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Managers Discuss the Evolution of Technician Training
This Roundtable features:
*Don Rust, assistant director of engineering and operations, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.
*Neal Pearson, director of engineering, Children's Hospital Central California, Madera, Calif.
*Rod Allen, system director of plant operations, Lee Memorial Health System, Fort Myers, Fla.
Buildings evolve, technology advances, and maintenance and engineering technicians have to keep pace. Organizations can tap into a variety of tools to train front-line technicians, but no matter the method, managers in this roundtable agree: Properly maintaining key systems and components starts with education and training.
Question: What are the most valuable resources you employ for training front-line technicians?
RUST: For them to become a senior (technician), they have to have a certified state license in whatever trade they're working in. They're going to have the code knowledge. In developing code knowledge, they develop certain skill knowledge. They only get into specifics about what our buildings require in the way of equipment. A lot of times, that's equipment manufacturers that are providing that training. The other things that come up because of the codes and regulations that govern what we do in certain areas, they're really critical. They have to have a wide range of knowledge.
PEARSON: We use a variety. We take advantage of those workshops that are especially provided free of charge by our local vendors or manufacturers. When purchasing new equipment, we also write into the contract to include staff training. We take advantage of the Internet and do a lot more on-site training than we used to. We used to do a lot more off-site training than we do now. That does save money.
ALLEN: Manufacturers and vendors have always been our first go-to folks. But recently, the online resources are fast becoming our go-to resource. The educational training budget is usually the first thing cut when things start to get tight. We're required to do the training but at a more economical cost. That's why we're moving more toward the online training.
Question: How have the methods of training evolved to keep up with the advances in building technology?
ALLEN: A long time ago, we had specialists who were very, very good at certain systems, and that's really all they did. But as systems evolved and times evolved, we've had to move toward an area-maintenance-type technician, where he is outside of his comfort zone or his box, so to speak. A plumber may start to look at a nurse-call system, and an electrician may have to start looking at some plumbing systems. Our training has evolved to those specialists trying to work through training their peers.
PEARSON: We're doing training that we never did 10 years ago. We also use our education department. We have educators on site that, in the last two years, have really helped us put together a training program. Last year, with their help, we created our own training modules. It uses common software to provide interactive, online training modules that my staff can do. A test is included, so you can see that they're (understanding the material) once they've gone through the module.
RUST: On-the-job training is what we always had for years. That was it. You learned by doing or having someone show you, and you're mimicking what they're doing. Now, no one has time for that. Everything else we do is run off online services. Our work orders are run off online services. It's the only way we're going to continue to operate. That's a problem with the older generation. That's still a big problem. When we started going to online safety training, we had mechanics where there was no way they could do it. But they learned to do it.
Question: What are key skills many experienced technicians lack early in their careers?
PEARSON: It's been fairly easy to find people with backgrounds in refrigeration work and basic electrical. But (expertise in) commercial refrigeration, the chillers, the boilers (is hard to find). Building automation is generally missing from the basic knowledge. For commercial electrical (maintenance), it's hard to find electricians that are up to speed, especially for a hospital.
RUST: Understanding and seeing the big picture is one of the most critical things they have to learn to do. (From an electrical standpoint), being able to understand how the electrical system operates, rather than just showing up to work on something, is critical. Unfortunately, most of the people I see out there now are parts-changers. Now, with computers, we have so many other things we can do, and there are so many more tools available to us. Once they start learning to use these tools, then they can start fixing things, rather than replacing things.
ALLEN: What I find is that the younger technicians that come in, they have all the computer skills that the older technicians really lack. But the younger technicians lack the ability to look outside the box and say, "OK, this is the equipment I need to look at, and I need to bring my basic troubleshooting skills — no matter what it is — to the table."
Question: As facilities and systems change, how do you ensure ongoing technician training?
ALLEN: One of the things I employ is I require our technicians to get at least 16 to 20 hours of training per year outside of their traditional mandatory education. A lot of the technicians will do what we call 'tool-box talks.' A lot of the technicians that are very well-educated on a certain system will educate the other technicians (who aren't). When an issue comes up, we have a morning huddle, an afternoon huddle, and a night-shift huddle.
PEARSON: We ended up creating 12 modules that are now scheduled once a month. Every staff meeting that we hold monthly at the beginning of each month, we do a handout that shows current education that's required for that month. It gives a little outline of what they'll be learning, and it also shows what's coming up next month. It always keeps (technicians) engaged.
RUST: We recently put in a new type of HVAC system in a specific suite. It's something our guys have never seen. We had every one of them trained to operate this. We did classroom work, we did site work, and they all used the computers. If they don't take the opportunity to go back and refresh themselves, then they won't remember anything.
Question: What building systems and components generally require the most training?
RUST: Right now, the thing that's kicking our butt is the lighting controls. The lighting controls are so complicated. They're really difficult to work on. We're quickly knocking out the lighting control systems that we will not use anymore. It's a constant nightmare. There are so many relays and low-voltage push buttons. Anything can take a system down.
ALLEN: The energy-management system, the fire-alarm systems, generators, and boilers. For us, a lot of our nurse-call systems are now computerized, where before there were a lot of relays and things like that. From my perspective, the programming that's associated with each of those systems (makes maintaining them difficult).
PEARSON: It's all the large HVAC. Typically, it's hard to find people with that knowledge. That's what we have the biggest issues with is getting people up to speed on the ins and outs of the larger equipment, like chillers, boilers, and large medical air compressors.
Question: How has the economy affected your training priorities and resources? How have you coped with these changes?
PEARSON: We don't even budget for training anymore. Starting this budget season, there was no provision within the budgeting process to budget for training. So what we do now is, if we require training — for instance, we're sending two people to a wastewater (treatment) school in the spring of this year — I had to submit basically a business plan outlining justification for doing that. As training needs come up now, they're on an as-needed basis.
RUST: The first thing anybody does when the economy gets tight is cut out the low-hanging fruit, things you absolutely don't have to do. Training is always the first thing to get cut out. In the perfect world, you're going to train all your people to be proficient in what they do so you can continue to move along. But when dollars subside, you only train on what you absolutely have to do.
ALLEN: One of the things that I've done is I've employed some online training where the technicians can get online training from home. I require our technicians to get some of that training from home, on their own time. It's very difficult when you have shift work to be able to get a good training education in. When people are called in off shift to attend a training session, they're really not paying attention.