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Looking for ways to sharpen your career skills? Concerned about the negative image of the fleet maintenance technician? Want to learn new ways to run your fleet more efficiently? The solutions to your problems may be right in your back yard! State and regional Maintenance Councils are coming back and getting stronger than ever. Here's a look at what's happening across the country: FINDING A TOP TECH The State of Arkansas is a "breeding ground" for trucking companies, according to Tim Wilson. As P.A.M. Transportation's maintenance trainer, Wilson should know. In his corner of the state alone, he counts J.B. Hunt, Wal-Mart, Tyson and U.S. Truck as neighbors and colleagues. It should come as no surprise then, that the State's newly-formed Maintenance Council is thriving. What may be surprising, however, is that this one-year-old Maintenance Council has already hosted its first successful state technician championship. Wilson, a Maintenance Council board member, has been involved from day one. "When the idea came up on the floor about doing a championship, of course we all agreed that that was what we needed to do," he says. "The technician gets very little recognition," Wilson explains, "and this was one way that the council thought we could say thanks and say, 'Look, this not a grease monkey job; this is actually a technical trade, and this is our way of proving it.'" As a member of the steering committee, Wilson played a role in setting up the competition's rules. "We said that the company that sends its technicians must be a member of the Arkansas Maintenance Council, and the company had to sponsor their technician. "There was a two-fold idea there," he says. "One was to get companies that didn't belong to the Council to join up; and then the other was to be able to promote our technicians that are part of the Council." Going by the first year's results, both goals seem to have been accomplished. According to Jim Robertson, fleet maintenance superintendent for McKee Foods, 27 technicians competed in the contest, and several new fleets and vendors have joined the Arkansas Maintenance Council as a result of the event. As general chairman for the 2005 competition, Robertson reports that changes are in store for the next event, to be held in Springdale, AR. Among them is the addition of a separate tire technician competition. "For most of us, that's our number two cost," he explains. "We get a lot of support from those tire folks, and a lot of fleets have tire professionals, so we thought that would be a good addition to the competition." There are also plans to invite family members to accompany the competing technicians this year, and to publicize the event better. "We didn't do a real good job of getting the word out after the event took place," Robertson admits. "One of the things we plan to do to improve things this year is to try and get everybody we can involved to do the press interviews." For Robertson, there were many lessons learned from the first championship. "Last year, engines were probably the most challenging," he recalls. "One of the things that made it very challenging was the navigation through the PC diagnostic tools. A lot of technicians aren't familiar with all the engines out there, and to keep it fair, as the technicians rolled into that category, we didn't let them pick the engine they wanted to diagnose. They were given a judge and the judge walked them to the engine he was judging. They worked their way through, some a lot faster than others, depending on how familiar they were with that system." Some other test results have changed the way Robertson does business at the McKee Foods maintenance shop: "Just from the general numbers, I saw some things that keyed me into where we need to focus more training this year," he explains. "There were a couple of issues on air conditioning that people didn't score very well on; there were actually some areas in brakes that people didn't score well on. And the one that set me back more than anything was the PMI area, preventive maintenance inspections. There were very few high scores in that." With all these benefits, is it any surprise that Robertson had four of his technicians entered last year, and hopes to enter at least that many in 2005? "I hope that when our technicians get through this event that they go out and spread a positive message to other technicians on how they enjoyed it and how it was challenging," he says. "There's a change out there that our industry is really recognizing how crucial, how important our technicians are to us. I hope this improves the level of professionalism in that group, and gives them the recognition that is due to them." HEALTHY COMPETITION If truck drivers have competitions, why not truck technicians? That's the idea behind the Texas Fleet Maintenance Council's technician championship, a long-standing event held every summer in College Station, TX. "We've done the technician of the year competition for years," says John Whitten, CFM, director of fleet maintenance for Sysco Food Service of Dallas. "I remember in 1980 going to the first one, at a tech school. People kind of showed up for it; one year you might have eight, another you may have 15. And surprisingly, people would call me up and say 'When is that? I've got someone I'd like to enter in that.'" The Texas Maintenance Council consists of five local chapters: Dallas; Fort Worth; East Texas; San Antonio; and Houston. Because the competition includes technicians from all five chapters, a written pre-test event is held at Cummins dealerships around the state. The top 30 scorers then advance to the state test. "There are ten problems, where they have 15 minutes with each problem, and then rotate," he explains. "We do it with 30 technicians, and it's tough to stick everyone in!" If time is tight, space is not. The competition is held inside a WWII-vintage aircraft hangar, big enough for trucks, and equipped to allow the operation of test engines. The competition starts at eight in the morning, goes until 5:30 in the evening, and concludes with an awards dinner. At the end of a very long day, a plaque is presented to the top scorer at each of the ten workstations, and cash awards go to the top five technicians. "We have ten problems with 100 maximum points, so there are 1,000 maximum points," Whitten says. "We have technicians that score in the 800s, and sometimes it's very tight. Last year a Cummins technician from Dallas won it. We think it's geared to the vendors, but every few years we have a fleet guy come in and win it, so it blows that out of the water." Competitions aren't the only things this Maintenance Council excels at. The organization's Maintenance Certification program is vetted by no less an educational establishment than Texas A&M University. Whitten has first-hand experience with the Certification program as well, as the CFM behind his name attests. He was part of the initial ten-member team that developed the certification curriculum. "They were fleet maintenance people, at a director level, all very well qualified in different ways," he explains. After two days of classes, Whitten and his nine colleagues took the written test, and as a group certified each other with the Certified Fleet Maintenance (CFM) title. Since then Whitten estimates that the Council has certified 20 people. Today the Council offers two Certification levels: the "Director's level," and a lower, "Practitioner level." Candidates are required to take a two-day class in the spring, followed by a written test. In preparation for a final interview at the Texas Maintenance Council's annual meeting, held every October in Kerrville, TX, the candidates prepare a resume and submit three letters of recommendation. "At the annual meeting we have a review board, and we personally interview these candidates," Whitten explains. "The interview takes 45 minutes, and from there we take a vote on whether or not we'll give that certification out." In addition to the prestige conveyed by the Certification, there is a practical value to the CFM title. According to Whitten, insurance companies and lawyers are looking more and more at maintenance records in the event of a truck-related collision, and the Certifications help to establish the reliability of a company's maintenance work. "I had an individual tell me that they had a failure on some axles, and they were suing some people," Whitten relates. "He said the lawyer was asking him his background and credentials, and asked him specifically about this CFM certification. He told the lawyer what kind of certification it was, and that it was through Texas A&M, so the lawyer dismissed him and said he had no further questions for him. He wasn't interested in talking to him any more." BRINGING FRIENDS TOGETHER For all the miles that separate fleets in the western states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, the fleet managers in those states are a pretty tight-knit group. A lot of the credit for that can go to the Rocky Mountain Fleet Management Association (RMFMA), a chartered organization that has been bringing colleagues together for training and networking since 1976. According to executive director Joe O'Neill, there's a reason why RMFMA is still going strong after nearly three decades when other state fleet organizations falter: "The secret is the strength of our chapters," he says. "We have one in each of the four states, and we're looking to expand into New Mexico." Every year, each state holds four quarterly meetings, and the attendance figures are impressive. A typical Arizona or Colorado chapter meeting will have 100 or more attendees, according to O'Neill, while a Utah chapter meeting will regularly bring in 80 or 90 members. Even a Nevada quarterly meeting will average 35 to 40 members. A typical chapter meeting will last a full day, and will consist of several training sessions. "They may bring in a consultant, or they may do technical training on hydraulics or electrical systems or computer systems," O'Neill says. "They'll generally have at least one or two presentations by their sponsors, who will talk about what's happening with General Motors or Ford or DaimlerChrysler or Allison Transmissions or somebody else who is in the business of marketing products or services to the fleet world. "Plus, we have a regional conference and trade show once a year," he continues. "It rotates among the four states, so every state chapter is further brought together every four years to put together a convention. We generally get 100 and some participants there, and 200 to 300 fleet managers from the region." Those are pretty impressive numbers to rack up year after year, but, again, O'Neill credits the camaraderie of the group and the quality of the training classes. "We get into pretty good depth in terms of giving people not only fleet tools, but business tools, and personnel management items especially," he says. As if that weren't enough, RMFMA offers several different levels of Fleet Certification. First is an overall Fleet Certification that is offered in partnership with Mesa, AZ-based Fleet Counselor Services. Fleets participating in this program are evaluated on 18 criteria; once a fleet operation reaches a certain level of performance in the core criteria, that fleet is certified. "It answers the question, 'Okay, I know you're a hotshot, but how do I know if you're doing the job or not?'" says O'Neill. "This answers the question in terms of comparing a fleet's operation against what have been established as world-class standards." Individual fleet professionals can earn certifications offered by RMFMA in conjunction with Kelly Walker Associates of Dallas, TX. Three levels of certification are offered: Professional Fleet Manager; Advanced Professional Fleet Manager; and a Master Certification. "This is very popular," O'Neill states. "The Utah chapter is going through it pretty much en masse; they've got, I think, 33 people signed up. Arizona has a similar number that's going through." Although the certification program is only 14 months old, O'Neill has already started to see job announcements in the region indicating that a certified fleet professional is desirable. "If you have three applicants for a job, and one of them is certified, which one are you going to hire?" he asks. CAREER BUILDER Membership in a local maintenance council can be a career builder not just for new technicians, but for more experienced maintenance professionals as well. Warren Lang, a self-described "graybeard" in the fleet maintenance world, is a case in point. The fleet manager for the City of Peoria, AZ, a rapidly growing suburb of Phoenix, Lang is responsible for 600 vehicles and ten maintenance technicians. After a long career managing both private and public fleets, Lang was looking for a way to improve his skills and stay on top of his game. After considering an MBA from Arizona State University, he opted for the newly developed "Master Certification" for fleet managers offered by the Rocky Mountain Fleet Management Association. Although he is soon to be the very first graduate of the Master's program, Lang has found the program anything but easy. "The first thing that arrives is a box with eight manuals and I can't remember how many thousands of pages to go through," Lang explains. "It's very extensive relating to fleet operations, both private and public sector. "I let it sit on my shelf behind my desk for six months," he admits, "and I finally decided that the only way I can get these to the other shelf was to start devoting two to three hours a week, or more if I could manage it, to read the volumes and go on to the written test. And I took a lot of notes, and thought that once I got to the written portion it would be easy. Well, it wasn't quite that way." The written test consists of 25 to 30 questions, and because it's an open book test, Lang expected it to be "a snap." But he found that his day-to-day duties made the completion of the written test a challenge. "It turned out to be a very arduous process," he says. "It took me a good two months to finish the written portion of it. After completing the written test, Lang still wasn't finished with his Master's Certification. He is currently working on his "Master's Thesis," a written document in which he applies his coursework to a problem or issue he is dealing with in his city fleet. Lang's topic: operating his fleet like a private business within the structure of a government agency. "Sometimes I have writer's block, and I sit down and it won't come," he says. "But I started on it last week, and started making an outline, so it's coming together pretty good. "It really enhances your knowledge, because when you go through this you're taking down notes, and it sticks with you," Lang says of his thesis work. "We all know what we should do, but sometimes you get off the track a little bit. This brings back into focus what you should be doing. So you go back through and wonder, 'Why aren't we doing that here, because we could save a lot of money.'" Although Lang isn't yet Certified, the things he's learned in the program have already led to improvements in the city's maintenance process. He has changed the way city departments calculate their vehicle replacement rates, for instance, resulting in an average savings of 10 percent in replacement costs. More savings will materialize from greater shop efficiencies Lang has realized as a result of his studies. "It forced us to look at our operations and ask what were our efficiencies? How are our guys doing compared to benchmarks out there?" he asks. "We're using 1,600 billable hours per year as our standard. Our billable hours are up to 1,575 hours per technician, on average, from where' when I first got here we had one technician who was billing 500 hours a year. "So what we can do right now is, if somebody quits or retires, we will not replace him," Lang says. "We'll keep the opening, but we won't fill the position, because we've improved our efficiencies so much. We've calculated it out many times, and we can do what we do with one less person on staff. That's a considerable amount for us." That's quite a feat, considering the fleet grows 10 to 15 percent annually to keep up with the city's growth. Looking ahead, Lang's Master's Certification will put him in a better position to address the growing demands of his fleet operations. "The Master's Certification is an excellent way to keep yourself on top of what's happening in the workplace," he says, "because the environment is changing so much." HOW TO START A STATE COUNCIL While local Maintenance Councils thrive in some states, they flounder in others. In Maryland, for instance, the old State Maintenance Council fell on hard times in the 1990s, then disappeared altogether. "It was well-attended, participation was quite large, until the early- to mid-nineties," recalls Craig Talbott, vice president of safety for the Maryland Motor Truck Association (MTA), which operated the Maintenance Council. "If you look historically at the maintenance aspect, a lot of companies began to outsource some of their work at that time, instead of having their own mechanics and garages. I think a lot of the attendance started slipping at that time." Over the past decade, Talbott has watched as more and more fleets in his state opt out of long-term truck ownership, going for short-term trade-in cycles or lease arrangements instead. If the fleets dispose of the trucks before the warranties expire, there's no need for them to have a maintenance program, or people to run it. Meanwhile, Talbott has been working to strengthen the Maryland Safety Management Council, especially in the post-9/11 era of trucking security concerns. With greater participation has come a greater interest in maintenance-related programs at Council meetings, such as regular maintenance presentations offered by ArvinMeritor. Talbott has realized that with maintenance and safety issues often so closely related, it may be time to bring back the Maryland Maintenance Council, using the Safety Council as a springboard. "We cover several topics that are of interest to folks in the maintenance field, so why not combine the Councils?" he asks. At the December, 2004, meeting of the Safety Management Council, Talbott brought in Chuck Wittenburg of MeritorWABCO to give a presentation on air brake maintenance, and found there was support among the membership for more of the same. "There were about twenty-five people there," Talbott says. "Everybody really enjoyed the training, and I said, 'Would you guys be willing to come to a meeting once every two or three months, just to be updated on maintenance?' "The folks all said yes, they'd like to have more programs," he says. "We didn't have a bad word about it. That surprised me; you always get some dissenters, no matter what the program is." According to Talbott, there were maintenance technicians with 25 years of heavy truck experience who learned new tricks that night. "One guy was having a problem with a foot valve that was leaking," he explains. "Turned out it really wasn't the foot valve; it was the relay valve in back that was kicking back with back pressure." Not a bad return on a $25 dollar session fee. It's no wonder there were no dissenters when Talbott asked the audience if they'd come back for more technical sessions. "It really puts more fire and enthusiasm into me. These guys really do want this," Talbott says. His job now is to talk to other maintenance professionals around the state and talk up the idea of a new Council. "The folks I'm contacting are some of the larger carriers that do have maintenance shops," he explains. "I'm contacting their maintenance managers and operations managers-folks who have demonstrated a desire to be more educated on maintenance, whether it be regulatory requirements from the government or manufacturers' recommendations on how to deal with the replacement of a transmission or the replacement of an air brake system, or something along those lines." Talbott knows he'll have to have something worthwhile to offer if he hopes to get maintenance professionals interested in attending on a regular basis. "I understand that folks wear a lot of hats these days, from seven o'clock in the morning 'til six in the evening, then you're going to come out for another two or three hours for a meeting, it's not something you really want to do," he says. "You have to have some kind of hook." Down the line, Talbott envisions the State Maintenance Council offering a certification program, similar to those offered by the Texas Maintenance Council and the Rocky Mountain Fleet Management Association. "I've looked at that before," he says. "I've often thought, what a great way that is to present training information, by tying it to some sort of certification, other than from the company you work for." What it all comes down to is offering more services to the truck maintenance community in Maryland. If Talbott succeeds in reviving the Maryland Maintenance Council, it will be because he found the right "hook" to get people interested and involved. If he can do that-and there's no reason to think he won't-he may just pave the way for other states to do the same.