The Cream of the Crop

When Steven Talmadge watches the winner cross the finish line at this month's Daytona 500, he'll be able to thank the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) for his Oldfield Tower seat. That's because Talmadge rode to the victory circle himself in the TMC's first annual SuperTech truck technician competition, held last September in Valley Forge, PA.

Touted as the first such national competition in the industry, SuperTech2005 brought together 67 talented technicians from fleets and dealerships from around the country to show what they could do with a multi-meter and a computer keyboard.

"DID I REALLY DO THIS?"

"Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, did I really do this?'" Talmadge says in reaction to his First Place finish in SuperTech2005. "And then I think, ‘Yeah, I really did, and I have the pictures to prove it.'

A technician from Premier Truck Centers, Birmingham, Ala., Talmadge has come close to winning technician competitions close to home, but taking the national championship was something he could scarcely have imagined when his service director approached him about the competition last year.

"He showed me the big spread about it in your publication and said, ‘Do you want to do this? Because I want to send you to it,'" Talmadge recalls. "I said ok. They paid my membership, I made the reservations, and the rest is history."

While planners of the competition on the TMC's Professional Technician Development Committee (PTDC) had early concerns that maintenance managers might balk at sending their best technicians away from the garage for several days, many of the 67 competitors got into the event in the same way as Talmadge did: their employers wanted them to go, for the glory and for the experience.

"We feel that there is a need to help mitigate the technician shortage, and efforts that TMC can make to raise the professionalism of truck and commercial vehicle technicians will go a long way towards helping solve that problem," says Robert Braswell, TMC's technical director. "We know how professional technicians are, but we need to get that message out to other groups."

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Creating a national truck technician competition from the ground up was no small proposition, so the PTDC recruited a man with experience coordinating automotive technician competitions: George Arrants.

Now the vice president of industry relations, Corinthian Colleges, Santa Ana, CA (parent company of WyoTech and National Institute of Technologies), Arrants was employed by Snap-on Tools when friends in TMC contacted him about SuperTech2005.

"I guess there was a TMC PTDC meeting, and they were talking about the competition, and they had asked if they knew anybody who would be a good candidate to run the competition," Arrants says. "And Guy Warpness with WyoTech—we've known each other for a long time—he and Chuck Roberts of ASE looked at each other, and my name popped out. Guy called me and asked me if I would do it, and I said sure."

Considering the sheer scale of the task at hand, that seems a little too easy. But to Arrants, it was an easy decision to make.

"I've worked with Skills, USA—which used to be called VICA—for many years," he explains. "I worked with the state competition in Texas, and I've served on the national committee for the last five years for Automotive Technology, and also the Greater New York Auto Dealers Association has a national auto skills competition, and I've served on their ‘bug' committee for five or six years. I've been involved in multiple competitions, mainly on the automotive side, so this was no problem! As long as I had the people who were willing to work, and to put in the time, yeah. So, I volunteered."

THE SAME BUT DIFFERENT

The next year of Arrants' life was taken over by e-mails and conference calls, as he coordinated with the volunteer chairpersons of the many Skill Stations, making sure that the proper skills would be tested, enough qualified judges would be available, the proper equipment would be available in sufficient quantities, and that everything could fit in the convention hall in Valley Forge.

"The hardest part for me was understanding what were the skill sets that you, as an industry, wanted the technicians to demonstrate to you in this competition, and how we could make them as generic as possible, so they weren't manufacturer-specific, so there wasn't any unfair advantage to one person or the other," Arrants explains. "Being an automotive person, I didn't understand a lot about the diesel industry, and it still is a fairly high learning curve for me. Some of the stuff related fairly easily—HVAC, electrical—but certain areas were completely different."

SKILL STATIONS

The 67 contestants, many of whom were corporate, state and regional technician skills winners, started out with a written test. Contestants with the top 50 scores moved on the following day to the hands-on test, consisting of eight skill stations that tested competitors on: Electronic Troubleshooting; Brakes; HVAC; Engine; Steering/Suspension; Preventive Maintenance Inspection; Drivetrain; and Service Information.

"I was nervous all day long," Talmadge recalls. "I would settle down a little bit, but then when the next station rolled around I would get nervous again."

Like the other competitors, Talmadge was often tested on equipment he had never worked on, but like a true champion, he didn't let that that hold him back. "I work for a Volvo dealership, and we don't do Detroit Diesel warranty anymore, so I had never seen a DDEC V engine," he says. Despite that handicap, Talmadge correctly diagnosed the DDEC engine to win the Engine Skill Station.

Talmadge overcame more difficulties—with unfamiliar software, inexperience diagnosing transmissions, and a slack adjuster that he installed on the wrong side of the axle and had to reinstall—to win the top prize, a trip to the Daytona 500 and a massive Snap-on Tool box. And he's ready to come back again next September, when TMC's SuperTech2006 will be held in Austin, TX.

A ROUND OF APPLAUSE

"We believe that the first TMC SuperTech was an unqualified success," says TMC's Braswell. "I knew it was going to be well received and well executed; what did surprise me was the growth in the interest, and the volunteerism, from people that were outside our traditional base, folks that did not necessarily come to TMC meetings. That was a pleasant surprise; it's something to build on for the future."

George Arrants will be back next fall, for sure, with this message to every technician who wishes to compete: "The competition is designed to help you and other people understand the value that you bring, not only to your company, to the industry, but to our country as providing a service, not only of repair, but of safety, for the people that drive these trucks up and down the road."

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