When Marilyn Rawlings joined the Lee County, FL fleet maintenance department in 1994, she had 800 vehicles and her goal was to provide staff technicians with 40 hours of technical training per year. With a fleet of approximately 1,850 vehicles today, her goal is to provide her technicians with 40 hours of training, 52 weeks per year.
"Giving job knowledge can make a better technician, but it may not make them a better employee," Rawlings says. "You've got to look at the whole person."
As an experienced fleet manager, Rawlings says she shares her vision for the organization with the technicians and reminds them about the importance of personal and professional growth. She has implemented a wellness program for all of her staff members, regardless of title or rank in the organization, and every new employee participates in a 10-week employee leadership program.
Rawlings says that it can be a challenge to talk with technicians about a different way to work, or develop a new mindset with new hires, but she stresses that it's all about making the work environment better and allowing technicians to grow individually and as part of a team.
"The biggest thing I get is people who say, 'I'm not a leader here. Why am I going through this [training]?'"
Rawlings believes that technicians need to be immersed in teaching or learning for success. She encourages them to grow, and to take others with them as their career progresses. "It's not the position that makes the leader, it's the leader that makes the position," Rawlings says.
In her opinion, the leadership strategies she's implemented have improved employee retention. The only recent changes were due to employees moving or retiring. One employee went to a different facility to make $6-7 more per hour, but he's already talked to Rawlings about coming back to work at Lee County.
CREATIVE TRAINING TECHNIQUES
For most fleet managers, maintaining a training budget can be a challenge, and Rawlings says that her colleagues often comment about the lack of money in their budget. Training is something a fleet can't afford to cut from the budget, she says, and notes there are ways to manage tight financial situations in order to provide it to technicians.
In-house technician training is one way to save money. According to Rawlings, the only costs involved come from taking the technician out of the shop. But that is much more cost-effective than bringing someone in from the outside, Rawlings says.
Partnering with surrounding municipalities and agencies has also helped stretch the Lee County fleet technician training budget. Rawlings explains that recently, Lee County hired Ford Motor Co. to train their light duty technicians at a flat rate for 15 attendees. Only eight staff technicians were interested in participating, so she asked managers from other local municipalities if they would pay the attendance fee to send their technicians. As a result, Rawlings' overall cost for sending her employees decreased from approximately $60-70 to $15 per person.
"There are creative things you can do, if training and growth become a big deal," Rawlings says.
Training needs are often difficult to determine with such a large staff, but one technique Rawlings uses to determine this is to monitor technician reworks.
"If you get a guy who is continuously having reworks in some areas, then you know that is an area where you need to spend some time training," Rawlings says, and adds that this is a common approach used by most managers.
But Rawlings also has another technique: she recognizes the strengths in specific areas for each technician such as electronics or diagnostics. When she notices a particular skill needing improvement, she asks more experienced technicians to teach at in-house training sessions for coworkers requiring additional help.
"That way it's not viewed as a disciplinary thing. And a lot of times, I think it's viewed that way. With the technician shortage the way it is right now, I can get someone to leave another place for 50 cents an hour, but I can't get them to stay for 50 cents an hour. I have to be providing them something that the other guy's not. Otherwise, if someone will jump ship to come to me, they'll jump ship to go somewhere else."
Rawlings says that if she specifically seeks technicians' weaknesses, for example, in electrical work, the technician might know this, and 'cover up' the fact that they're not as experienced. Instead of concentrating on the negative aspects, she focuses on the positive.
"By pulling out [a technician's] strengths, I can say "you're really good at hydraulics, I'd like you to teach a session," she says, and offers training classes on-site for employees.
REWARDS IN HARD WORK
Most of the time, Rawlings says that the employees who demonstrate leadership qualities in an organization are not always in a leadership position, but one of her goals is to make sure to get the right people in the right role.
"They're going to lead whether they've got the position or not," she says.
Brad Wright is an example how leadership, training and a strong work ethic has allowed him to grow in his career. Wright was recently promoted to operations manager after working on the shop floor as a mechanic, and hasn't allowed industry changes to hamper his career growth.
"I don't think you ever get to a level where you're comfortable, especially nowadays with the technology changing so quickly," he says.
Wright explains that various mechanic training sessions are offered yearly in order to keep up-to-date with the pertinent changes in fleet equipment. For instance, the Freightliner ambulances in the county fleet are serviced every six weeks; this service schedule ensures issues are detected before they pose a serious problem.
Technicians also provide emergency vehicle operation training to emergency medical system (EMS) employees with various ambulance functions.
Wright says that some of the problems with the EMS vehicles come from idling for extended periods of time when transporting a critical care patient from the ambulance bay into the hospital. Because paramedics need to move the patient quickly, the lights are often times left on, draining battery power.
"We explain to the EMS why they should do certain things that will keep batteries from going dead and keep them from being broken down while they're trying to respond to a call," he says.
"We go over every item, and tell (EMS personnel) what they should expect to see, and examples of things they shouldn't be seeing," Wright says.
"We're very proactive on our service," Wright continues. There have been very few instances where vehicles needed to be towed to the shop for repair as a result of this training program, he says.
TOOLS, TECHNOLOGY & TEACHING
One piece of equipment that is used frequently for the Lee County fleet technicians is the Palm PDA.
"We have a Cummins program that will only work on certain PDAs. I don't know if that's an industry standard, it probably depends on the program that's purchased," he says.
According to Wright, the Palm PDA is good for quick diagnosis and isn't as cumbersome as some laptops to detect maintenance problems.
"A lot of vehicles may have only one 'check engine' light," Wright says, "but it may have several hundred codes for the one light, and in some cases it may be that the lights are left on too long and the battery was dropped below a certain threshold. So we use the PDA for that, but I'm not sure, industry-wide, if that is picking up or going out."
Rawlings says the challenges with the kinds of technological equipment used on the shop floor come from the differences in manufacturer computer programs. One OEM's software will only work with a PDA for example, but there could be a program for another OEM that might operate on a completely different platform.
"It would be nice if there was more of an industry standard that would work with all equipment," Rawlings says, but does not know of one at this time. Nevertheless, providing new technology to employees is very important.
"We have implemented the use of laptop computers out in the shop now, so we can run certain diagnostics. The computers help us identify problems," Rawlings says.
Wayne Catlett is a mechanic with the Department of Vehicle Services for the County of Fairfax, Virginia, where he has been employed since 1985. Catlett mostly works with engine performance and wiring issues on a daily basis.
In his bay he has a dyno chassis, where he checks on everything from engine performance to speedometer calibrations. Some of Catlett's time is also spent on multiplexing to identify specific problems.
"Things are changing constantly," Catlett says. When I first started it was all gasoline engines and it was pretty simple. Now everything is basically in 'computer talk'," he continues, and compares the use of technology such as e-mail to the technology he uses everyday in his job.
"I struggle with e-mail, yet I spend the majority of my day on a laptop computer diagnosing vehicles," he says.
When a laptop recently crashed at his shop, he realized how much he depended on technology in his everyday work.
"I was like a fish out of water," Catlett says. "There are hand-held scanners in smaller garages that do the same thing and give the same information as a laptop. But with a laptop you can view a lot more things at once.
Some of Catlett's biggest challenges come from the vehicle's electronics. He says that once a technician understands how circuits operate, similar techniques can be applied to a completely different vehicle. "The majority of vehicles now are working more off of a ground circuit, or using the ground to open and close circuits," Catlett says. "If you use the ground wire to open and close the circuit it's easier on them."
He adds that he first tries to identify a common problem in a circuit that could be leading to the vehicle's demise, such as a sensor or a broken wire, but recommends finding the problem in sequential order.
"With electronic engines, even though you might have a certain sensor acting up or giving you a reading, it's tied into several other procedures or several other sensors," Catlett says.
Patience is definitely a virtue in diagnosing electronic problems. "I don't want to jump the gun and feel like I'm wasting my time. You can't complete step three until you complete step two," Catlett says. "It's hard not to at times because you're so pressured."
Catlett explains that the majority of vehicles now are working more off of a ground circuit, using the ground to open and close circuits.
"Once you know how circuits work, you start understanding how the circuits operate then you can apply it, even to a completely different vehicle," he says. "Despite what a lot of instructors have told me, we work with a lot lower voltages and amperages and the old 'test light' method is not recommended for any type of computer-checking because it can cause serious issues.
Ideally, the DVOM or multimeter tester is used for this, and if all the schematics are available and the technician knows how the circuit operates what and the common components are, the wiring can be used to disconnect or short things out intentionally to try and re-create certain conditions, Catlett says.
SOLVING A MYSTERY
Catlett recalls a situation in the shop when a vehicle wouldn't start, and he pinpointed the problem to the injector, exhaust back pressure, engine oil pressure and manifold air pressure sensors. He tried to start the vehicle, to no avail. "The tach didn't work, and I was outside and didn't have the laptop with me." Even after Catlett put a cam sensor in it, nothing changed.
That's when he started using his multimeter tester and found that all four circuit units shared the same voltage reference. The exhaust backpressure sensor of approximately 5.3 volts shorted out, and took the voltage away from everything else, Catlett continues.
"An exhaust backpressure sensor is normally not something that will affect the no-start condition," he continues, "but because it shared the same voltage reference as the cam sensor, all the voltage was drained, so there wasn't any voltage left for the cam sensor, and in turn created the no-start."
When Catlett compared the incident with readings on the laptop to the wire schematics, he found the voltage references were indeed the common problem between all of the sensors.
Another challenge, Catlett says, is working on loose connections or corroded connectors. He says it's one of the "biggest nightmares" because these kinds of problems occur when the driver hits a bump in the road, when a connector is not completely plugged in, or when the vehicle isn't on level ground; all of these things don't necessarily happen in the shop.
"It's frustrating at times, when I can't get it to act up," Catlett says.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
When Catlett's team services vehicles with intermittent problems and can't find a solution, notes are added to the work order from technicians to remind the driver to report any details about the problem and the operating condition of the vehicle when the problem occurred.
Catlett says they need to ask a lot of questions. "Does the temperature gauge or oil pressure gauge act up? Do you lose battery voltage, or do the gauges all of a sudden go dead while the vehicle is still running? What kinds of roads are you on, or were you taking on a hard right or left turn?
"The biggest thing is trying to get as much information from the drivers as possible, because sometimes you can't re-create the condition that they're going through. I don't like to release a vehicle unless I know it's safe."
Josh Stolfuss, a technical services manager with National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) agrees that most cause for concern in medium duty vehicle fleets has to do with electrical issues, and technicians need to be aware of the changes that are taking place in the industry.
Stolfuss says that having a strong electronics background will be important, especially in the next ten years. He adds that the trend is turning toward multiplexing and sensor- or module-based technology.
"For the most part, medium duty technicians have been involved with this kind of technology to a certain degree. But it's something they will have to deal with more on a daily basis," he says.
"Technicians nowadays really need to be well-versed in electrical systems on a vehicle. Particularly because the electrical systems are getting more complex every year," Stolfuss adds.
"So they need to have a basic understanding of electrical theory and multiplexing, because a lot of vehicles are getting into multiplex modules. International has it, and Ford has it. So, understanding multiplexing and modules you are looking at with different inputs and outputs are very important, even in wiring tail lights."
A WEALTH OF INFORMATION
Fairfax County's Catlett thinks it is helpful to have a good working relationship with OEMs to keep informed, and says he is actively involved with International engines to receive training. He tries to keep up-to-date on as much reference material as possible, whether it is receiving information online, with CD-ROM or hard-copy manuals.
Catlett also keeps current with bulletins that focus on everything from mechanical to electrical issues. He sees more and more of this information readily available for technicians.
NTEA's Stolfuss recommends obtaining subscriptions online, which is a generally more affordable way for technicians or shops with a limited budget to build library of reference material.
Attending electrical training classes has helped Catlett a great deal during his career, and sometimes he repeats classes if he needs to gain more knowledge.
Catlett says that revisiting a class is beneficial for him because always knows he will learn something new. He is also able to apply practical information from his experience in the shop to what is being taught in the classroom.
"There's nothing wrong with repetition, because you might have missed something the first couple of times and now you understand more. When you go [to a class] a second time, you can say 'oh yeah, it all makes sense,'" Catlett says.
MORE IS BETTER
"I'm learning new things every week, but I run into something a little bit different," Catlett says. Some of it's trial and error, but a lot of it is trying to keep updated with information available."
Catlett says he's considered a 'go-to guy' among his peers for electrical issues. He mentors technicians and mechanics on his team, sharing as much information as possible, but is learning as well.
"I teach them and as I show them what I do, a lot of times I also pick up things as I'm explaining," Catlett says. "The more information you can absorb, the better off you are."
TOOLS FOR SUCCESS
Just as there are many ways to repair and diagnose problems on medium-duty vehicles, there are equally as many ways to help technicians increase their knowledge and ability to influence their peers in a positive way.
Training programs can encourage technicians to further develop their strengths and can ultimately prove to be beneficial to the technician and the fleet they support. It is inevitable that diagnostic tools and equipment will change as technology evolves, but it is equally important for technicians to evolve by teaching and mentoring one another. Experience and a hands-on approach to learning and mentoring are important for a technician to be well-equipped and well-trained, and are just as important to career success as the tools used on the job every day.