Chapter & Verse

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It relates to that old saying: if you give a man a fish, he has one meal. But if you teach a man to fish, he can feed himself for a lifetime.” –Steve Bertrand, Midwest district service manager for Peterbilt Motors Co. and one of the judges at the Rush Trucks Centers 2011 Technician Skills Rodeo

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Every year that I’ve attended Rush Trucks Centers’ annual Technician Skills Rodeo, I make a special effort to grab Steve Bertrand – one of the judges and creator of many of the insidious challenges the techs must solve – for a few minutes to discuss some of the trends affecting the parts and service corner of the trucking business.

The biggest issue hanging over everyone in this space, of course, remains the ever growing shortage of technicians of all stripes – a bad omen for fleets and dealerships alike, which both rely on keeping trucks up and running to make a living.

Obviously, the industry is hard at work trying to solve the shortage – especially by forging partnerships with vocational schools around the country, while simultaneously encouraging more high school kids to take a stab at a vocational career (with similar efforts being concocted to counter the growing shortage of trucks drivers as well).

Yet such efforts to “grow” a new generation of technician’s takes time – a lot of time, actually – and the industry simply has too much work to do right now to wait for such seeds to eventually bloom. So, what to do about meeting the heavy level of current demand?

From where Bertrand sits, only one option is available: increase technician efficiency and productivity. Now, that doesn’t necessarily translate into working more hours. Rather, it means dialing up technician “self-sufficiency,” so they can diagnose and repair problems largely on their own, without tying up scarce shop resources (most notably the precious time of their fellow techs) to help them get the job done.

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That’s why the focus of RTC’s annual Tech Skills Rodeo – now in its sixth year – isn’t about anointing the technician who completes the repair in the least amount of time as the winner. Indeed, Bertrand told me completing the repair within the 45 minute time limit is almost a secondary consideration in this contest.

“What we want to see – and what we award the most points for – is whether technicians perform the repair the right way in the most efficient manner,” he explained. “We want them to be able to keep moving independently on a repair project; to know where to go on the internet for information sources, where to finding and how to interpret electrical wiring schematics and other drawings, how and where to get the build papers for a specific truck. Things like that.”

The goal, Bertrand told me, is to transform today’s technician into an independent “detective” of sorts, who can tap into a wide range of resources without any major assistance to run down the clues that – hopefully – result in getting a truck back up and running.

[For example, Bertrand added an unusual wrinkle to one of the tests he created for the refuse section of the competition to emphasize the technician’s ability to factor in “unorthodox” information sources into their problem solving matrix …]

Even component suppliers are working to encourage the same line of critical thinking. For example, at this year’s competition, Eaton designed a test whereby technicians had to rebuild a shift bar housing – the top shifting part of a truck transmission – using a driveline angle or “DVA” analysis web tool to verify they’ve properly completed the repair.

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The interesting thing with this test is that typically a dealership or fleet can order the entire housing unit as a complete package and swap it out with the one causing trouble. However, in terms of warranty cost, only particular pieces of the component within the housing are covered, so dealers and fleets alike need to become more adept at disassembling and then rebuilding such units on their own in order to keep costs down.

[By the way, if you were wondering, it costs a lot of money on a yearly basis to provide technicians with the training to do all of this. Mike Besson, RTC’s vp-service operations, told me his company spends an average of $2.5 million annually on training to support its 1,100-plus technician corps.]

While it takes a lot of time and effort (not to mention money) to help technicians reshape how they approach the time-honored task of getting trucks back up and running, Bertrand noted that annual skills contests like what RTC puts on every year helps spread the “chapter & verse” message regarding how technicians should approach their jobs in this day and age.

“The technicians competing here see what we’re after and they take that information back to their shops, spreading it like pollen among their peers,” he told me. “That’s how our message concerning the way technicians need to start thinking about how they work will spread.”

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