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Training Resources: Off the shelf

There are ample resources available for enhancing the training of techniciansThe United States is experiencing its lowest unemployment rate in 30 years. That's great news for job-seekers. But not so great for employers - especially those with crucial but less-than-glamorous job slots that are increasingly challenging to fill.The problem for those seeking skilled workers is the much-vaunted New Economy.

There are ample resources available for enhancing the training of technicians

The United States is experiencing its lowest unemployment rate in 30 years. That's great news for job-seekers. But not so great for employers - especially those with crucial but less-than-glamorous job slots that are increasingly challenging to fill.

The problem for those seeking skilled workers is the much-vaunted New Economy. Companies engaged in the art and science of the computer - and its amazing offspring, the Internet - are soaking up much of the nation's technically inclined talent pool. What's worse, correctly or not, many traditional workplaces are being viewed as unbearably unhip by so-called plugged-in workers.

It's no wonder truck-fleet managers are scratching their heads over how to keep maintenance shops sufficiently staffed now and in years to come.

Common sense and expert opinion suggest that making formal training programs and clear paths of advancement readily available are essential to attracting and retaining such skilled workers as diesel mechanics and other rated technicians who maintain and repair truck and trailer equipment.

Indeed, training and advancement go hand in hand. Offered together in the workplace, they can help draw in quality workers and help keep them around by turning a job into a career position.

IN PRACTICE It all sounds good on paper. But how can a fleet manager, especially in a small or midsize fleet, hope to offer mechanics and technicians sufficient training programs and advancement opportunities to compete against flashier employers in today's tight job market? By the same token, what can be done to keep techs already on-board from lighting out for greener pastures in the high-tech arena?

Start by walking just a few steps in the mechanic's shoes. Rather than being provided with professional, product-specific training, imagine being tossed a repair manual and being told simply to "fix it."

That may have worked when you or your father started out. But it sure won't fly for long nowadays. The smart thing to do, of course, is to enlist the aid of vehicle OEMs and component suppliers to provide training on-site or at their technical training centers.

Don't make a common enough mistake. Avoid viewing training simply as a measure taken to correct a problem, such as unexpected equipment failures. Special training may be needed in such an instance.

Go a step further and make training an ongoing, scheduled commitment. That way, employees feel their employer is looking after their interests instead of constantly expecting them to play catch-up when problems with equipment break out.

VALUE-ADDED And remember, this is also an era of stiff competition among suppliers for your business. That means the availability, scope, and cost (if any) of training resources offered to your fleet may well be a deciding factor in purchase decisions where quality is not an issue and the suppliers in question are competitive on price.

Manufacturers generally make these types of training available: self-learning via service manuals, videotapes, CD-ROMs, and even web sites; on-site maintenance and installation instruction by a visiting instructor; and in-depth classroom/hands-on seminars at dedicated training centers. Suppliers may offer training on a fixed schedule, such as monthly, or oftentimes based on customer demand.

Moving beyond the free or nominal-charge materials and programs provided by suppliers, other key training resources include colleges, industry associations, and professional groups.

An example of an institute of higher education at work for trucking is the University of Washington in Seattle. It presents a variety of vehicle maintenance and fleet management courses and conferences each year through its engineering professional programs.

The North American Transportation Management Institute (NATMI), which is affiliated with the American Trucking Assns. (ATA), offers both training and certification programs for maintenance and safety personnel.

The Maintenance Council (TMC) of ATA is of course a well-known training and management resource. TMC produces, and constantly updates, an extensive manual of recommended maintenance practices as well as preventive-maintenance guidelines and training materials on tire, wheel and brake issues.

Smaller and less well known, but modeled after TMC and directed toward vocational fleet operators, is the Equipment Maintenance Council (EMC). This group provides training and testing materials on a variety of maintenance-shop topics.

A very fitting way to reward or motivate up-and-coming managers, like lead mechanics and first-line supervisors, is to send them to one of the several meetings held each year by TMC and EMC. Attendees not only come away with a wealth of technical and product information, they enjoy a tremendous opportunity to network with and to gain recognition from their industry peers.

TMC and EMC, as well as various independent local and regional maintenance councils, are primarily geared toward managers.

TECH SOCIETIES However, a number of professional societies have emerged that are directed at serving the specific needs of automotive mechanics and technicians.

An affiliate of the prestigious Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), the Service Technicians Society (STS) was formed just four years ago. It defines itself as a "professional society dedicated to advancing the knowledge, skills, and image" of technicians by providing a forum for technical information exchange, skill development, and networking.

Fleet managers would be well advised to reimburse shop employees for dues paid to join such a group. Benefits of STS membership, for example, include training manuals and other publications at special prices as well as technical information provided over a web site that boasts both streaming audio and video.

STS points out that techs who join will "add thousands of minds to their toolbox," by becoming part of a network of technicians and others who actively share work knowledge through electronic discussion groups as well as old-fashioned local chapters.

Member-led chapters currently exist in major metropolitan areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Perhaps proving there's maintenance work to be done everywhere, there's even one in the Virgin Islands.

The society has put a lot of thought into membership, organizing it into these subsets:

n Certified Professional Technician. A tech with at least two years of work experience and holder of a recognized certification. (Has STS voting rights.)

n Professional Technician. A tech with at least two years of work experience. (Has voting rights.)

n Automotive Professional. A person in the service and repair industry, such as fleet owners and managers, engineers, and educators. (Has voting rights.)

n Affiliate. Any person supporting the mission of STS.

n Student. Full-time students or trainees in full-time programs meeting certain criteria.

Talk about networking. STS currently reports having 6,000 members spread across the U.S. and 24 other countries.

STS can also help fleets find qualified technicians, thanks to an electronic job classified section it has added to its web site.

Employers can post open positions on the site for a nominal fee. The other good news is the society says this is just its "first step" toward developing career services to benefit both technicians and industry employers.

CERTIFICATION As perhaps the most respected certification organization for mechanics and technicians, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is a major training resource for trucking.

Through its annual spring and fall test series, as of last November, ASE has certified 51,795 individuals as "Medium/Heavy Truck Technicians," 20,152 as "Master Truck Technicians,"and 758 as "Truck Equipment Installation & Repair Technicians." All told, ASE has certified 412,891 repair technicians.

And ASE certification is nothing to sneeze at. Just preparing for the test requires a major commitment on the part of a technician. In fact, ASE says approximately one out of every three test-takers flunks.

A test-taker must successfully complete a given exam and provide proof of two years of "relevant" work experience to receive certification in an area.

That certification qualifies them to wear the snappy blue-and-white ASE shoulder patch and to carry credentials attesting to their exact areas of expertise.

However, certification is not a one-time deal. To retain their certification, technicians must be retested every five years. If nothing else, that pretty much guarantees employers these techs are up to date.

Reinforcing the connection between training and networking, ASE has become a sponsor of an Internet-based "electronic community" for service technicians.

Dubbed iATN (international Automotive Technicians Network), the group charges no membership fees but requires members to be ASE -certified.

Once admitted, techs can access "Members Only" sections of the iATN web site that include discussion groups, live conferencing, industry news and FAQ files. The iATN site can be accessed via the ASE site:

Doctors do it. Accountants do it. Even educated lawyers do it. Why not mechanics?

According to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), there are at least ten good reasons for technicians to become ASE-certified. ASE says that completing certification:

1. Bestows professional credentials. It's an impartial, third-party endorsement of one's knowledge and experience.

2. Demonstrates commitment to the service and repair profession. It also attests to the ability to perform according to set standards.

3. Enhances the profession's image. Certified professionals stand out as examples of excellence in the field.

4. Reflects achievement. Shows excellence has been achieved by meeting standards established by an entire industry.

5. Builds self-esteem. It's a step beyond defining oneself simply by a job description.

6. Boosts career opportunities. It can provide an "edge" when under consideration for promotion.

7. Provides greater earnings potential. Many attain salary and wage increases based on their certification status.

8. Improves skills and knowledge. Achieving certification takes training, study, and keeping up with changing technology.

9. Preps for greater responsibilities. It's a clear indicator of technicians' willingness to invest in their own professional development.

10. Confers peer recognition. A certified tech can expect greater recognition for taking an extra step in their professional development.

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