Field Technician Training

By G.C. Skipper | April 28, 2011

Reprinted with the permission of Equipment Manager magazine, the magazine of AEMP.

With technology leaping forward in ever bigger strides, asset managers have their hands full just keeping shop technicians up to speed and up to an even higher level of performance quality.

The challenge becomes even greater when fleet managers and owners have field technicians strategically placed at different jobsites, not only across the United States, but globally. One such company is Bechtel Equipment Operations, and one worldwide fleet service manager is Bechtel’s Kenneth G. Burke. Bechtel is one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the world, and the number of technicians can run from five to 20 on a jobsite, depending on the country and the region.

Bechtel typically determines that number by reviewing the fleet size and then deciding how many technician, service and shop personnel are required to maintain the fleet in that particular location, Burke says. Due to the structure of the company, formalized classroom training is difficult.

A core of senior technicians is deployed to a given project as required to help in both recruiting and updating technician skills. “We are not like your normal construction company that has one location, and everything comes back to the same shop,” he says. “We nevertheless train our guys by utilizing OEM training programs.”

On the recruiting phase of a project, for example, technicians are initially hired using an interview process to ensure that a certain level of competency “is coming through the gate,” Burke says. As equipment arrives at the location, OEM representatives are brought in to train technicians specifically on their equipment, including everything from troubleshooting to normal maintenance requirements.

Senior technicians are required to go through 80 hours of training each year on a number of levels, such as OEM training and inspector training. All of it is designed to build their skill levels to help with their jobs, Burke says.

This type of intensive, ongoing education is necessary to keep up with rapid technological advances in such areas as computer controls, specifically ECMs, or electronic control modules.

“You no longer can have a shade-tree mechanic who jumps the points and gets the equipment going,” Burke says. “So in our interview process, we look for technicians who have a clear understanding of electronics versus mechanics. For the most part, the mechanical aspect of equipment is very sound and very reliable. Where we get into issues are with controls; for instance, signals from the joystick to a specific function. If you get water intrusion and things start to go a little wacky, the most important thing in my opinion is the technician’s comfort level in this area and his understanding of electronics.”

In addition, Burke says, his technicians go through courses on how to read both North American and European schematics, “because we have a large number of both in our fleet.” That type of training, he says, comes from OEMs.

“One of the first things I did when I took this position three years ago was to hire a lead training manager who had been the North American lead training manager for a major crane company,” Burke says. “I piggy-backed off what he had been doing.”

Similar to most fleets, Bechtel uses online training to teach basics in such areas as hydraulics, electrical training and mechanical training. Once a technician has gone through those programs, Burke sends him out internationally “to help our guys in the field.”

Senior technicians move into more complex, if not to say, exotic training areas. They learn to build and program robots, called “boe-bots” internally, “utilizing the methodology outlined in the Stamps in Class Program,” Burke says. The Stamps in Class is a trademark program of Parallax, Inc. that is designed to be applicable to a wide range of students. The series of programs is used in technology and pre-engineering programs in high schools, colleges and universities, according to Burke.

“The technician trains at his own pace, and what it does is teach him how to write codes for computer programming that makes the boe-bot perform various functions. This drives home the concept on how
milliamps of electronic signals cause a piece of equipment to work.”

This depth of training helps technicians better understand the step-by-step process of eliminating problems and “gets their thinking set up to paint one room at a time rather than painting the whole house. It makes them better at troubleshooting,” Burke says. “It’s like splitting wood. We start with one block at a time, eliminate one, then another, and before long the job is done.

“Since we provide our guys with everything from screwdrivers to cranes, once they get their head around such things as schematic reading, computer programming and troubleshooting, they are very comfortable with tackling a 600-pound crane that is controlled by a computer.”

One of Burke’s goals is to make everything automatic. For instance, service trucks that go around to different jobsites have devices that not only tell Burke where the driver is going but also where the equipment is. The device pulls data from the equipment and uploads it into the company’s maintenance system. “We pull idle, hours, location and run logs as we drive around,” he says.

Burke is also working to customize Bechtel’s maintenance software “so that it will be an add-on for the guys to have handheld devices.” One such device now used at the Bechtel facility in Houston is a Trimble pen that has a scanner on the end and physically writes like a pen.

“When the technician writes out a work order, the add-on software recognizes dots and turns the dots into type script. We just plug the pen into our USB and pull the work order into our system,” he says.

To make sure field technicians are adequately trained, Burke, working with Bechtel’s training department, has created a career path similar to Canadian Block 1, Block 2, Block 3 development, he says. The Canadian system is a structured approach for mechanics “to work through their apprenticeship,” Burke says. Block 1 requires nine months of school and three months of work experience; Block 2, six months of school and six months of work; Block 3 requires three months of school and nine months of field work.

“When a mechanic reaches Block 4, he has worked as a mechanic for a year,” Burke says. “At that stage, he takes an exam and is considered a journeyman.”

Technicians work their way up through the system and the amount and type of training follows that.

“We have such a variety of equipment—sump pumps, small engines, electric shredders, dump trucks, earthmoving gear—that we can’t tie technicians into any one manufacturer,” Burke says.

To monitor the quality of work done by field technicians, Burke uses PEMS (project equipment management system). As equipment comes off a job or moves into a job, it enters into a repair shop where incoming and outgoing inspections are done. With certain equipment, such as cranes, sometimes a third-party inspector is brought in “to have another set of eyes review the work,” Burke says. In addition, an audit team visits the jobsites to review paperwork, look at the appearance of equipment and see how the shop is set up.

Leslie Equipment Company, a John Deere dealership with 10 branches that serve West Virginia, southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, has about 25 field technicians and 75 shop technicians. The number of technicians depends on the location. Some facilities have two and others have up to six technicians, according to Todd Perrine, CEM, who is Leslie’s vice president of product support. Leslie operates 23 service trucks and three lube trucks, Perrine says.

“Each facility is a stand-alone operation,” he says. “As a Deere dealership that also carries other lines, we work out of nine shop locations with nine service managers who supervise the shop and field technicians.”

The Leslie shops handle troubleshooting, equipment maintenance and repairs ranging from replacing a mirror component to catastrophic engine failures. “Equipment is brought into the shop that is closest to the jobsite. The facilities are between 75 and 100 miles from each other, although some are 50 miles apart,” Perrine says.

Usually, technicians employed by the company come from tech schools, Perrine says, and are required to take some preliminary testing before getting hired. They work in the summer and work their way up through the ranks, going from level one to level two. When they reach level three, they go into Capstone training, Perrine says.

“They go to our training center located in Cross Lanes, W. Va., which holds about 65 people. The Capstone training classes are conducted by two other Leslie technicians who have been trained by John Deere and are the company’s specialists.”

Classes take place over a period of three to five days and cover electrical and hydraulics, plus hands-on training of different lines of loaders, trucks, excavators, crawler dozers, motor graders and backhoes.

“Once they do online training for all this, the next step is for them to be the instructors for these courses,” Perrine says.

Perrine says that each time Leslie orders a new model change of equipment, they are notified by John Deere that the company has from the order date to the delivery date to have two parts department people, two salesmen and two technicians trained on the specific new model. “You have to have all these things in place before another machine is ordered,” he says.

Capstone graduates are sent back to the shops to assist and mentor newer technicians who are coming up through the ranks. “That’s how they get their training to be potential field guys down the road,” he says.

A big part of working in the field is safety, and Leslie’s safety program is “rigid,” Perrine says.

“We do a lot more work on mine property and natural gas sites than ever before in West Virginia,” he says. “Before technicians go on site to perform work, they must be certified in other areas, among them coal miner training, MSHA and site-specific training.” Technicians are required to wear reflective gear on their hard hats, fire retardant coveralls with reflective striping as well as appropriate boots and gloves.

To ensure quality of the field work, data is collected from John Deere technicians all over the country that measures how long a particular repair takes—putting on a set of tracks, for instance. That information goes into a database and is averaged out among all the Deere dealerships.

“That gives us a fair labor rate to quote the customer,” Perrine says. “If someone calls and says his hydraulic pumps are out, we can tell him the labor cost, mileage and the amount of time the repairs take. The customer knows pretty well what it’s going to cost before we come out.”

The biggest challenge in training field technicians is customer service, Perrine says.

“It’s huge. You have to have people out there with a good attitude, urgency and a willingness to work out in the cold and heat 24/7, if necessary.”

Indiana-based Traylor Bros. combines mentoring, in-field training and OEM training in a formalized program, according to Thad Pirtle, Traylor’s vice president of equipment. The company has a total of about 60-plus technicians, who are split into two groups: corporate and project level operations.

“We have four corporate field technicians and two apprentices who report to the shop manager and also to a corporate superintendent. There are four service trucks in that operation,” Pirtle says.

The second group is made up of field technicians who work on a project level and report directly to the equipment superintendent on the project. About 20 technicians and between 10 and 12 service trucks work at the project level, he says.

The training process requires newcomers to spend time with experienced technicians in first-day training. In the field, Pirtle says, “we use mentoring as well as working with people in the shop.”

Newly hired technicians also must wear red hats for 90 days. “The caps allow us to see where they are on the shop floor, for instance,” Pirtle says. “We have a buddy system in the shop, and that lets us see who is working together. Also, if we see four or five red hats working together with no white hat, we can address the situation. And, too, other workers can see the red hats, know where they are working and, if necessary, can help them out.”

Traylor Bros. uses GPS to track equipment, “but not so much technicians,” says Pirtle. “Technicians are dispatched to a project for a two- or three-week period, and they may not be entered at the same locale. We don’t see any advantages in tracking technicians at this time,” he says.

All field technicians are armed with laptops, and their itineraries, time cards and expenses are electronically transferred on a weekly basis, Pirtle says.

Field work quality is monitored by direct feedback. When technicians arrive at a jobsite, the project manager or superintendent tells them what they are required to do. Technicians are given a service report that they are expected to fill out and keep. The reports provide project managers with up-to-date information on technicians’ work and, if the manager is happy, he signs off on the report. Also, the project manager follows up to make certain someone isn’t struggling with a problem.

In fact, Pirtle says, technicians are required to take third-party communication training. Usually, that training lasts for one or two days and covers basic communication skills, including how you speak to someone, what to do, and what not to do. “It’s a good refresher course even for our more-skilled people,” Pirtle says.

Companies invest time and money in training technicians to do quality work efficiently and productively. The one issue they continually face is retaining the technicians they have invested in.

“Money and benefits do talk, but I think the best way to keep technicians is to challenge them and offer them training to meet that challenge,” Pirtle says. “Those are the two biggest things. The type of work we do is part of challenging our technicians. It is exciting, big work that is enjoyable. And we offer the training and education on which they can successfully build their careers.”