Strain to train

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The days when a mechanic worked on the same engines for decades are long gone.

New technicians obviously need to be trained properly to do their jobs the right way from the get-go. But Jimmy Mathis, a senior manager of FedEx’s air and ground fleet, believes technicians need more or less continuous training. Why? “Cost,” he replies.

Missed or misdiagnosed problems in the shop increase downtime and drive up costs all along the line, Mathis says. But an investment in well-trained technicians more than pays for itself, he says. “You need to fix it only once.” That’s why the Memphis, Tenn.-based company mandates at least 40 hours of training per technician every year.

There was a time when a truck mechanic might have worked on the same engines for decades, but that day is over, Mathis says. “They’re becoming more like a computer-repair technician than a truck technician,” he says. “It’s very important for them to stay abreast of the times.”

At Little Rock, Ark.-based Maverick Transportation, the company’s full-time technician trainer has been in fleet service and maintenance for almost 30 years. But much of Claudio Garcia’s hard-earned knowledge “is no longer practical information,” he concedes. “It’s almost a disadvantage to have been in the business that long.”

A whole new world
Changing times mandate more technician training, and lots of it, says Garcia, who has held his post since 2005. “To continue cutting with a dull tool is not a productive situation,” he says. “We value sharpening the saw.” Lee Long, director of maintenance at Southeastern Freight Lines of Columbia, S.C., chairs the Technology and Maintenance Council’s Professional Technician Development Committee. PTDC is dedicated to “elevating the status of the technician,” Long says. “He is no longer a grease monkey. He is a professional.”

Long views training as part of his technicians’ benefit package, alongside the tool allowance, the 401(k) and the medical and vision plan. “It’s about how you treat your employees and how you value their skill sets,” he says. “A lot of fleet managers don’t have training programs, and what they’ll find is that their technicians will leave them for fleets where they can get that training.”

Given the speed of technological innovation today, the traditional vocational-education model – two years of full-time schooling followed by a lifetime of full-time work – is hopelessly outmoded, says Jeff Curtis, diesel equipment instructor at Bellingham Technical College in Bellingham, Wash., and vice president of the North American Council of Automotive Teachers (www.nacat.com). “It’s a model ripe to fall off the vine and should be crushed,” Curtis says. “We need to unlearn and relearn many things and be fast on our feet to follow industry.”

Curtis envisions shop floors that operate a lot more like classrooms; classrooms that operate a lot more like shop floors; and a constant stream of personnel moving back and forth between the two, with the same individuals sometimes functioning as students and sometimes as instructors. “Right now, there’s a real disconnect between our two cultures, and that needs to change,” says Curtis.

Getting started
Training can come from a variety of sources: supervisors, fellow technicians and drivers; the expertise of equipment manufacturers, both hands-on and online; technical colleges and vocational high schools.

The traditional mode of training on the shop floor is simply to rely on your most veteran employees to teach the newbies. That approach may not be as effective as it once was, however, because technologies have been changing so rapidly for a variety of reasons – especially environmental mandates. That means veterans and rookies frequently see something new at the same time. For example, practically nobody in fleet maintenance had experience with diesel particulate filters before a few months ago. In the next round of emissions-driven technology changes, heavy-duty technicians will see either new fuel systems or new aftertreatment systems – or both.

But the time-honored practice of on-the-job training suffers from more than changing technology, Garcia argues. On-the-job training also hurts productivity because a veteran’s time probably is better spent on complex problems than on explaining where the torque wrenches are kept. Worse, experience doesn’t always equal performance. Veterans can pass along bad habits – or knowledge that already was dated when the Interstate Commerce Commission shut down.

When launching or reviving a more formal technician-training program, “The most important thing, first of all, is to get out on the shop floor and observe what the technicians are doing,” Mathis says. “Technicians are always asking for more training, but they aren’t necessarily asking for the training they really need.”

The better you can pinpoint the needs, the more time you save and the more effective your training is. As new equipment comes along, maybe that new component differs only in one respect from the previous version – the wheel-end assembly, for example, or the diagnostic screen. Focus on that rather than repeating what your technicians already know, Mathis says.

Mathis believes fleet managers need to develop relationships with their technicians that encourage communication. Technicians shouldn’t be afraid to tell you that they could benefit from some training in a task just because they have been performing it for 15 years, he says.
The perennial complaint from service managers in many fleets is there’s no time for training due to workload. In most cases, however, that’s a poor excuse, Mathis says. He argues that the vast majority of shop work is routine maintenance that occurs on a set schedule, based on mileage or the calendar. So you can predict your technician demands with great accuracy and block out training time accordingly – if you commit to it.

“If you don’t take the time to do training, then shame on you,” Garcia adds.

You’re not alone
If you’re starting from scratch on a technician training program, join your state’s trucking maintenance council, which gives you immediate access to a lot of training and expertise, Long advises. “That’s a freebie right there,” he says. Then contact all your current and prospective equipment providers to find out what resources they can offer. “Make that a standard question,” Long says: ” ‘What training are you going to give my people if we go with your product?’ ”

The Internet also can be a big help. When FedEx buys equipment, it writes online access to all technical information into the contract so that any FedEx technician in the world has immediate access to it 24 hours a day, Mathis says. In fact, FedEx’s entire initial technician training takes place online, via links to OEM sites or FedEx-written modules on the company intranet.

Granted, you probably don’t have the leverage FedEx has with vendors, but you also might be surprised how willing vendors are to work with your needs in order to get your business. After all, while access to technical information has great value to you, the hard cost to the vendor in providing that access probably is fairly low. OEMs such as Freightliner even offer self-paced online training courses that technicians can work through anytime.

Also, OEMs generally are happy to send representatives to your shop for hands-on training sessions. “I’ve never talked to a vendor that hasn’t been willing to bend over backward to help, and it doesn’t make any difference if you have five trucks or 5,000 trucks,” Garcia says.

Encourage your technicians to seek out their own training, Long suggests. Southeastern reimburses its technicians their tuition or fees for approved and successfully completed courses of study that will help them on the shop floor, from welding classes at a technical college to ASE examinations. Once the fleet approves the course, it’s up to the local supervisor to schedule the time. “Within reason, we’ll work with them,” Long says.

A learning culture
Once you open the door to formalized training in maintenance, don’t be surprised if the training naturally spreads to other aspects of the operation. Garcia has found himself becoming sort of a liaison between Maverick’s technicians and its drivers because training one group – on ways to maximize fuel economy, for example, or to get information from an electronic control module – often requires complementary training of the other. “The question becomes, what do we need to tell drivers that’s different?”

And whenever you come up with a better procedure for doing something – whether the idea originates in the board room or on the shop floor – disseminate that information as soon as you can, Mathis says. And whenever your fleet acquires a snazzy new piece of equipment, Garcia advises, remind yourself of a vital fact: “Just because you’ve got one doesn’t mean everyone immediately knows how to use it.”

Long urges fleets large and small to get involved with PTDC, which has subcommittees working on everything from scholarships and recruiting to compiling nationwide training calendars.
“Any investment of money and time you put into technician training, you’ll get back many times over,” Long says. “It’s worth its weight in gold.”


Grooming the next generation
Teaming with vocational programs can pay off

Your current employees aren’t the only technicians who need training; your future ones need it, too. Partnerships with real-world employers such as trucking fleets are vital to America’s vocational educators, says Michael Wantz, diesel instructor at Carroll County Career and Technology Center, a high school in Westminster, Md.

Wantz’s students benefit from the expertise – and leftover parts – of Bare Truck Center, an International dealer in Westminster, and Alban Engine Power Systems, a Caterpillar dealer in nearby Elkridge. Wantz also is contacting local Freightliner and Peterbilt dealerships.

In Jeff Curtis’ diesel program at Bellingham Technical College in Bellingham, Wash., students spend alternating quarters working full time at local partner businesses, including International and Kenworth dealerships and the Paccar Technical Center, which is only a half-hour south. He encourages fleet managers nationwide to talk to their local vocational schools about setting up similar programs.

“This model works well but can be hard for the business world to swallow,” Curtis says, since shop supervisors are reluctant to take on students “when they’re very, very green. There is attrition. Not everybody makes it. My response to that is to call out, ‘Next!’ – and we move on. That was a success, actually. That student didn’t get misplaced, and didn’t wind up going down a road that wasn’t meant for them.”

Equipment castoffs are a godsend to a cash-strapped vocational program, Wantz says. Clutches, turbochargers and steering boxes “make some really good training props,” and they needn’t be in out-of-the-wrapper condition, he says. “The part you had to replace is a great aid, too, so that I can say, ‘Look, this is the kind of failure you can have.’ Without these partnerships, I simply wouldn’t have access to those materials.”

“We don’t need new trucks,” Curtis says. “We can use trucks in their trade-in rotation. A two- to four-year-old truck, broken in and with signs of wear – that would be a heck of a training vehicle for us, a great tax write-off for the fleet, and a great relationship-builder for the school and the fleet working together. We want a handshake, not a handout.”

In return, these helpful businesses earn not just goodwill but access to a reliable supply of top diesel students upon graduation. “It’s safe to say that better than 40 percent of Alban’s technicians are our graduates,” Wantz says. He’d be happy to partner with a trucking fleet, too – if only one would ask.


At the top of their game
Tech skills competitions instill pride, offer rewards

“Everybody understands the value of the technician, and there’s not a more cost-effective way to tell your technicians, ‘We appreciate what you do,’ ” says George Arrants, contest chairman for SuperTech, the national skills competition organized annually by the Technology and Maintenance Council’s Professional Technician Development Committee.

This year’s competition, the fourth, is Sept. 15-18 in Nashville, Tenn., in conjunction with TMC’s Fall Meeting. “You really can’t put a price on employee retention,” Arrants says. “This is a nice way to do it, and a fun way.”

The traditional means of earning recognition for your technicians – getting as many of them as possible certified through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE (www.ase.com) – remains an excellent idea for many reasons, notes Jimmy Mathis of FedEx. But additional opportunities, modeled on driver competitions, are a growing trend in the trucking industry.

Some competitions are in-house, such as Rush Truck Centers’ annual Tech Skills Rodeo in Nashville and FedEx’s own SuperTech competition, a two-tier event for heavy-duty and light-duty equipment, respectively. Others are statewide; in 2007, skills competitions in Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas sent winners directly to the hands-on competition at TMC’s national SuperTech event.

Contestants return to the shop energized and eager to share their newfound knowledge with their co-workers, Arrants says. Some also come home with more tangible rewards. In 2007, the national SuperTech grand prize was a trip for two to the Daytona 500, while each of the hands-on contestants brought home a new laptop computer. “If nothing else, the technicians walk away knowing that a lot of people put in a lot of work so they could be there,” he says.

For the 2007 national SuperTech competition, 111 technicians participated – the most yet – representing dealerships and truckstops, as well as fleets. Of those, 84 made it past the written test to the hands-on competition.

Any PTDC fleet member can send contestants to the competition, and PTDC membership is “a whopping $75,” Arrants says. Fleets not yet ready to field contestants are welcome to send observers, he says. “We give them free rein to look around, so their people are properly prepared when they get here.”

The TMC website (http://tmc.truckline.com) offers a free brochure with tips on how to create your own skills competition. If your state doesn’t yet have a statewide competition, contact TMC and your state trucking association to help organize one for 2008 or 2009.

“It’s really neat to see these things grow,” Arrants says. “We hear contestants say, ‘You whupped my butt again, but I’ll be back next year.’ “