Maintenance Management: Finding and training the next generation of technicians

Everybody knows the construction industry is facing a dire shortage of skilled technicians to service equipment. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that it is possible to fill your manpower needs with bright, well-trained young men and women. The trick is to get involved and start recruiting early. The construction companies that do the best recruiting start as early as fifth and sixth grade. The process takes consistent effort over a long period of time and a lot of buy-in from different people at different levels in your organization – not an easy task in today’s highly competitive construction environment. But the alternative is worse – your machines sit idle for lack of mechanics to fix them or you cut back on the number of projects you bid on for a lack of skilled labor to optimize your fleet’s productivity.

Get their attention early
While you need not start taking applications from middle-school kids, it is important to get them excited about construction before peer pressure, academically oriented counselors and parents start turning them away from the field.

“In the seventh and eighth grade you’ve got a great audience,” says Cherrie McBratney, regional admissions advisor at Texas State Technical College. “They ask all kinds of questions and you can make a tremendous impact. Give them all hardhats and a chance to sit on a backhoe. At the fifth and sixth grade they desperately need programs.”

Talking to middle-school students sows the seeds for future possibilities and doesn’t require a lot of effort. But as kids move up into their high-school years you have to step up your efforts. The best way to do this is to get together with other contractors and allied trades in your area and sponsor a construction career day.

The Construction Career Days program was initiated by Mike LaPointe of J.L. Steel, Greg Mooney of Zurich Services, Ross Martinez of the Federal Highway Administration (retired) and Humberto Martinez, also of the FHWA, after they began noticing a reduction in the number of bidders in 1999. “Around the DFW area there were more than 3,000 jobs vacant,” Humberto Martinez says. “In one case the Texas DOT put out a job and there were no bidders. It’s not that they didn’t want to make money, it’s just that they didn’t want to get the work and then not have enough skilled workers to fulfill that contract.”

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Since 1999 some 75,682 high school students have participated in 58 such events in 18 states and seen a side of construction they would have never seen otherwise.

The FHA has funding that will kick in for qualified groups and state agencies, contractors, dealers and construction associations provide the rest. For more information on how to get started see the “Resources” box at the end of the article.

These career days and the interaction they promote between contractors and students comes at a pivotal time in the students’ lives. “High school students are making critical decisions about their career paths in a vacuum, unaware of the broad array of education and employment opportunities available to them,” says William Sederburg, president of Ferris State University. “The bias toward four-year degrees is so pervasive that many students never explore other options. Sixty-eight percent plan to go to a four-year college, though studies show only a fraction of those will graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”

Motivating with high-tech iron
Dave Barbieri, chairman of the diesel mechanics program at Texas State Technical College in Marshall, says one of the best ways to establish a local construction career days is to invite counselors and school administrators to participate in the fun.

“You get that counselor up on a backhoe, you will see them walk away two inches off the ground,” says Barbieri. “Folks who would never in their lives dream of getting on a piece of big yellow equipment go out and do it successfully and they come back pumped. It is a hoot to watch.”

The second key ingredient, according to Barbieri, is to bring high-tech gear – laptops with troubleshooting programs and interactive training and lasers and GPS systems if you have them. The digital gear not only dazzles the students, it changes everybody’s impressions about what construction is all about. “What they see very quickly is that this is not about just being good with your hands,” he says.

But razzle-dazzle won’t make a construction career program successful without contractor involvement, Martinez says. “Some people say they can’t make it to your career day, but they’ll write us a check,” he says. “We tell them to keep their check, we’d rather have them in person. All of your jobs are interesting and worth sharing with kids.”
From high school to tech school
Assuming you develop some good prospects from your middle school and high school efforts the next step is to follow these future technicians as they move into post-secondary vocational/technical training. Many of the schools have cooperative training arrangements that enable you to sponsor a student.

“Co-ops are an extension of our own labs and programs and there are a lot of different types of agreements,” says Dennis Watson, a diesel mechanics instructor at the Texas State Technical College in Waco. Sponsorships generally cost the employer/ sponsor $1,200 to $1,500 per term per student. In turn the student works part time at the sponsor’s shop or site and goes to school part time. Most employers ask that the student kick in some money up front for his hand tools and then work out a payback schedule for the rest of the cost. Such arrangements show the employer that the student is committed and show the student how much the employer is interested in him or her.

Establishing this mutual loyalty is an important part of securing a return on your investment. If you fail to build a solid relationship with these students there is nothing that says they can’t go to work for your competitor after they graduate.

Before entering into such an agreement, however, the company needs to start treating the student like an employee. That means drug screenings, aptitude exams and whatever other processes you use for your employees should apply to your student intern.

The sponsoring company also needs to choose a mentor for the student. “It is very important that you have the right person to serve as mentor,” McBratney says. “They have to help that person feel like they are part of the company philosophy and direction.” Additionally, there are ordinary everyday things – where to park, getting a locker, how to clock in, what the coffee policy is – that can intimidate or overwhelm kids who are 19 to 24 years old and hesitant to ask questions.”

Even if your company doesn’t have the money to help sponsor a student through a one-year or two-year program there’s a lot you can do to start forging relationships with these future technicians. You can participate in campus career days. You can volunteer as a guest instructor for a day and talk to the students about the industry and its opportunities. And you can offer them the possibility of part-time work during the summer or between semesters if they are not already committed to another employer.

The key is getting to know some names and faces and getting your company’s people out in front of the students. Educators emphasize that you need to talk about the tangible rewards of working in construction – career potential, the hourly wages and benefits, job security and the satisfaction of working with a team in a competitive environment.

Establishing a local program
Contractors who have concerns about wrestling with their local community colleges to establish a cooperative training program will be pleased to note that these institutions are almost always receptive to such suggestions.

And these relationships work both ways. When Eastfield College started its diesel program it was suffering from a tight budget and a lack of space and tools, says Curt Jenkins, director of automotive technologies at Eastfield. Jenkins found the solution after talking to Robert Lawson, superintendent of fleet services for the city of Garland, Texas at a meeting of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals. Starting in January, the students and instructors in the diesel program will use the city’s shop, tools and classroom space. In return for helping the school, Lawson (who, like many, faces a looming shortage of technicians) gets a good look at the best students.

In creating such arrangements you have to emphasize the benefits to both parties, Jenkins says. “But you have to get out there and develop those relationships. You can’t sit behind your desk all day. You have to get out and make things happen.

Contractors and equipment dealers who are willing to talk to their local schools have a lot of clout, Barbieri says. “If you put in a request to the school’s advisory committee, it gets done,” he says. “It’s even better if you can volunteer to serve on the advisory committee. The best way to get a return on your investment is to get involved in the process.”