When Allen Wrench shows up on their computer screens, United Parcel Service employees know that training help is on the way. The diminutive and congenial Allen Wrench, no relation to Mr. Goodwrench, is an animated character designed by UPS training professionals to gingerly guide workers through computerized training programs.

His schedule is busy; at any one time, about 50,000 to 60,000 UPS workers are being trained with company-produced CDs and, to a lesser extent, web-based programs, according to Ginnie Myhr, a training manager based in Paramus, NJ. “Internet-based programs would be desirable, but many hourly workers don't have Internet access.”

UPS has been using computer-based training since 1988. The company's staff of 34 programmers, graphic artists and designers is currently working on about 30 different programs, much of it in response to calls asking for updates of older programs or new programs aimed at teaching workers how to operate UPS's proprietary systems for loading, unloading and driving trucks, as well as repairing and maintaining equipment.

“For us, company-wide job consistency is an issue,” says Myhr, who, along with her colleagues, endeavors to put on the computer screen a true simulation of what workers will do on their jobs or, if the job consists of using a computer, what they will see on their screen during the work day.

According to Myhr, computer-based training is much more efficient and yields better results than paper manuals, which are still used if the end user audience is small. For example, one UPS job is ‘flow controller,’ a person who monitors belts and other package handling equipment. “There are not enough people doing this job to put it online or on a CD,” says Myhr.

Computer-based training takes two major forms, CDs and Internet-based, each with its own pros and cons. CDs allow streaming audio and video — much like a television set — with excellent graphics and interactivity with the student, who can answer questions or see the results of different scenarios based on his or her input. The big drawback to CDs is that they could be out of date in several months or a year. Another is the high cost of duplication and distribution.

Internet-based training's most important advantage is that materials can be changed quickly as the need arises and distribution costs are negligible. Online manuals and product troubleshooting alerts can be inserted into maintenance training materials immediately, and real-time instructor help can be available through the ’Net as well.

Unfortunately, the Internet's biggest drawback is that many non-office-based workers don't have high speed connections or even dial-up access in their work area, although most can get their hands on a laptop computer for CD-based training if necessary.

As a result, carriers choose the computer-based training media that works best for their particular situation. Smithway Motor Xpress, Fort Dodge, IA, has been using computer-based training — much of it company produced and placed on CDs — to teach load securement procedures. The company has seen claims in that area drop 87%, according to Kevin Andrew, director of driver personnel and training.

In addition, training costs have dropped remarkably, too. “It used to cost about $1,000 to train each driver. Now it costs only $150.” Andrew, who has a teaching background, attributes most of the savings to how quickly drivers learn the material using computers compared to classroom lectures and on-the-job training.

“Drivers can learn more in a two-day class than in two weeks on the road,” he says. Andrew adds that 130 drivers have taken the course, which currently is prepping them for the new load securement regulations that take effect in July.

Like most other trainers, Andrew pegs the speed and success of computer-based training to several factors. First, employees can learn at their own pace and on their own schedule. With many drivers taking laptop computers with them on the road, they can study coursework during their downtime.

Also, computer training keeps track of what students have learned, how fast it took them to absorb the material and which subject areas gave them trouble. This monitoring and statistical analysis feature allows trainers to give employees additional help precisely where it's needed.

Most important, computer-training courses don't let students jump ahead until they've completed prerequisite work or gained a specific knowledge base. This is crucial, trainers say, because it prevents gaps in a worker's understanding of material that could cause safety lapses on the job. Smithway is constructing a new terminal that will include a computer room aimed at training drivers, maintenance workers and others.

Sometimes, computer-based training courses extend beyond their intended audience. Tim Jenkins, vp-human resources and safety at O&S Trucking, Springfield, MO, has been using a CD program called Daily Dispatch Challenge, produced by the Truckload Academy, part of the Truckload Carriers Assn. Since it debuted last fall, 45 companies have purchased copies, which cost between $1,295 and $1,795. The program was designed to teach dispatching skills, with simulated situations, but is being used to train workers in other areas.

Using real-life dispatching scenarios, the Daily Dispatch Challenge teaches dispatchers how to communicate clearly to drivers and relate to someone they may never have met. This is a skill that is imperative for dispatchers and crucial for other jobs as well, says Jenkins. “We have put people from our accounting and safety maintenance departments through the program because it teaches you how to listen first and communicate clearly.”

“Trucking is really a communications business,” notes Jenkins. “If we focused more on communications, many of our problems would go away.”

Jerry Umthun, director of operations for Smithway, has been in the trucking business for 31 years and has seen the same phenomenon with this program. “It teaches communications skills and helps people bridge differences in culture, education and geography. It teaches you what to say and how to say it and to make yourself understood without the help of body language. It also teaches dispatchers and other workers how to be geographically smart, such as knowing the mileage and driving distances between cities.”

Umthun notes that computer-based training saves the company money because it minimizes downtime. “We used to send people to seminars and they would lose entire days. Now we do training in our office, and some drivers learn on the road using their laptops,” he says.

Trainers agree that computer-aided study is crucial to attracting and teaching younger workers who were brought up on the faster pace of television and the Internet. “Younger workers are turned off by old methods of learning like sitting in a classroom and listening to someone talk,” says Jenkins. “They like PC training, but it's got to be exciting and interesting, too.”

One trend in computer-based training is cross-fertilization of training products from other industries. Company officials at FSI Training Solutions, Hurst, TX, a division of FlightSafety International, realized that what was most important to repair technicians was not that they understood their specific equipment (although that's certainly important), but that they understood the overall process of troubleshooting.

How you problem-solve cuts across all equipment, whether it's part of an airplane or a truck. In fact, the level of complexity, especially in areas such as electrical wiring, often is comparable, as are the safety imperatives in fixing it right the first time.

“Teaching is a process, and it's not just about components,” says Lonnie Williams, program manager of training plans. For example, he says that many truck technicians swap out alternators at the drop of hat. It's a simple solution to certain electrical problems and is the culprit as much as 80% of the time. But what about the other 20%? Technicians are often stumped. “We want to take technicians out of their comfort zone so they can't just fall back on their experience,” he says.

The program, called Principles of Troubleshooting, is taught in a two-and-one-half day course that is held for two to three hours a day either on site, at FSI or over the Internet. Williams says an instructor is always on site, or available through an audio link or by phone during distance learning sessions.

For electrical systems, students practice tracing circuits for generic truck engine configurations. Technicians may work on turn signal systems or circuits involving starters or lighting. The computer program can simulate more than 20 different scenarios such as open circuits, grounded circuits or misplaced connections, and teaches students how to distinguish among various situations. At the end of the session, a cost analysis of the debugging process is shown, including how many hours it took to fix the problem.

J.B. Hunt is the first truck carrier to use the software, but officials have not yet made public their results.

Computer-based training is also finding its way to the world of manuals. Company officials of two-year old OneCARE Inc. (www.onecare.com), Eatontown, NJ, say they can take any company's manual and convert it to software for viewing on the web. It can include audio and streaming video. The conversion cost is about $15,000 for a 50-page online SMARTManual that can show components from every vantage point. The software also allows for restricted access to certain parts of the manual so a transmission technician, for instance, could be limited to transmission-related pictures and diagrams.

The company has three customers, with Caterpillar Truck Engine Div. the first and only one in the truck industry. Caterpillar is using the SMARTManual for its Driver Comfort Control System, and has made it available on a new web site: cattruckengines.com/buy stuff. The goal is to offer online product support that will allow technicians and dealers guidance on installation, maintenance and repair.

“The return on investment is in showing customers that we're easy to do business with,” says Dave Semlow, marketing manager for Caterpillar Truck Engine. “Customers don't have to keep manuals around the shop, and drivers don't have to take them on the road.”

Semlow says the company's printed manuals are often out of date in three to six months. An online product, on the other hand, allows customers to see the latest changes and receive urgent product alerts right away. In addition, paper manuals have to include several different models of a product in one volume, but online manuals can be customized for a specific user.

The company currently is working on a lease rental manual and expects to spend about $30,000, which is significantly cheaper than the $250,000 it would cost to produce and mail a paper version.

Because of its great versatility, Internet-based training will one day be the standard medium for all industries, including trucking. For the foreseeable future, though, progress is being held up by slow or nonexistent access in many work areas. Until widespread broadband access in the form of telephone digital subscriber lines, cable, wireless or even satellite connections become more available to individual workers, most trainers will stick with CD products.

Most users tell us they would much rather use the web for training — if only they could access it,” says Ginnie Myhr.