Training the horse to drink

by Mark Eystad
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Experience has shown the best mechanics with good attendance become your maintenance supervisors, who then become your maintenance shift managers, who in turn become your maintenance managers. But in this career journey, how many hours are devoted to training – training not only on the technical aspects of the job, as well as, training for leadership and how to manage difficult people in stressful times?

In past articles, we have talked about Maintenance Mechanic Skill Flexibility Matrixes and how to use them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your maintenance mechanics. Now that you know this information and you’ve done what is necessary internally to balance the skill sets across all the shifts of your maintenance crews, how do you raise the bar of all the skills of the workforce? For starters, dig out your Maintenance Mechanic Skill Flexibility Matrix and make sure your supervisors update it so it is current. Now, looking at the chart and the list of skills vs. the list of mechanics, is there anything that pops out at you? Someplace where you need to shore up a particular skill set?

For instance, if you do not have enough electricians to cover every area of the plant on all shifts, then you need to develop a plan to fill in those gaps. Even when there are no obvious gaps, a quick conversation with your shift supervisors will usually uncover where they believe they have weaknesses.

The easiest remedy to fill in these gaps is to call vendors and ask them to come and train your mechanics on the equipment. Some vendors may even do a certain amount of this training for free, but others will want to charge for the travel and the time of the trainer. In our experience, these “trainers” are service people who are filling in time between service calls. They can tell you, “When ‘B’ happens, do ‘A’”, but they can rarely review an exhaustive list of these examples, so you have better have mechanics who can troubleshoot. Because when ‘Z’ happens, you need to have someone who can think through how to get you back up and operational. In other words, your mechanics had better have a good foundation of knowledge to begin with, because your equipment is getting more and more complex.

Develop a plan
So, it is up to you to develop a plan to fill in these gaps and to raise the skill set of the entire maintenance department in the process. Most communities, regardless of the size, have access to local community colleges or technical schools. Given the state of the economy, these schools are ready and willing to work with you to develop a program to train your mechanics in the essentials of electrical, plumbing and hydraulics, in addition to the many other technical aspects of your facility (refrigeration, HVAC, environmental, etc…). Many are even prepared to teach PLC’s and more involved electronic trouble shooting as well.

Start by contacting the administration of your local community college and describe to them what you would like to accomplish. Once you find the person with a personal stake in the training (this may take a number of different calls) set up some time to tour their facility, meet the instructors and review their current curriculum. Usually, the curriculum is very general. See if they will be able to get more specific. Depending on how big a part of your community your particular processing is, you might even be able to find an instructor who was once a service person on some of the equipment you may have in your facility.

Tips to develop program
Here are some tips that will help you develop a program which will truly have an impact on your organization:

  • Choose the right people to teach the classes. If there are instructors you know will not mix well with your mechanics, save your money and either send them somewhere else or ask the school to find a different instructor. Your mechanics are not teenagers anymore and just because the company may require them to attend and pay for them to attend, they do not have to learn from someone you know they will dislike.
  • Choose the right people to attend the classes. The first mechanics you send should be the ones you know will appreciate it most, even if they are the ones who need it the least. They will then put a positive spin on the training, so the next group will be less apprehensive about attending.
  • Customize training whenever possible. This may mean taking a piece of equipment from your bone yard and lending it (or donating it) to the school for them to use to teach. Make sure the PLC’s they are using to train are the same type’s you use on your equipment. Even if you have to lend spare parts from your storeroom, it is best for your mechanics to learn on the equipment they will work on in your facility.
  • Reward your mechanics for taking the training. Obviously, you cannot train everyone at the same time, so choose the ones you send carefully and reward them with an increase in pay or a bonus for completing the courses. Make a big deal out of it. When a class of mechanics completes a course and gets a certification have a ceremony, get your boss to present the certification to them. Buy a cake and have a party! Your employees will greatly appreciate your show of their hard work and dedication.

Look at supervisors
Once you shore up the skill sets of your mechanics, take a look around at your supervisors. Are they really great supervisors, or did they simply get this far based on longevity? Do they possess the skills to effectively manage people, much less lead them? They require training in these “soft” skills as much a mechanic needs to know how to troubleshoot an electrical circuit. In fact, one could argue, this is where training ought to begin, but that argument for another article.

There has never been a better time to develop an effective training program. Most schools will give a substantial price reduction, in return for a steady flow of students from your organization. Don’t forget, there are numerous government grants at all levels available to you as the employer, to the school, and sometimes even to the community at large for education/retraining costs. You can always check with your company’s CFO to see what kind of tax breaks the company may receive as a result of investing in your employees, as well.

The payoff for an ongoing and in-depth training program is twofold. Short-term you realize the benefits of a more highly skilled workforce. Long-term you build employee loyalty. Most people want to work for a company that believes in them and is willing to invest in them. If your company gets to reap the benefits of a more highly skilled workforce in the process of building this loyalty, so much the better. Go ahead, lead your mechanics to training and watch them drink.

Mark Eystad is President of Mark 1045, Inc. He has implemented management operating systems in processing and maintenance departments in meat-processing facilities in the US and Puerto Rico.

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