Foundation Tackles The Big Issues

Sept. 28, 2010

Seldom does one single group target two major industry issues simultaneously, but the AEMP Education Foundation is one of the exceptions.

The issues are 1) addressing the technician shortage in the heavy-equipment industry, and 2) raising the awareness level of maintenance and asset management as a profession.

Either undertaking is formidable, but the Foundation has made significant progress on both fronts during the past decade. The Foundation was established in 1990 and evolved into a position of influence under the guidance of Robert Decker, who was chairman of the board of trustees from 2004 until 2008.

"Bob Decker really got things rolling several years ago, says the current chairman, Thad Pirtle, CEM. "That's when I came aboard. Decker was the one with the big fund-raising ideas and the one who helped decide where we should go with it."

Pirtle says the Foundation started out by funding AEMP's Certified Equipment Manager (CEM) program, conducting on-going research and curriculum development. Now that that has been completed, "our main focus now is on scholarship funding, such things as acquisition of funds, donations, that type of thing," he says. "That's the main focus on the table right now."

Since the beginning, the objectives of the Foundation have not changed much, Decker says. "It was set up to provide a resource — and it always will be — to provide funds to individuals who want to get into this industry as heavy-equipment technicians.

"That's my background and the background of other trustees," he says, "and we want to keep it going. Through our scholarship program, we want to make students and others aware that the heavy-equipment-technician position is a good-paying job.

"Thad Pirtle has the same passion I have: to give something back to the industry that has given me a good career. The scholarship program is one way to do that."

Despite the fact that today's crippled economy — along with the nationwide lay-offs that have accompanied it — has taken some of the edge off the demand for technicians, the problem is still there and most certainly will resurrect itself when times are better.

To frame the problem more precisely, Roger Mohr, director of the corporate business division of John Deere Construction & Forestry, says, "The technician shortage isn't quite as critical today as it was two years ago. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the situation, however, a company the size of John Deere was adding 500 new technicians a year throughout North America."

One of the major steps the Foundation has taken to plug the technician gap is the establishment of a scholarship fund for young people and individuals of any age who, in the words of Stan Orr, CAE, the Foundation's chief staff officer, "have a desire to make a career of the technician profession."

Since the program was launched in 2006, the number of scholarships, ranging from $2,000 to the $3,000 Selzak Award, has doubled every year. This year 15 scholarships were given and the group's goal is to double that amount next year, Orr says.

"We started small," he says, "but if we can continue to build the critical mass, we can truly make an impact on the global technician shortage."

AEMP and the Foundation are out to dispel what Bob Decker calls the "Gomer Pyle image" of technicians. "We don't refer to them as mechanics anymore because that term doesn't fit the skill set. The equipment they work on is highly technical and computer-driven," Orr says.

Mohr, who serves on the board of trustees and whose company is a strategic partner with AEMP concurs.

"In an effort to increase machine productivity and customer profitability, new features like electro-hydraulics, integrated grading systems, and computer controlled machine functions have created very complex and increasingly sophisticated products that require highly skilled technicians to diagnose and repair," Mohr says. "To meet these constantly changing requirements, technicians need to be motivated to continue to learn and master a proficiency in the technologies that have been incorporated into today's machines and those technologies that are yet to come."

The scholarship program works this way: Each year the Foundation sends out information to high schools letting them know funds are available and what the criteria are to apply for those funds. This mailing reaches approximately 7,000 counselors, Orr says.

"The first year we did it, we received only a few applications," he says. "This year there were so many applicants we couldn't fund them all." Along with the application, the scholarship candidate also must submit transcripts of school records, letters of reference, and identify the school they plan to attend.

The flood of recent applications is not without its lighter side, Orr pointed out. Since the Foundation began stressing the term "technician," it has attracted, "students who will apply for anything," he says. "One of the applicants told us she wanted to go to beauty college."

After weeding out such misdirected requests, scholarship administrators rank the qualified applicants based on certain criteria that are set by the board of trustees. The screened and ranked applications go to the board where they are reviewed "very carefully," Orr says. "The Trustees make the selection process after that."

In addition to the scholarship program, the Education Foundation has funded other projects, including a total revision of AEMP's CEM certification exam, a credential that elevates fleet professionals and asset managers education and standing in the industry.

Another way the group elevates the image of the technician and increases the profession's awareness level at the same time is through its Technician of the Year Award program.

"With the support of John Deere and Qualcomm, the Technician of the Year Award publically recognizes the most outstanding public and private fleet technician, which over the years has grown in status," Orr says. "This helps raise the awareness of the critical role technicians play in keeping our nation's off-road fleet moving."

One of the 2009 Technicians of the Year is Dennis Kincade, maintenance supervisor employed by York (PA) County Vehicle Maintenance. Kincade has been a technician for 40 years. This is the first national award he has received during his entire career, he says.

"My boss came to me and asked if it was okay if he submitted my name for the award," Kincade says. "I said okay, and I won.

"People are not aware of the advantages and benefits of the profession," Kincade says. "Even among the young people we work with in high schools we've found a considerable lack of work ethic. We can correct that to some degree, but many still think of this job as dirty, hard work, the grease-monkey type of job. I believe they would change their thinking if they really knew, especially in today's atmosphere of computer controlled vehicles, how much fun it is to try and fix a computerized machine."

Kincade says the Technician of the Year Award is "a good start" in changing the public's perception of the job. "I really like the idea of AEMP providing scholarships to young people to get them into this field."

"The resumes of technicians who have entered over the years have been very, very impressive," Mohr says. "These individuals are educated in the latest technologies, have a broad range of experience, and exhibit leadership skills that result in tremendous contributions, not only to their firms, but to the industry. The Technician of the Year Award is like winning an Academy Award for the best actor or best actress in the movie industry. We feel this recognition is very important because technicians are infrequently recognized for their critical contributions as they are normally only called upon when there is a crisis or a problem."

The AEMP Foundation objective is to generate funds to support technical career paths, including scholarships, Certified Equipment Manager curricula upgrades, and the annual Technician of the Year Award. Funding to accomplish these objectives comes from a variety of sources, including AEMP member and member company donations, Foundation Strategic Partners, corporate contributions, and unique and innovative fundraisers.

Among the latter was the creation of a Monopoly-like board game called "Technician Hunter," says Mohr. The Foundation developed the game based on a career in the heavy equipment maintenance and management profession.

"We sell those board games as a fundraiser," he says. "Additionally, the games are given to high schools and technical schools as a way to attract young people to our industry.

Other sources of funding are the silent auctions at AEMP events, as well as an annual online auction through IronPlanet.

Orr says the Foundation raised a little more than $160,000 through various fund-raising activities, including two IronPlanet auctions. "The first year we held an auction, International was very gracious to donate a new dump truck to be auctioned off," he says.

In keeping with AEMP's Equipment Triangle philosophy, efforts to attract heavy equipment technicians and maintenance and asset management professionals are being made on yet another front: partnering with other organizations, such as the Association of Equipment Manufacturers and the Associated Equipment Distributors. "We are trying to build some synergy on the three sides of the triangle," Orr says. "This is very important."

With so many simultaneous advances made on its two-front educational war, some Foundations might be content to rest on their laurels. Not this one. As for the future, says Orr, the Education Foundation has a lofty goal — no less than making asset management, equipment management, and technicians "the professions of choice made up of well trained, well compensated professionals."

AEMP Foundation
Click Image To Enlarge Michael Colyer attends Rend Lake, an Illinois community college that offers technician training in heavy equipment. Colyer was the Foundation's first Slezak Award winner.Click Image To Enlarge The Technician of the Year Award helps raise the awareness of the role technicians play in fleet performance. Dennis Kincade, York County, Va., is this year's public sector Technician of the Year.
2009 Board of Trustees

Thad Pirtle, CEM, 2009 Foundation Chairman of the Board, Traylor Bros.

Dick Brannigan, CEM AEMP immediate past president John R. Jurgensen

Bob Decker, ACE Asphalt of Arizona

Mike Baker, Navman Wireless

Matt DiIorio , PhD Ditch Witch of Ohio

Bob Hall, Bechtel Equipment Operations

Roger Mohr, John Deere Construction and Forestry Division

Charles Snyder, Sunbelt Rentals

Rod Sutton, Construction Equipment

Karen Guinn, JCB

Stan Orr , CAE Executive Director, AEMP and AEMP Foundation chief staff officer

Honoring Excellence

Not many teenagers have scholarships named after them. But David Slezak, an 18-year-old Pennsylvanian, received such an honor in 2006.

Stan Orr, CAE, executive director of AEMP, called him "a legacy," noting that David followed in his father's footsteps. His dad was a foreman at P. J. Dick Trumbull, an AEMP member company.

Roger Mohr, director of the corporate business division at John Deere, said Slezak was "a pedigree of what we were looking for" when the Foundation established the scholarship program. He was excited about being considered for the scholarship, and he looked forward to that year's Fall semester when he would begin pursuing his chosen career.

So it was not surprising that in 2006 when the Education Foundation selected its first scholarship recipients from high schools across the country, David Slezak was among the chosen few.

But before the Foundation could notify him of the award, David was killed in an automobile accident.

"That was the first year we offered the scholarship," Orr recalled, "and David would have been the first student to receive it." The Education Foundation made the decision to create the Slezak Award in David's honor, a $3,000 scholarship to the student who not only meets, but lives up to, the criteria and quality represented by the award.

The first Slezak award winner, 19-year-old Michael Colyer of Mount Vernon, Ill., has the credentials and the character demanded by the award. As a youngster, he "ran around with" his father in the oil patch working on engines. In high school, where he made "mostly As," he was a member of the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and during that time won an agricultural technician contest. While in high school, when he wasn't winning awards, he worked in a machine shop and also picked up experience rebuilding engines.

'I've always wanted to be a technician," Colyer says. "I heard about the AEMP Education Foundation scholarship and applied for it. I won the Slezak Award."

Colyer investigated Rend Lake, an Illinois community college that offers technician training in heavy equipment. He found out the school would waive the tuition for anyone who won a contest that involved parts recognition and a written exam, and went for it.

Colyer won that, too. After he graduates from Rend Lake, he said his future plans will be determined by the opportunities that come up. Whatever they are, he, and the Foundation, are certain he can find his place in the heavy-equipment industry.

In the meantime, Colyer said, "I just want to give AEMP and the Education Foundation a special thanks."