Get on the Bus

School bus technicians in the State of Florida have a good thing going. Once a year, they can spend nearly a full week going to OEM training classes, and come away with a certification that can help them take on more responsibility—possibly even a management job—back at the shop.

The annual Technicians' Workshop is the brainchild of the Florida Association for Pupil Transport (FAPT), an organization that has been making sure that Florida schoolchildren have safe, reliable transportation to and from school for the past 60 years.

Robert Morgan, director of transportation, east zone, for Lee County, FL, and chairman of the FAPT Technicians Qualifications And Standards Committee, explains that the Technicians' Workshop started out 18 years ago and has been growing ever since.

"We have a school in Avon Park, where we cooperate with the South Florida Community College, where the classes are held, then at the Suwannee-Hamilton Technical Center in Live Oak," Morgan explains. "We have a school up in the panhandle, and then a school halfway in the middle of the state. So within reason the technicians can get to one of the two locations on the same day."

A solid 32-hour block of instruction starts on Monday afternoon, then ends in time for the technicians to head home on Friday afternoon, Morgan explains, so, in theory, none of the districts should have to pay overtime. The fact that a combined 205 technicians attended the two Workshop events this past June (and the fact that Morgan considers that a light turnout), says a lot about the importance of training to FAPT members.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYBODY

"The courses are constantly changed," Morgan explains. "We had 10 different programs; 10 different classes given at Avon Park this year.

"For instance, if you had an entry-level technician, you could sign him up in one of the blocks of instruction," he says. "They would get bus specification updates—any changes that we're having in the laws—and it would also tell them how the buses are spec'ed out and purchased, and how we make decisions in the committees on product evaluations, to see how things are made, and see how decisions are made on how buses are purchased."

That would be followed up by a class on maintaining wheelchair lifts made by Ricon and a Braun, the two major brands used on Florida school buses. A half day is spent on each manufacturers' products, and the technician receives a certification to work on Ricon or Braun lifts.

"Then they spend a day doing wheels, brakes, tires and seals, so you have your technician who can do that," Morgan goes on. "Then they spend half a day with specialty manufacturing: they teach them how to troubleshoot the stop arms, the eight-way flashers, the student crossing arms, all those idiosyncratic things we have on a school bus.

The next four hours are devoted to troubleshooting Allison Transmissions, followed by a "fuel facts" class about ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, provided by Southeast Power.

"Then they give a small class on anti-freeze, on the importance of long-life antifreeze, and its effect on cavitation in the engine," Morgan explains. "Then we have a class by Permatex, with adhesives and gaskets. Then they have a class on the lap belts and the child restraint systems for the seats we put in buses for the pre-K children, and for the ESE children, how you can identify if they're bad or good."

That's a lot of training in 32 hours. And that's only one of 10 different tracks.

OEM SUPPORT

The amount of support from OEMs is nothing short of amazing. Take the three bus manufacturers doing business with the state: Thomas, Blue Bird and International. All three companies send new buses and trainers to make sure technicians know how to diagnose and repair the latest models and components.

"International flies in their instructors, and the technicians have three full days with the instructors from International to learn all the idiosyncrasies of the International bus, with the understanding that they don't have to teach the brakes, the lifts, and the stop arms and the rest of the specialty equipment," Morgan explains. "So that gives the technicians and the instructors time to get one-on-one training, so that you'll have a technician who can take care of anything on an International bus. The same with Thomas and the same with Blue Bird."

Carrier air conditioning is also on board, according to Morgan. "They provide two full days of training, so if you come out of that class you have the ability to apply to Carrier to do in-house warranty work, or how to troubleshoot and repair all of the Carrier air conditioners. We found that two days was the correct time for Carrier air conditioning, and then for the other day and a half we put in different classes that we think are applicable."

UP TO DATE

For Barb Aulivola, district sales representative for Permatex, involvement in the FAPT Technicians' Workshop has provided an unparalleled opportunity to reach technicians who use the company's gasket and sealant products.

"There are so many products that are just core in every shop," Aulivola relates. "A lot of the time, these guys sometimes are not very clear on what works better where. And technology has changed, so it's just about keeping these guys up to date.

"Sometimes the first thing out of a shop supervisor's mouth is, 'I've been having problems sealing this transaxle case cover, and I've been using silicone on it, and I've been using your Right Stuff product on it, and it's not working,'" she says. "And I proceed to tell him that those are not the right products to be using for that application; you need to be using an anaerobic gasket maker. So, yeah, we run into things like that."

Aulivola, whose class at the Workshop attracted 113 students this past June, finds that the technicians are "pleasantly surprised" to realize that they can learn something new about a product they've been using for years.

"After the presentation, they'll say, 'I really did learn something that will help me make my job a whole lot easier.'"

HANDS-ON

FAPT lets Aulivola and the other trainers select their own training topics and methods, and Aulivola tries to include as many hands-on demos as she can. At this year's event, she introduced a new headlight lens restoration kit and disc brake caliper lubricant that Permatex has brought to market this year.

But, according to Morgan, Aulivola gets high compliments from her students for not using class time to pitch her products.

"I never position my product training that way," Aulivola says. They're here to get information, and I'm here to help them. That usually results in them purchasing the product somewhere down the road, but my main focus is helping the technicians and giving them product knowledge. I focus on gasket-making materials that take the place of cut gaskets, gasket sealants that they can use with form-in-place gaskets, anaerobic chemistry—and that entails mainly threadlockers, and gasket makers and retaining compounds—then a half-dozen specialty products. It's Chemistry 101!

"I just think it's wonderful that the state provides this for these guys," she says. "They get updated on engines, transmissions, braking systems—it's just terrific for them."

THE ROAD TO SUCCESS

The Technicians' Workshop offers attendees more than one way to succeed, according to Morgan.

"In the evenings, the first two nights, we have tests," he explains. "We have a vehicle service technician test, which would be for your entry-level technician. That has 60 questions on it, and if they pass, if they get more than a 75 percent on it, we send the district a certification letter saying that you now qualify as a service technician for five years, and you get a patch."

FAPT also offers tests and certifications for Master Service Technician, Parts Specialist, and, new this year, for Shop Service Manager.

"From the feedback, we found that district managers would like to have a course set up for training managers in the future, so we developed a shop service manager certification exam and we offered it for the first time this year, even though there wasn't a class," Morgan explains. "You had to have permission from your district, because we don't want to take a chance on someone taking the course, taking the test, then going back to their district and saying, 'Hey, I'm smarter than you.' That course you have to get an 80, and that's got two essay questions on it—that really threw a wrench into it for some people—as well as 90 questions."

Twenty-five technicians took the Shop Service Manager test, but only seven passed, a tribute to FAPT's high standards. After all, if the test was easy, it wouldn't mean much.

"We designed it to be a hard test," Morgan admits. "I was surprised how many people got in their cars and drove here to take the test, so there is interest out there for it.

"Some of them asked about it afterwards: 'How am I supposed to know what to do if there's an accident?' Well," Morgan says, "if you're the manager, your technicians are going to go out to accident sites, and you'll need to know what needs to be done."

WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR

The 2007 event is barely over and Morgan and his committee are already at work on next year's Workshop.

"We send out a registration packet, and that gives you all these choices of all these different classes," says Morgan. "Then we get feedback from the districts, which we will have in time for the September meeting, and then we choose which classes we need to add and which classes we will no longer offer. For instance, there were actually a few classes for different air conditioner systems but not enough students registered, so we cancelled them. The vendors were nice enough to be very co-operative."

FAPT has a state bid purchasing group for vehicles and equipment, and every purchase contract has a provision that manufacturers must supply a certain amount of training if a certain number of units are purchased by the state. The manufacturers would supply the training willingly, Morgan explains, whether it was in the contract or not.

Selecting classes for the next Workshop is a complicated task, involving the students' input, the trainers' requests, and changes in technology. Some classes are offered every year, while others are rotated in and out as needed.

"This year we had paint and body repair. We do that about every two years, when we get enough feedback," Morgan explains. "The paint and body class was important this year, because the Thomas buses came out with a panel bonding on their new C2; that's a very innovative process, so it was important for us to offer paint and body paneling classes for this year.

"We have a parts specialist class that we offer every several years," he says. "Districts send their parts guys in, and Thomas, International and Blue Bird will send in instructors for that—we mix that up with all three companies, as they learn how to order parts, how to get warranty on parts, and the processes that the vendors have so you can get reimbursed."

FIRST-STRING

Morgan is proud to say that the Workshop is run in a professional manner: "They're in the classroom at eight o'clock. It's handled just like a college course, and the instructor's treated accordingly. The vendors send in their first-string teams, they're very experienced. I think because we run it the way we do, more knowledge is gained by the technician and I think they enjoy it more."

Class sizes are generally held to 12 to 15, although Permatex's Aulivola attracted an impressive 113 this year. "That's because she does such a good job at it," Morgan says.

"The technicians are so enthused!" he says. "The networking that the technicians can do at this event is inspirational. They're talking to each other all week about 'How do you fix this? How do you fix that?' Each district throughout the state may have different little things go wrong with the buses, so they get so much out of the networking they do."

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