Management & Operations

Getting Mechanics Plugged in with Training

Posted on April 28, 2008 by Alex Roman, Senior Editor

Back in the day, bus mechanics only had to worry about things such as keeping the vehicle in good working order, diagnosing problems and maintaining the parts maintenance schedule. If there were specific malfunctions, such as electrical problems, a specialized person with extensive electrical training was brought in to help.

Today, the modern bus has hundreds of electronics and electrical components on board, and mechanics need to become familiar with each piece to be able to identify problems ranging from engine and transmission glitches to HVAC system failures. This modernization of the bus coupled with an aging workforce, who weren’t required to be as knowledgeable in electronics/electrical issues in the past, has caused a large learning gap in the transit industry.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, many agencies are teaming up with area groups, training specialists and local colleges to develop training programs that begin with the fundamentals, then gradually build to a more advanced understanding of all necessary aspects of electrical/electronic equipment. Additionally, with a large set of baby boomers getting set to retire in the next five to ten years, agencies and their partners are working to develop apprenticeship and awareness programs to attract the young and skilled who have the desire and attitude to be trained to work in the transit industry.

Skills in demand

With the amount of electrical/electronic equipment in today’s modern bus nearly quadrupling the equipment on buses of the past, many mechanics have fallen short of building the skill sets necessary to solve issues when they arise. This dramatic need for new skills, which is driven by technology, as well as short supply of skilled mechanics, is often something that needs to be addressed by agencies with a limited amount of money budgeted for training.

“The transit industry as a whole has invested less than one-half of one percent of payroll in training, which is not going to get the job done,” says Brian Turner, director of the Transportation Learning Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public transportation at the national level, as well as within communities. Turner says the U.S. industry average for all industries is 2 percent of payroll, with the best spending between 4 percent and 6 percent.

Turner also says that with both bus and rail equipment being vastly different than it was 10 or 15 years ago, there is a, “need for new skill development that is acute and evident.”

Randy Premo, manager of technical training and support for the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) in Albany, N.Y., adds that the industry as a whole didn’t put enough focus on electrical/electronic equipment to begin with, and are now forced to play catch-up. He also says that workforce turnover is partly responsible for the learning gap. “We did a very good job for years, then things flipped a little bit and we started having a lot of guys retire,” he explains. “Before you knew it, we had a lot of junior guys on the floor without a whole lot of experience.”

In fact, many believe that as much as 40 percent of the mechanic workforce will be retiring in the next five to ten years, making it vitally important that those junior mechanics already in the industry and mechanics that are entering the industry get caught up to speed quickly.

“A lot of things have changed,” says Joe Cheney, deputy chief of operations, maintenance, at Orlando, Fla.-based LYNX. “The bar has been raised, as far as skill level goes, in order for mechanics to be successful.” Cheney adds that workforce turnover and rapid growth at the agency cause him to operate about nine mechanics short at any given time.

Addressing the need

With the proper training of mechanics playing such a large role in the agency’s bottomline, the industry has begun taking a major interest in addressing this need. Groups such as the Southern California Regional Transit Training Consortium (SCRTTC),,b> APTA, Aptrex Institute and the Transportation Learning Center have begun to build partnerships that are focused on creating standards for training.

“What we do is an annual assessment and gap analysis, then from there talk to the colleges and agencies to begin the development of coursework and identifying what courses are needed on a first priority,” explains ,b>Dave Stumpo, president and CEO of the Aptrex Institute. The institute is under contract with the SCRTTC, a group comprised of public transportation agencies and college members focused on the development and employment of training for the transit industry’s workforce so that it is proficient in standards, practices and procedures.

Stumpo adds that following the assessment and gap analysis, Aptrex then builds courses that are bottom-up driven. “Mechanics are involved with the supervisors at the transit system and the trainers and they bring to the table the ability to take part in the development of the training.”

Stumpo and The Transport Learning Center’s Brian Turner say that, like the curriculum built for the SCRTTC, successful training is equal parts theory and hands-on practice.

“A lot of training is often seen as not needed, not relevant or simply a waste of time, but when you design it with the people that are affected by it, you don’t get that,” Turner says. “There are numerous studies that say there is a big skill gap — a growing skill gap — and the best way to close it is through a joint labor management approach.”

Currently, the federal government will pay up to 80 percent of the cost to buy capital equipment, but doesn’t contribute any funds toward the people that keep it running; a practice that Turner says contributes to the lack of skilled, well-trained mechanics. “A freshman economist would tell you that the mismatch means you’re not going to get enough human capital, and that’s what we got. The discussion among many transit industry leaders is how you can begin to get support for human capital development, within federal transit legislation, so that mismatch doesn’t keep perpetuating itself into the future.”

In-house training

Some agencies have set up in-house training programs to help give their mechanics the best chance to succeed. CDTA’s Premo explains that the agency’s practice of promoting from within left them short of skilled, well-trained mechanics, because of a severe lack of training other than shadowing a senior mechanic. Premo assumed his position in 2003 and the agency has developed a tiered training program that begins with the introduction of electricity.

To reinforce the importance of training, CDTA also deviated a bit from its old practice of simply moving people up the ladder, by developing a labor-management partnership, known as Project Empire, which helps employees receive the training they need to give them the responsibility for their own success. The program consists of pre- and post-written tests, modules of training, — classroom and hands-on — tasks to be completed on the floor and performance-based tests before promotion. CDTA has expanded the program by partnering with groups such as local Amalgamated Transit Union chapters, the New York Public Transportation Association and a local community college.

“We’ve raised the level of expectation; we’re holding people accountable,” says Premo. “I don’t mean to sound harsh, but not everybody is cut out for this field. We have to make sure we’re doing the right job, because this is a safety-sensitive position.”

Providing support

Premo, who says he was overmatched when he initially was promoted to mechanic, says that it is important to give employees a chance to be successful. “We’re trying to break that barrier and provide the training and support mechanics need. It’s a horrible feeling to feel like you’re failing — I’ve been there myself,” he says. “On the other side, though, you have to let them know that there’s an expectation there as well, so you can work together to set that expectation.”

Orlando, Fla.’s LYNX is in the process of developing its own training program and also participates in the state’s maintenance training program, which is sponsored by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) through the Center for Urban Transit Research at the University of South Florida.

“Many of the properties that are in Florida are relatively small compared to larger metropolitan areas’ transit authorities, but collectively their numbers are equal to one of those,” says Cheney about the Florida training program. “By joining together and pulling resources, what we’re able to do is take subject matter experts from each one of the transit authorities and put together standard operating procedures and training modules.”

Many of the agencies in Florida have their own trainers; Cheney explains that LYNX has two on staff that work as subject matter experts in the development of training modules. Onsite classes are also held at LYNX that are open to all Florida transit authorities to participate. In fact, FDOT will pick up travel and hotel expenses, so that the transit agency is not burdened with the expense.

Cheney says training should always focus on the basics, with classroom training reinforced through practical applications the most effective. He adds that taking time to develop and deliver effective training modules will help agencies save money in the long run.

“Here’s the bottomline when you look at it from the 50,000-foot view,” says Cheney, “The people making a decision are responsible for approximately $3.5 million worth of parts inventory. If somebody is making that type of decision for you, then you want them to do their best.”

More partnerships

California-based ,b>Long Beach Transit (LBT) forged a partnership with Southern California Edison (SCE) to deliver a six-month training program that teaches mechanics how to diagnose and repair computer circuit boards, using a computer with special boards designed by SCE to help diagnose different types of components.

“We’ve actually taken the approach of managing our own boards and circuitry internally,” explains LBT’s Rolando Cruz, vice president and executive director, maintenance and facilities. “We have a couple of machines that enable us to do the work.”

The LBT/SCE partnership, which began six years ago but was only recently fine-tuned, trains up to eight individuals at a time in six-month windows. The program recently graduated its first group and is currently in the midst of beginning another class.

LBT’s electronic/electrical focus began more than nine years ago, when it set up its electronics and clean room so technicians could start repairing their own boards. Cruz says that the shop started off with about 22 different components that would come in to the shop to be repaired, but now can repair approximately 70 different components. Cruz approximates that the cost of sending those components out for repair would come out to about $24,000 to $25,000 a month on average. Small, local agencies have even turned to LBT for help in repairing their boards.

Through the SCRTTC, LBT has also set up a relationship with local colleges that enables them to tailor their courses to keep students up to date with the newest technologies being used by the agency. Cruz says that LBT currently has six employees that were hired because of the agency/college relationship. In an attempt to create even more opportunities through its partnership with colleges, LBT has created an apprenticeship program that will launch this summer.

“We will expose eight students for eight weeks to the transportation industry, where they will actually get to learn and gain experience working on our coaches,” says Cruz.

Looking to the future

Along with more intense training for existing mechanics, many other agencies are also starting to increase their efforts to reach out to students who may be unaware of the transit industry.

“The industry has a real image problem,” says TLC’s Turner. “It has a negative image as a kind of low tech, dirty, not very attractive work environment when in fact it’s very high tech and has quality career opportunities for people.” In an effort to change that, Turner points to efforts to reach out to schools to help build career links as early as junior high or high school, with hopes of building up a workforce in time to replace soon to be retiring baby boomers.

“The desire is to hire apprentices, then train them from the beginning stages all the way through the advanced level and try to establish a career path out of it,” says Cheney.

In an attempt to further bridge the gap, transit agencies, such as CDTA have begun to hire outside of the industry, hoping to find seasoned prospects with some form of mechanical knowledge and the willingness to apply that knowledge to transit vehicles. The CDTA’s Premo says that many of these “off-the-street” new hires are making an impact because of their past work experience, which sometimes include ASE and other certifications. “What we need to do is provide that level of training for incumbents, as well, and that’s what we are trying to do through our program,” says Premo.

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