Technician Training: Building a maintenance team

Technicians are paramount to keeping equipment and a facility up and running. Here’s a look at how two industry leaders recruit, train and retain their “A” team.

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It’s an age old problem in professional sports: A coach puts together a winning team only to have his best players look to free agency for more money at the end of the season. Yet, somehow the best coaches seem to find a way to recruit, train and retain a winning team.

The same is true of a materials handling maintenance team. Technicians have been described as a nomadic lot: After doing the same thing for a few years, they move on to work on new equipment or they get the entrepreneurial bug and open their own shops. Yet, good organizations find ways to keep a winning maintenance team together.

What then are the best practices associated with building and maintaining a first-rate MRO team? We posed that question to Mike Romano and Tim Buhr. Romano is the president and CEO of Chicago-based Associated Integrated Supply Chain Solutions, one of the largest distributors of lift trucks and materials handling equipment and systems in the country. Buhr is the director of field service for OPEX, a manufacturer and integrator of highly automated order fulfillment solutions.

Both organizations view maintenance services, and their technical teams, as competitive weapons in a market where equipment and parts have become commoditized. Both have also developed programs and strategies to recruit, train and retain their talent. Here are some of the best practices they have developed.

Recruiting: According to Buhr, OPEX recruits technicians from three different areas. One successful area is the pool of military technicians who are now looking for civilian jobs. To date, OPEX has done this primarily by word of mouth, relying on technicians and regional service managers who are ex-military and may still have connections with service personnel because of their military backgrounds. A second source is customers with a declining business that may be laying off their technical teams. For instance, in addition to materials handling customers, OPEX has customers in the payment processing industry who have trained experienced technicians who are facing a layoff. They’re familiar with the kinds of technologies that OPEX deploys. Last, OPEX recruits from technical schools located in the 19 regional territories where the company maintains a field service presence. One note of caution: “One of the things we’ve found is that some tech schools advertise compensation levels that are higher than the market to attract new students,” Buhr says. “The entry-level pay range can be a reality shock for some of these kids.”

Romano believes that awareness of the materials handling industry—and Associated—is the first step in a successful recruitment strategy. “You have to build relationships at the source because then the schools may be open to creating a curriculum that prepares the students for a job with our organization,” he says. Over the years, Associated has built those relationships by donating lift trucks and materials handling equipment to tech school schools; sponsoring a classroom or lunch room where a wall is dedicated to the materials handling industry; sponsoring field trips to its facilities and by sending its personnel into classrooms to give presentations. Most importantly, Associated finds about 80% of its new hires from tech school programs. “If you can show them a way to place their students, they’ll greet you with open arms,” he says. As a result of relationships, Romano says, schools have introduced new elements into their curriculum, such as course work on people and reporting skills. “We’ve had new students who did great technical work, but couldn’t get their paperwork done,” he says. “And, technicians are ambassadors in the field. Knowing how to deal with a customer is really key.”

Training: Even the best students or experienced technicians may not be up to speed on the equipment and technologies used by the customers of Associated and OPEX. What’s more, technology is always evolving. As a result, training is an ongoing process.

At Associated, new hires go through 12 to 16 weeks of classroom and supervised training. “Most of these kids have been trained in areas like hydraulics, but they haven’t applied it in the real world,” Romano says. “We start them out in the classroom and then put them in the field under strict guidance while auditing their work. We then withdraw the guidance as they become more self-sufficient.”

OPEX also places a premium on its “investment in training,” Buhr says. New hires go to the corporate office in New Jersey where they are cross-trained on all of OPEX’s equipment, and not just its materials handling systems or payment processing equipment. “That gives us more flexibility to support our customer base and makes them more valuable to OPEX,” Buhr says. Ongoing training is done on an as-needed basis, based on the introduction of new products and the need in the field. Beyond technical capabilities, Buhr says that OPEX views its company culture as a factor that separates OPEX from the competition. These include a set of nine corporate values and corporate principles. “We are constantly communicating those to our employees, including our technicians,” Buhr says. “One of the most important is to recognize the value of the individual, and we really try to live that.”

Retention: As with sports, retaining the best team members is a challenge and a key to the success of an organization. It will come as no surprise then that both Romano and Buhr have developed strategic retention efforts. While they each have their own distinct initiatives, the one best practice they share in common is to create a meaningful career path for their technicians.

In many respects, OPEX’s strategy is to be the employer of choice for its technicians, especially those who may look to see if the grass is greener somewhere else. That begins with an annual merit review that is tied to an increase in pay. “In some years, the merit increase may be modest, depending on how the company is doing, but our technicians know that at the least, they’re going to get a merit raise,” Buhr says. “Some have family members and family who have gone years without a merit increase.” Similarly, OPEX strives to limit as much as possible the cost to employees of benefits like health and dental insurance. “When they compare their payroll deduction to their friends, we want to be more competitive than other employers,” Buhr says.

The corporation recognizes one to two technicians per region per year who have had an exceptionally good year. Potential recipients are nominated by a regional service manager to Buhr and the national service manager. Gold and silver members get a medallion and a bonus; the gold member winners get an overnight trip with their spouse.

The last is personal to Buhr: He makes an effort to visit each of the 19 regional territories once a year so that he can shake the hand of every technician. “I make it a priority to remember their names because there is no sweeter word in any language than an individual’s name,” Buhr says. “I want to demonstrate that I value them as individuals.”

At Associated, Romano believes the key to keeping good talent is to create a meaningful career path, especially for young technicians who are launching their careers. “We have people who have been here for 35 years as technicians because that’s what they like to do,” Romano says. “But I also have kids who started with us just seven or eight years ago who are now field service managers. That ability to grow in their role is something that Millennials are looking for.”

Typically, new hires start out working on lower levels of materials handling equipment, such as the simpler lift trucks and rudimentary materials handling products like automated ladders and dock equipment. From there, a technician might graduate to wire-guided and narrow aisle lift trucks, then to semi-automated systems like vertical lift modules and carousels and other pre-engineered systems. Finally, they’ll be trained on highly automated systems such as conveyors, sortation, automated storage and automatic guided vehicles. “We tell our technicians that it is really up to them what level they’d like to aspire to,” Romano says. “However, we have growing activity on the automation side of our business because many of our customers would rather rely on an effective vendor program than train their own technicians. For those technicians who want to accomplish something, we’ll provide the career path.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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Article Topics

MRO · MRO September 2016 · OPEX · · All Topics
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