"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." So goes the inscription on the New York City Post Office (attributed to Herodotus) that has become the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service (USPS). That same spirit is in evidence at the USPS' National Center for Employee Development (NCED), where it seems nothing can keep a corps of dedicated educators from their appointed rounds.
Situated in Norman, OK, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, the NCED is a sprawling complex that combines the best attributes of a modern college campus and a well-equipped technical school, to provide training to USPS employees at every level.
"You can describe this place to people," says Training Manager Bonne Karim, "but until they actually see it, they just can't comprehend."
To say that the Postal Service has training figured out is an understatement. On the grounds of the NCED, any USPS employee, whether a mail clerk, a computer programmer, a manager or a vehicle maintenance technician can receive training that covers everything from basic job skills to management development. And the resources they have to work with would make any trainer, or student, green with envy.
It all started when the USPS leased the top few floors of an unused dormitory from the University of Oklahoma in 1969. In time the training center took over the entire dormitory, then spread to a dozen other leased buildings throughout the city, including a vacant church, an airplane hangar and a cafeteria. By 1987, the powers that be decided that enough was enough; the USPS consolidated the facilities, and the new NCED campus was built.
Today the main campus covers 72 acres, and houses over 45 classrooms and 23 labs, a distance learning center, satellite TV broadcasting system, and an on-site hotel with a cafeteria, gym and pool.
That's what you call a training center.
BRICK AND MORTAR
Once you get over the sheer scale of the place, you quickly realize that the real wonder of the NCED is not the building but the people who work and learn there.
Bonne Karim is a prime example. She has worked at the NCED since 1972, where she started out as an industrial engineer working on training programs to get USPS employees indoctrinated into the Service's first major automation program. "My first job was to figure out what kind of skills technical people needed and then to develop the training programs," she explains. "We're dedicated to promoting from within, so we'll take someone who's a custodian, a clerk or a laborer or a letter carrier, and we'll teach them the technical skills rather than hiring from outside. My job was to evaluate the technicians and find out what skills they needed, and come up with training programs to move people into those jobs."
The USPS develops its own training classes, but they depend on OEM support. All new vehicle purchase contracts include training requirements. The NCED instructors receive training on all the major components and systems in the new vehicles, right down to spare parts and diagnostic equipment.
"We have a requirement for consultation hours, so as my staff is developing the training they can go back to the engineers or the OEM's people and get necessary information,"Karim says. "That's what we're doing with International right now; they've come down here three different times and done training on different portions of the new vehicles."
Because Karim oversees both the gasoline and diesel vehicle maintenance training programs, she has seen a lot of people rise up through the ranks as a result of their NCED training, and she has seen a lot of changes in the vehicle maintenance field.
"In the late '80s we were largely a gasoline fleet, and diesels were confined to the big cities,"she recalls. "We did a big buy of what we call two-ton step vans, and that was the first time that we distributed diesels widely all over the country.
"So all of a sudden we had a lot of smaller garages that were getting diesel vehicles and didn't have people who had never worked on diesels before,"she goes on. "We had a lot of training to do, and mixed classes, where you had a guy who had been a diesel technician all his life and then guys who had never touched a diesel truck before. That was the first big change."
Today, Karim says, the USPS fleet is dealing with another change, one that's as big, if not bigger, than the changeover to diesel.
It can be summed up in one word that can either make a fleet maintenance manager's life a carefree wonderland, or an endless headache. The word is: computers.
In the next few years the USPS will be replacing the bulk of its fleet on both the diesel and the gasoline sides, and the proliferation of computers in the new vehicles has the NCED staff scrambling.
"We've got new cargo vans we that are so far out there and state-of-the-art that even the dealers are having a hard time repairing them under warranty,"says Karim. "My metaphor is 'We've gone kicking and screaming from dinosaurs to star wars.'"
Technical training instructor Bob Chambers agrees. "It's like going from conestoga wagons into the internal combustion era. It's almost that dramatic."
"The body computer on the new truck controls the air suspension, the tag axle, a lot of the lighting, the wiper system, the air conditioning—it even has a code for the dome light!"Chambers says. "It's things that we've never had to deal with before."
As a result, Karim and her staff have been focusing on electrical troubleshooting training. In fact, the basic classes are now prerequisites for all other vehicle maintenance courses.
"Basic analytical troubleshooting skills is a big one; getting people to think logically and apply problem solving skills,"says Karim. "You can teach people things by rote, but what happens when you get to the end of the diagnostics and you still have the problem? Especially since components are getting so expensive, it can eat up a lot of money if you're not troubleshooting wisely or making wise decisions."
"We strive to make the technicians realize that in the field, diagnosing the vehicle correctly is really important,"says technical training instructor Darrin Brewer. "If they just slap parts on it, that doesn't do anybody any good. When they come to the training center, we run them through the diagnostic procedure. That way if a vehicle comes in their stall, no matter what it is—electrical problems, driveability problems, engine control problems—they'll have the diagnostic routine to follow."
"Our technicians are more adept at electronics than they were five years ago,"adds Chambers. "We've been pushing very hard in the automotive electronics course, and it's brought a foundation of knowledge that they didn't have before."
According to Karim, there are always some experienced technicians who don't want to admit that they need to brush up on the basics. The course designers must make sure that the content satisfies the training needs of novice and expert alike.
"With all the courses in the light vehicle side, they're set up so that, whether the guy has six months' experience, or he has 40 years of experience, whether he's come out of a dealership or he's just moved into automotive, the courses are set up start to finish so that we don't leave anybody behind,"says Brewer.
As he and the other trainers have focused on the basic skills, they've realized that USPS technicians were sometimes missing some basic tools.
"We have had guys come through here, and they want to know where the test light is,"Chambers says. "They don't how to use a voltmeter."
"We call that 'Old School,' says Brewer. "We have to break that right up front."
Trouble is, when Karim started to investigate, she found that many technicians at USPS vehicle maintenance facilities across the country weren't using multimeters consistently.
"We were teaching people how to use meters and teaching them troubleshooting skills, and when they got home they didn't always have access to a meter,"she says. "We now purchase meters in bulk and actually give every student that graduates from electrical a meter to take back with them. It belongs to the Postal Service, but it's theirs to use as long as they're employed with us. We're trying to put the equipment in their hands so they can build on what they've learned, and reinforce their training when they got home."
Because the USPS promotes from within, the NCED offers management training as well, and sometimes even the managers need basic training.
According to Chambers, some veteran vehicle maintenance managers and lead technicians are thrown by the technology on the new fleet vehicles, and need to go back to school to learn what their technicians are working on.
"You get a truck in that's all electronic, and they don't know what it is, or how to fix it, and they get a little defensive,"he says. "The problem is, we need to keep the whole fleet administration abreast of these changes.
"That's a problem, because the technicians get back to their shops and they'll tell the supervisor, 'It needs to have this done because of the new ERG,' and they don't have a clue what the technician's telling them,"he says. "I know some supervisors who would probably say, 'There's no electrically-controlled turbo!' Well, yeah, there is. And it can be a real difficulty for the mechanics."
The solution? "We've got to train everybody,"Chambers states.
Surprisingly, one of Karim's difficulties is developing new managers for the vehicle maintenance facilities. Many USPS vehicle maintenance managers are close to retirement age, and new recruits have been hard to find.
"Something we're facing across the board in the Postal Service is that a lot of technicians and lower level people aren't interested in moving into the management ranks,"she explains. "It takes a different kind of person to be a manager; some people don't have the skills, and some people don't want the responsibility.
"I'm working on a new management development program as we speak, to clone our best fleet managers and train replacements for the future,"she says.
As the Postal Service prepares to replace both its light delivery vehicles and its heavy trucks, Karim and her maintenance trainers will face many challenges. New courses will have to be developed for advanced body and engine controls on the diesel side, and OBD III is looming over the gasoline side.
But as long as training continues to be a top priority, and as long as technicians continue to flock to Oklahoma for training, it's a sure bet that nothing will keep the USPS fleet from its appointed rounds.