Class Is In Session

Remember when you were a kid, and you couldn’t wait to get out of school for the summer? Back then, if someone had told you that some people can’t wait for school to start every summer, you’d have thought they were crazy.

But that’s exactly what happens every June in Florida, when the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation (FAPT) hosts its annual School Bus Technicians Summer Workshops. Held over two consecutive weeks in two different locations, each year’s Workshop attracts dozens of enthusiastic bus technicians from across the state for four days of hands-on classroom instruction, testing and certification. And the technicians can’t get enough of it.

BREAKING NEW GROUND

The Workshop started almost 20 years ago, when FAPT formed a Bus Inspector Committee and a Mechanics Qualifications Committee, according to Tom Callahan, retired supervisor of transportation maintenance for Pasco County, FL, and former FAPT board member. “The original intent was that the Bus Inspection Committee would develop standards for inspecting buses and the Mechanics Qualifications Committee would develop testing and teaching formats for inspectors and mechanics,” he explains. At the time, technician training among FAPT members was almost unheard of, and ASE had yet to offer a school bus technicians certification, so the two committees were starting out with blank sheets of paper and no place to go but up. “We had contacted ASE and they were not interested in developing such a test,” Callahan recalls. “So we said, ‘Well, we’ll have to go ahead and go forward.’”

And go forward they did. In June of 1989, with the blessing of Florida’s Department of Education, the first ever School Bus Technicians Summer Workshop was held at an Episcopal Church Conference Center in Live Oak, affectionately nicknamed “Camp Weed.” Nearly 60 technicians attended that first four-day session, which started out with a bang. “I’m pretty sure Ford and International participated that year,” Callahan says. “School bus lifts were just coming out of their infancy for handicapped students, so we had some lift manufacturers. We had somebody from Bendix brakes.

“We tried to divide the week into half-day increments, so during the course of the four days they would get eight half-days of training,” he explains. “We did not have a test at that time, so there was no exam at the end of the week.”

There may not have been an exam, but as Callahan recalls, that doesn’t mean that learning was confined to the classroom. “There were no telephones or televisions at the Episcopal camp, because it was a retreat center,” he says. “Now, very fortunately, their policy on cold drinks was very liberal. So most of the evenings were spent out on the porches on the rockers under the fans, and the guys would partake of their favorite beverage. So to this day, I still think one of the best things this program does is bring technicians together from all over the state, let them talk to each other, let them compare notes, and say, ‘Hey, you’re having that problem? We’re having that problem! Here’s how we fixed it; how did you fix it?’ And I often thought that we got as much done in the evening on those rockers as we did in the classroom.”

IF AT FIRST YOU DO SUCCEED…

The first Workshop was such a success that the Committee immediately began work on the next year’s event. In an effort to bring in more technicians from across the state, it was decided to offer the four-day program for two weeks in a row. But at the same time, class sizes had to be held to no more than 12 or 15, and the Workshop had to be held after the school year ended but before summer school sessions began—not an easy task.

“The second year we met for two weeks at Live Oak, and it went very, very well,” says Callahan. “The core classes, engine work particularly, were very important, and we scheduled that for both weeks, but we also tried to schedule some new things: brakes and alignment one week, body work and electrical the next.”

Publicizing the event was easy: Florida has 67 counties, each county has one school district, and each school district has one transportation director, who is also an FAPT member. “So, through FAPT, we were able to contact the directors, the person in charge of transportation,” Callahan says. “We had some very small districts, and we had some very large districts. In some smaller districts, basically, if they participated in the summer mechanics workshop, both guys shut down the shop and came!”

It’s a tribute to the success of the Workshop that in only its second year it began to experience growing pains. “I think we had about 130 folks participating that year,” Callahan says, “but that was over our target, and we had problems with the accommodations. The Center only has a certain number of rooms available to us, and that was a limiting factor.”

Distance was also proving to be a limiting factor, as Live Oak, located in the panhandle, was too far for many technicians who lived in south and central Florida. “We did realize that it was starting to get troublesome for some districts to send their mechanics so far for training,” Callahan says. “They wanted the training, and they were participating, so we started to look for another area. Paul Sparks said they had a community college in his area—South Park Community College, in Avon Park—that owned an old hotel that they could use for dorms. The college is glad to have us, because they’re using the facility year-round. So, with the exception of one or two years, we’ve come back to South Park Community College ever since.”

ADDING A TWIST

Paul Sparks, the man who suggested using South Park for the second week of the Workshop, is fleet manager for Highlands County Schools and the current committee chair for the School Bus Technician Qualification Standards Committee. As such, Sparks is the guy manning the controls for this year’s Workshop, and he’s added a new twist into the event.

Previously, the FAPT Committee offered the entire week to the school districts—instruction, food and lodging—as a comprehensive package at one low price. This year, instead, the school districts are responsible for booking rooms for the technicians they send to the Workshop. It’s a minor change, but it has relieved the Committee of a huge bookkeeping burden, and allowed them to concentrate on what really counts: the program of instruction. For some districts in the state, the Workshop is their entire training program for the year, so the course content has to hit the bull’s-eye every time.

“We start (planning) in August, right around the time school kicks off,” Sparks says. “We go through our evaluations that come in from our technicians, and we see what they’re looking for. We start building our program then. We start to establish the groups and class sizes and see where we’re going. Sometimes you have to make changes—one manufacturer can’t participate, and you have to line up a substitute—that’s why we learned many years ago that you need to lay the groundwork before you do anything, so you know who’s coming and how big it’s going to be, what the charges will be to the districts, what the events will be.

“The one thing that hit all of us—and we were very aware of this when we closed last year’s workshop—is the change to the new engines,” Sparks says. “All the manufacturers for ’08, ’09 and ’10 have to make some serious changes to their buses because of emissions regulations. Therefore, this year our technicians are asking for this; they want to know what’s making these new buses tick. That was the driving factor this year, and that’s why this week International (IC), Florida Unlimited Bus, Thomas and Blue Bird bus companies are here, and their trainers are all demonstrating their new engines to our techs. We have 30 technicians in the IC class, 30 in Thomas and about 25 in Blue Bird.”

The three different engine classes are meeting for three days, so those 85 technicians are getting a pretty intense classroom experience, but the flexibility of the Workshop format makes such intense study possible. “There’s so much to be known that we decided that’s all we’re going to give them that week,” Sparks explains. “The manufacturers want to teach the technicians all about the heart and soul of the engine and what makes it tick. Three days is probably not enough time, but it makes them aware and makes them better prepared for what’s coming at them.”

And for the technicians who don’t work on engines, there are plenty of course offerings dealing with tires, lifts, transmissions, parts, you name it. “It works because your heavy technology man, you want him to know that engine, and your service tech, well he could be called to one thing one minute, then another thing the next,” Sparks says. “There’s just so much to learn, it’s unfortunate that we can’t keep the guys longer than we have them.”

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Because of the efforts to keep class sizes small, it’s important to schedule a wide variety of classes, so that everyone has a full week of learning. Fortunately, manufacturers are only too happy to provide training.

“The three big body companies, and Carrier air conditioning, they are pretty much bound by contract to be here,” Sparks explains, although he says that they would come to the event regardless.

Other manufacturers, such as Michelin, get involved through their local Florida vendors. “The tire people that are coming, I asked them through my recapper, Boulevard Tire, if they would come, and they did,” Sparks says. “They couldn’t wait to get here and do it; they were very grateful that we asked them. And this year the Shell Oil Company’s been the same way; they can’t wait to get here and help!

“We’re at a point where, when manufacturers and people understand what we have going on here, they want to be involved,” he goes on. “They know that the more they can teach technicians what their product can do, the better their product’s going to serve them. They’re big supporters of school bus fleets in Florida, and they want to help.”

Sometimes a manufacturer’s desire to help catches the FAPT Committee members off guard, as Callahan relates about one vendor: “About four years ago we got together and said, ‘Look, this guy has been coming for the last nine years. We’re going to give him the year off. We’re not going to ask him, we need to give him a break.’ Next thing we know, he’s on the phone asking, ‘How come I’m not on this year’s list?’ We said, ‘We wanted to give you a break.’ He said, ‘NO! I’ve got that week blocked off already!’ He was upset! We really weren’t slighting him—he had been coming here every year like clockwork, and we really felt we needed to give this guy a rest. We were trying to be nice!”

“Allison Transmission has always been a big, big supporter, also,” Sparks says. “We always rotated from one year to the next between Reliable Transmission Services and Florida Detroit Diesel-Allison. One year I didn’t call the guy from Reliable because it was his year off. Well, the week we were in Kissimmee, he went to Kissimmee—he wanted to know why he didn’t have a classroom! These vendors and suppliers truly strive to keep our business and keep us happy, and they do a lot to take care of us.”

NERVOUS WRECKS

At first glance, the Workshop schedule appears to have a mistake: the certification tests are held on the first two nights of the event. How can you test the technicians when they haven’t even completed—in some cases, haven’t even begun—their classes yet?

Simple: the certification tests cover the technicians’ existing skills and knowledge—the things they know before they arrive at the Workshop. “What we test them on, that’s knowledge that technicians should just know,” Sparks explains. “You don’t come to this program to get yourself prepared for the test. What we’re teaching them this week is, ‘Hey, guys and girls, here’s what your upcoming fleet is going to look like, and you need to learn what’s going to happen to your buses next year.’ So we’re preparing them for next year, but we’re testing them on previous knowledge, and for recertification.”

“We used to give the tests at the end of the week, but the guys were nervous all week. They were wrecks!” Callahan says with a laugh. “They were being tested on whole life knowledge, nothing that we were training them on that week! But they were wrecks; it was terrible. So we backed it up and gave the tests Sunday night and Monday night, just to get it over with!

“The very first tests developed were called ‘Vehicle Service Technician’ and ‘Master Repair Technician,’” he explains. “The VST test was aimed at the person who does light repair: adjust brakes, changing light bulbs, doing cooling systems, and some of those things. The MRT is what we consider the heavy technician, one that was going to do brake jobs and engine overhauls and R&R transmissions.”

Normally the district shop manager makes the decision which test is more appropriate for the technician attending the Workshop, but quite often the technicians, once they arrive, opt to take both tests, and pay the extra $15 out of their own pockets. Why? For some it’s a mark of pride, and for others it’s a chance to get ahead.

“Some districts—my district did this, because I really pushed for it—offer a financial incentive,” Callahan explains. “We were able to supplement their pay originally by 17 cents and ultimately by 23 cents an hour per certificate, and they could earn up to six ASE certificates and four FAPT certificates. So, they could earn $2.30 an hour more for being a certified technician. Not all districts were able to do that to that level, but some built it into their job descriptions that within two years of being employed, you must have one or two, or however many certificates we feel are important to us.

“So now, no sooner have they handed the test in than they’re standing outside the door wanting to know their scores,” he says. “And sometimes if they don’t pass, they’ll pay the $15 to take it again the next night! Because they want to be successful. Whether their district counts it or not, they’re here for a reason and they want to show people that they live up to that.”

BREAKFAST AT 4

You might think that training technicians from 67 different shops, with 67 different ways of doing things, would be impossible, but you’d be wrong. “(They are) very different groups of technicians, and they don’t always speak the same language,” Callahan admits, “but they all respect each other, and it’s really very refreshing to bring these guys in from all over the state, with the common denominator of school bus repair, and find out that they’re made of the same stuff.

“They’re very sincere, they’re very hard-working, and what’s funny is they always want us to start earlier, because they’re so used to early hours,” he says. “Many of these guys go in at 5:30 in the morning. They say, ‘What do you mean, breakfast isn’t until 7? Breakfast should be at 4!’”

It’s that attitude that, in the final analysis, makes the Annual School Bus Technicians Summer Workshop such a success. Everyone gathered at the Workshop has a common goal: to provide the children of Florida with safe, reliable transportation to and from school. As Sparks is fond of saying to the technicians in attendance, Florida’s school buses carry the most precious cargo in the world.

“Our whole mission is to know that Florida has the best safety program there is for student transportation,” he says. “The smarter my technician, the quicker he’s going to move that bus back on the street. The better we can make our mechanics, our drivers, our attendants, the better off our children are going to be. The true winners in this program are the children.”

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