Training for the future

In today’s global manufacturing competitive environment, human capital is clearly becoming the delineator for companies to stay in business. With the thousands of baby boomers leaving the work force over the next 10 to 15 years, leaving a smaller number of Generation X’ers carrying the load, employee development and training need fill this gap.


In today’s global manufacturing competitive environment, human capital is clearly becoming the delineator for companies to stay in business. With the thousands of baby boomers leaving the work force over the next 10 to 15 years, leaving a smaller number of Generation X’ers carrying the load, employee development and training need fill this gap.

With a range from zero training (on-the-job or formal training) to some companies, like Honda and Allied Signal, who require 40-plus  hours of formal training prior to entering a maintenance department, each maintenance leader must decide what depth, level and specific maintenance skills will allow their company to remain viable in the foreseeable future.

There are many justifications for maintenance employee development:

·         Machine downtime is costly.

·         Technical skills are required to keep equipment running.

·         OEM technicians are expensive to use on a regular basis.

·         The higher skill based the maintenance department is, the less OEM technician support is necessary, the less downtime is experienced.

·         Technology is continually improving machine controls, yet requiring expertise in PLCs, robotics, touch screens, and computers.

·         Education is a life-long process.


Developing a development program

Once you decide employee development is a viable solution to meeting many maintenance goals, then to be successful you must present the concept to management and the maintenance employees and achieve buy-in. The program must be designed including the proper elements to achieve the desired end state.

Step 1. Make a commitment. This starts with yourself as maintenance leadership and includes plant management and most of all, the maintenance employees. Until the affected employees buy in to the program, it will not produce results. Develop a written program including realistic goals tied to reducing maintenance related downtime and costs for justification to management.

Step 2. Invest in sufficient resources. An effective program involves work, time and money. Deciding what skills are necessary to train on, who will perform the training – in-house or local community college, who will cover the manufacturing floor and work order list while training occurs, sets the foundation. No training budget will be unlimited so prioritization of these resources is necessary.

Step 3. Create a program with a holistic approach starting with the hiring process, identifying maintenance trainees with a technical aptitude, engaging experienced maintenance employees, using vendor training, CD-ROMs for fundamentals, local community college courses and on-site training, OEM schools on and off-site and effective on-the-job training.

Step 4. Require results by achieving certain test scores from written exams or computer based training, monitoring specific chronic machines’ downtime hours reduced from specific training, requiring demonstration of skills more than once and tracking maintenance downtime and costs in detail.


If you are afraid of investing in employees because of the possibility of losing employees to competitors, then you will never build the knowledge of your maintenance department sufficiently to perform at a world class level. If you have an organized maintenance program including preventive, predictive, adequate store room, sufficient tools, etc. and foster an active team environment then most employees will want to remain a part of your winning organization and stay.


Tapping into your resources

Using multiple resources is a must for a comprehensive program. Start with an evaluation of the skills and level of competency of each maintenance employee. This could be verbal, but I recommend a written evaluation for more accurate results. People want be perceived as knowledgeable, but you may be surprised at the responses if you ask “explain to me the levels of overload protection for an electric motor” versus “do you know the various levels of . . .”

Trend the results on a spreadsheet and evaluate where the greatest needs are, ex: basic electrical theory, advanced PLC troubleshooting, lubrication fundamentals, proper bearing installation, electrical safety training, advanced preventive maintenance, etc. Some of these areas should be identified after common maintenance downtime causes.

Next determine which areas require classroom training and which ones hands-on training. Partner with a local community college and develop a curriculum tailored to your specific needs; balancing classroom instruction, hands-on labs and checking for understanding. Some topics may be better suited for on-site where specific examples can be studied, ie: basic hydraulic systems or relay control circuits on actual equipment.

Many maintenance employees have never received fundamental mechanical or electrical training and have been contaminated by on-the-job training by “experienced” maintenance employees to get the machine running, normally resulting in negative training by transferring bad practices down the generations. Most maintenance employees are in the craft because they learn with their hands most effectively.

OEM training may produce good results, particularly if there are several of their machines in your facility. This type of training conducted in your facility on your specific machine models will eliminate a lot of what ifs. You can also create synergy by inviting other plants’ maintenance employees within your company who have similar equipment. You may consider a “train the trainer” program by sending someone to a very specific school so they receive the tools to train the department or those who need to know.

Many vendors will conduct free training in various areas from your purchasing footprint, ex: bearings, seals, chain, fasteners, arc flash, ladder safety, making hydraulic hoses, etc. (And don’t forget to bring the donuts!) I had a 35-year maintenance employee told me he learned something after a roller chain seminar.

Don’t forget internal maintenance personnel who have a knack for sharing knowledge, understand the equipment internals, common downtime causes, and have the department’s respect.

To increase the machine electrical knowledge of my department I used my senior electrician to develop a three phase training plan. First we met and reviewed each machine’s electrical schematics, then took them to the machine side and pointed out the various control circuits and components (several foreign machines), and finally inserted a trouble allowing each person to troubleshoot the problem individually.


Building a sustainable program

Creating the program is the most involved step with the amount of effort being proportional to the results achieved. The program should be sustainable and only require minor updating over a number of years. It starts with the hiring process including external and internal candidates.

Over a 15-year period of replacing all but one in my maintenance department, I found that offering a competitive wage for the area and boasting of squared away maintenance practices, attracted and kept local technicians creating a stable maintenance department. You should allow a certain percentage of new maintenance employees from the production floor to infiltrate a production perspective since they are the customer and this also provides an opportunity for good employees possessing a maintenance aptitude. This of course depends on a union versus non-union environment.

For trainees I would recommend purchasing a good CD-ROM or web based maintenance fundamentals training program and complement with work books and written testing. After your initial evaluation of existing maintenance employees skill levels, the next step is putting a pen to paper listing the areas needing addressed, and specify whether formal schools, OEM, in-house, etc. are appropriate and identifying which training individuals or the whole department would benefit. Build a time line for accomplishment and start now.


Developing skill requirements

Setting the foundation of specific skill requirements produces results. First determine how many pay scale levels are practical with a balance of multi-skilled and specific high level skills (electronics or millwright) and develop a list of skills necessary to maintain your equipment. For the lower levels it would probably include: understand power transmission components and be able to evaluate and replace as necessary or understand basic electrical schematic symbols and be able to determine if a motor starter is bad.

At the higher levels, required skills may be modify a PLC program to include an additional required function without supervision or develop a preventive maintenance program for a new machine or trim the steam boiler. You may decide to use multi-skilled tasks up to a certain level and then split into mechanical and electrical. There are some great mechanics with a limited capacity for learning the electrical trade, since not everyone has the aptitude for electricity.

I’ve found that creating a homemade electrical circuit with relay logic is a great hands-on training tool to enhance practical learning and also Radio Shack sells an electrical game consisting of switches, wires, a power supply and other components to use.


Tying pay and skills

You should consider paying maintenance employees for the number and level of skills that they are able to demonstrate. I would recommend creating a “qualification” checklist for each level and sign off completion only after the employee proves he holds that skill as documented by more than one work order completion. This method defeats the “good ole boy network” for promotion, provides the hurdles for a sense of accomplishment and produces a highly skilled maintenance department that reduces machine downtime.

You should consider grandfathering certain valuable employees who may not quite have the capacity to complete the minimum final expected level but significantly contribute to the department. Set a maximum time frame to advance through each level, such as 12 or 18 months, to force progression and results. During this time an effort must be made to meet with each employee to monitor his or her progress by conducting spot checks of their knowledge level and ensuring effectiveness of the training.

My experience is it takes four to five years for a maintenance trainee to attain the skills to effectively troubleshoot most causes of machine downtime.

Consideration should be made to require an oral, hands-on or written evaluation to verify understanding and completion of each level. These should be based on practical everyday skill requirements which will reveal whether or not the individual has mastered maintenance fundamentals. It is best to involve someone above your level in the final certification to eliminate any perceived bias.


Overcoming the hurdlers

The challenges are numerous, from:

Convincing management this will produce results by creating some number crunching analysis,

·         Assuring them that this has worked in other plants,

·         Achieving buy-in from a maintenance person with 35 years experience who has seen and done it all without training,

·         Negotiating various aspects of the program into a union contract

·         Fighting for a sufficient budget especially right after you had to spend $20,000 on replacing a transmission or large drive motor,

·         Keeping maintenance people on task after the first year, expressing to the production supervisor the long term value of this training while his machine has been down for 4 hours,

·         Finding the time to setup the hotel, rental car (with no credit card), enter the purchase order and figure out how to reimburse an hourly person (without a corporate credit card) to get them to a vital OEM course

·         Getting production to accurately enter maintenance downtime so the hours can really be tracked.


These challenges are real and just a few that inspire the best maintenance leader to stretch reach. The satisfaction of knowing you created, and continue to maintain a tight and well thought out plan with the focused end in mind, will probably put you in the top 10% of manufacturing facilities in the US.

One program that has greatly enabled me to accomplish necessary training is the State of Ohio offers several government grants based on the training accomplishing certain criteria. I received $27,000 this past year to train our entire maintenance department on basic electrical and basic and advanced hydraulics at the local community college.


Right to the bottom line

Manufacturing plants are producing more product with reduced cost, thereby increased profit. The efficiency of accomplishing this is greatly impacted by equipment running all the time with zero downtime. A detailed method of tracking machine downtime related to maintenance should be in place before the training program to reveal the results. The detail may be by machine, section of machine, reason for downtime, ie: electrical, solution return pump, hydraulic shifting valve, or whatever is pertinent for your industry, equipment or the largest downtime contributor.

Whatever CMMS system you use may dictate the possible detail. Otherwise an overall machine OEE or the entire plant maintenance downtime percentage or number of hours will serve as the best indication of your training program effectiveness. The method of reporting the results should be established with the original training program. Your maintenance repair cost should decrease as more proper repairs are effected and less rework required. Education has a way of causing people to think more before doing and normally results in discovering a better method or a way to avoid disaster.

Investing in your people with maintenance training sets the tone for your maintenance department and shows your level of commitment for maintenance excellence. It requires time and planning to develop the program and maintain it. Once you decide to proceed, just do it. Your people will appreciate the opportunities, personal investment and strive to increase their skills knowing they will directly contribute to the plant’s profitability and indirectly their livelihood in supporting their family.

Be consistent, religious in expressing your expectations, unwavering in requiring accountability and vigilant in expecting excellence. The fact is, you will experience improvements and tangible results.

Lee McClish holds a BSME from Ohio Northern University and a MBA from Ashland University in Ohio. He served in the US Navy Submarine Force for 10 years on the USS Gato (SSN 615) and USS Spadefish (SSN 668). He worked for Packaging Corporation of America for 15 years in a corrugated box plant and is currently the Reliability Centered Maintenance Manager for Graphic Packaging Folding Carton Plant in Marion, OH. He can be reached at .

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