training, on our campus or on site. We can send instructors to you.”

Look for diesel programs accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, Dupuis advises. The diesel program she administers is so accredited; its instructors are ASE-certified, and its Caterpillar, Cummins and Detroit Diesel engines are the most up-to-date commercially available.

Dupuis wants to hear from local trucking fleets about their technician needs and how those needs are evolving. So far, though, most of the college’s technician partnerships are with the oil industry, including the Apache Corp., which owns offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Louisiana Tech recently received a grant to train truck drivers for a consortium of Louisiana fleets, and the college hopes to develop a similar consortium for training diesel technicians. “But at the moment, the industry’s not crying loud enough,” says Debbie Burkheiser, the college’s dean of workforce development.

Instruction works in the opposite direction, too. Dupuis says she would love to get professional truck technicians in front of her students more often, perhaps for a one- or two-day workshop on some specific new technology.

“Fleet guys are the cutting edge, and we need the fleets just as the fleets need our students,” Dupuis says. “It’s win-win for all of us.”

TMC as an organization recently teamed with WyoTech to provide a diesel truck technician scholarship for 1,500 clock hours – about nine months – instruction at WyoTech’s Laramie, Wyo., campus. To qualify, a technician must be sponsored by a TMC member or work for a company that employs at least one TMC member. The application package must be received by TMC by July 31 for the coming academic year. To obtain an application, call 703-838-1763 or visit this site.

Recognizing accomplishments
Recognition can be an important component in any ongoing training program. “Fleet executives have to ask themselves how they recognize their technicians, how they pass on incentives for accomplishment,” Jeffress says.

Drivers get safety bonuses, million-mile banquets, recognition as Driver of the Month and Driver of the Year and all sorts of performance-based perks. What do your technicians get? “Find out what motivates your people, and make sure you follow through,” Jeffress says.

Southeastern’s Associate Continuing Education program, or ACE, enables technicians to increase their hourly pay by achieving training goals. Technicians work at their own pace through a series of training modules and tests on systems ranging from tires, brakes and cooling through electronics, suspensions and drivelines. Technicians also get raises for outside certification, including ASE certification, Long says.

Such a tiered reward system – with A-, B- and C-level tests tied to salary increases – is a goal of Maverick’s newly hired, full-time, in-house technician trainer. Meanwhile, Maverick is developing an in-house technician skills competition. “We’re also trying to enter all the outside competitions we possibly can,” Jeffress says.

Fleets should get technicians involved in skills challenges not only as contestants, but also as supervisors, organizers and judges, Strach says. “Professional involvement helps foster pride in what they do for a living.”

TMC’s first National Technician Skills Competition is Sept. 18-20 in Valley Forge, Pa., in conjunction with TMC’s Fall Meeting. Registration is open to all truck technicians. It’s free for TMC member technicians and for state champions; for others, the $75 entry fee includes a one-year TMC technician membership. The grand prize is a trip to the 2006 Daytona 500 or Super Bowl, and the registration deadline is Aug. 15. For information, visit this site.

Earning ASE certification
A technician with ASE certification is among the profession’s elite. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 250,000 medium- and heavy-duty truck technicians in the country, and only about 50,000 of them have ASE certification, “so we’ve got about 20 percent of the market,” Roberts says.

Of ASE-certified truck technicians, about 30 percent work for private fleets, 19 percent for dealerships, 14 percent for independent repair shops and 12 percent for government fleets. The remaining 25 percent work for a miscellany of employers, a reflection of the varied career options open to skilled technicians, Roberts says.

ASE tests are offered twice a year “in a secure and proctored environment” at 235 locations nationwide, Roberts says. Most of them are traditional paper-and-pencil tests. This July, however, ASE will for the first time offer a computer option for its Heavy Truck Technician test. Besides benefiting technicians more comfortable at a keyboard, this will enable ASE to be more flexible in scheduling, delivering and grading the tests; in fact, results of the computerized test are instantaneous. This is not an online test, Roberts stresses; like the paper test, the computer test is a supervised test at a central location.

“You can download free from the ASE website all the task lists for all our 47 tests, grouped by category,” Roberts says. “These are detailed outlines of what is included on each and every test. Do an honest self-evaluation, and you’ll know how you’re likely to do and how to prepare.” The website is Lots of test-prep material is out there, including practice questions, though only the online task lists are official ASE publications.

ASE certifies only individuals, not shops or other facilities. “There are just too many variables,” Roberts says. “We do, however, offer the Blue Seal program, to recognize organizations that promote professionalism by hiring a high number of certified personnel.”

In order for a fleet to qualify for ASE’s Blue Seal, 75 percent of its vehicle technicians must have current ASE certification, with at least one such technician in each of ASE’s categories of service. Each Blue Seal fleet must requalify annually, to prevent backsliding. “In essence, it’s an audit,” Roberts says. ASE currently recognizes about 1,500 Blue Seal organizations, but only about 200, or 13 percent, are trucking fleets.

The value of ASE certification for individual technicians is obvious, but the benefits for fleets aren’t as clear-cut, Roberts says. Certainly, however, it increases morale and helps retention, he says. “Fleets sometimes report that the mere recognition provided by ASE certification reduces turnover, and that’s a significant savings.”

A fleet that has a high percentage of ASE-certified technicians also can market that fact to customers and other business partners. “It indicates a level of competence, of professionalism, of dedication,” Roberts says.

Through the years, Roberts has heard many arguments that ASE tests only “book learning,” that no paper-and-pencil test can evaluate hands-on abilities. But the sheer numbers involved, Roberts says, demonstrate why hands-on testing on this scale is impossible. “We test a quarter-million people a year on three times that many tests, because many people take multiple tests.” Imagine giving even a thousand technicians the same hands-on test on actual engines in the same day, even in the same week, and you see the problem.

TMC is impressing upon its members the importance of certification, and manufacturers such as International are pushing it, too, as more fleets are doing direct warranty work, Roberts says.

No more excuses?
Strach sees a 50-50 split between fleets that understand the importance of constant training and fleets that don’t. Those who say they don’t have the time, personnel or money for training and education, Strach says, are “very shortsighted. These technicians are working on $100,000 pieces of equipment. Improper and slow repairs just lead to more downtime.”

Shop managers aren’t as likely anymore to balk at sending a technician to an $800 training program, plus travel expenses, Hertzog says. “The cost of equipment today is worth the investment. That may not have been true 20 years ago, but today, there are 500 programmable features on each truck.”

Sometimes fleet managers ask Strach, “Why should I get one of my technicians all this training and certification just so he can be hired away by someone else?”

“I just don’t buy that,” Strach says. “If the technician’s taken care of in the proper way, he’s not going to jump. If you keep your people up to date and keep them trained, they’re more likely to stay with you.”

Do fleet managers need to see themselves as educators? “Only if they want to be successful,” Long says. “Only if they want their businesses to survive.”

The next generation
Today’s the day to recruit tomorrow’s work force

Training today’s technicians isn’t enough, says Lee Long of Southeastern Freight Lines. Tomorrow’s technicians need your help, too.

“If you don’t get them early, in the middle schools and high schools, you’ve lost the game,” Long says. That’s why Southeastern trucks and technicians are fixtures at career days at schools around Columbia, S.C. “We set kids in the truck, show them the engine, get them excited, give them something to carry home in their hands – baseball caps, key chains, anything with our name on it.”

The message kids have to take home to their parents, especially their mothers, is that truck technicians aren’t “grease monkeys,” Long says.

Phyllis Dupuis, dean of instruction at Louisiana Technical College, agrees. “People are hesitant about going into these fields because they aren’t glamorized in the media. But these are increasingly sophisticated, high-tech jobs. They’re not just hot shops where you’re in oil up to your elbows all the time.”

The Technology and Maintenance Council joined the effort recently by launching its Friends of the Technician program, administered by the Professional Technician Development Committee. In addition to a new national skills competition, PTDC is involved in numerous outreach efforts aimed at students and guidance counselors.

Mack has developed a Technician Recruitment Kit for high-school students, including brochures and video and PowerPoint presentations. “Recruiting is the first step in training,” says Mack’s Al Hertzog. “You’ve got to get them excited first.”

Lures for prospective truck technicians include the stability of the industry, the opportunity for quick advancement and mobility, Dupuis says; after all, a skilled technician can find a good job anywhere in the country. The pay is good, too: A diesel technician’s starting hourly wage of $12 to $17 is a great incentive, Dupuis says.

When recruiting in high schools and technical colleges, Southeastern emphasizes its benefits program, including a 401(k), major medical and dental insurance.

The best incentive of all, Dupuis says, may be the diesel program’s 100 percent placement rate after graduation. “It’s amazing how many calls we get every day about job openings. We can’t fill them all.”

All the recruiting seems to be bearing fruit – at least in Louisiana. Whereas the diesel program at Dupuis’ Gulf Area Campus has 15 to 20 students in a typical semester, it had nearly 40 this past spring.