Wanted: Dealer Participation To Help Solve Industry Workforce Shortages - Workforce
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Wanted: Dealer Participation To Help Solve Industry Workforce Shortages

By Joanne Costin

Article Date: 01-01-2011
Copyright(C) 2011 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Swiping technicians from other dealerships does nothing to replenish the pool of qualified technician candidates – ultimately, schools, states, the AED Foundation and other industry groups can only fix the problem when local dealers get involved.

The Great Recession may have officially ended in mid-2009, but it kept workforce issues on the back burner for most dealers in 2009 and well into 2010. However, as the economy has improved, shortages of technicians and parts personnel have returned. Steve Johnson, executive director of The AED Foundation, expects the situation to steadily worsen during the recovery. "Workers laid off during the recession won't necessarily come back," said Johnson. "Some have retired, and others have found jobs in industries that have recovered sooner, such as trucking, automotive, and mining."

It wasn't long ago that AED dealers were in need of as many as 4,200 technicians (2007) – that number represented job openings for which they could not find qualified techs. That unfilled demand dropped to 2,400 technicians in 2008 and even more dramatically in 2009, as the recession deepened. However, that situation has changed and hiring is again on the rise. According to Simply Hired, an employment search engine that tracks tens of millions of job listings and thousands of career websites, the number of job listings for heavy construction equipment technicians increased 153 percent since April 2009, while the number of job listings for diesel technicians has risen 183 percent.

AED's most recent workforce survey, conducted in the fall of 2009, reported that 39 percent of dealers find technicians from other dealers and competitors. While competing for the current pool of experienced technicians might satisfy an immediate need, it also elevates labor rates, as technicians move from employer to employer. It does nothing to increase the pool of qualified technicians and parts personnel from which dealers can hire.

The workforce and labor pool will continue to shrink, if for no other reason than demographics. The 75-million-strong baby boomer generation will retire between 2012 and 2025, and will be replaced by Generation X, a workforce of 45 million workers – and many industries will be fighting for those workers.

Educators and parents continue to define success for their children as a four-year college degree, while industry must work hard to dispel the myth that career and technical school education is for those who couldn't handle anything else. However, looking at rising college costs, mountains of student debt and weak employment opportunities among college grads, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that career and technical school education is getting a second look from students.

At Idaho State University - Pocatello, which is accredited though The AED Foundation, enrollment in the Diesel Technology program has increased since the recession. According to Ivan Bullock, the department chair, classes are full. "We have about 65 students in the program and unless we hire additional faculty, we are where we need to be."

"We had a little excess capacity before the downturn and had to recruit pretty heavily," said Bullock." Other schools are competing for those students. There were a lot of jobs for students coming right out of high school in the oil fields for $20 hour. I think they found out there wasn't anywhere to go without skills."

At AVTEC Alaska's Institute of Technology, there is a one-year waiting period for the diesel heavy program, which can accommodate only 12 students, due to limitations of space,state funding and limited dealer support. "We have been trying to get funding to expand our building so we can have 20 students, but we are not getting that backing," said Ken Berklund, department head and instructor at the school. "Our biggest stumbling block is equipment to train on and space to train in.

"I think the image of the industry is improving," he continued. "You can't just be a mechanic. You have to have good people skills and communication skills." The school's advisory board members stress that they want academic courses in the curriculum.

Other industries face similar image problems and worker shortages and have recognized the need to take action. The Associated Builders and Contractors Pelican Chapter, based in Baton Rouge, La., recently received an award for its workforce initiatives. Changing the image of the construction worker as a low income, dead-end career, was a key component of their communications plan.

"We are really working to change the image," said Matt Campbell, director of workforce development, for the Pelican Chapter. "The reality is that these guys are making in their first year, with their certifications, a minimum of $50,000 or $60,000 a year with no overtime, to start," said Campbell.

A video was created to show students how they can achieve the lifestyle they want through a career in the construction industry. "We have a career path," said Campbell. "We show them that it is not just going out there and digging ditches. It is skilled labor. It takes mathematics, it takes people skills. And we never knock going to a four-year college."

As college costs increase, students are increasingly looking for options that will put them to work faster and where they will incur less debt. All of The AED Foundation's accredited programs enable students to apply their credits toward a four-year degree program, if that is the path they take.

Gary Baumbaer, who is president of the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF), believes parents are the hardest influences to reach, but sees progress being made. Their program markets apprenticeship as "the other four-year degree" and lays out a construction industry career path. "What parents are looking at are dollars and cents," said Baumbaer. "They see that you will be making $30,000 at the end of four years. It provides a comparable income, and you have no debt."

Keys to Success
Educators and industry agree that getting into high schools is one of the key factors driving the success within career and technical school programs. Counselors, students and parents need to be better informed about career paths, and this is where industry needs to get involved. In Mississippi, nearly 5,000 high school students get career and technical education through 186 different trade programs and 104 vocational centers. The MCEF was started 15 years ago at the request of industry trade associations, who increased construction licensing fees and dedicated those funds to be used for construction and craft training. Alabama recently followed suit with a similar program, as it established the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI) to address construction worker shortages in that state. ACRI is funded through an employer fee levied upon wages paid to certain skilled construction workers on commercial and industrial job sites across the state.

"For us the biggest initiatives were program partners. This program sought to involve Associated Builders & Contractors and our member contractors by getting out there in the high schools, providing materials and donations to these classes and career centers and really establishing a relationship and partnership with these people."

Construction equipment dealers and career and technical colleges also see the value in getting into high schools. The AED Foundation recently recognized its first secondary school. The Dehryl A. Dennis Technical Education Center in Boise, Idaho, is the first secondary school in the United States to achieve status as an AED Recognized Secondary School for its heavy diesel technology program. The award culminated a five-year process led by Dennis Center faculty, industry advisors and Idaho State University College of Technology in Pocatello, Idaho.

"This program is significant because it means that the Dennis Center's Heavy Duty Diesel Technology Program offers courses that are tied directly to industry standards," said Johnson. Other AED accredited colleges are in the process of overseeing local secondary school initiatives. These programs will raise the bar for secondary technical education and also help build strong inter-industry relationships to drive local workforce programs.

As states continue to face budget shortfalls, it is important for dealers to meet with legislators and educators to stress the importance of electives that can start students on a successful career path.

RDO Equipment Co.'s 'Access Your Future'
With more than 50 dealership locations serving customers with John Deere agriculture, construction, and Vermeer product lines, RDO Equipment Co. has taken an active role in recruiting qualified technicians and parts people.

"Recruiting for these parts and technician positions are critical for us because they are the front-line delivery of our customer service; this is our promise to our customers," said Jean Zimmerman, vice president of organizational development.

RDO Equipment Co. began its "Access Your Future" program seven years ago to address its ongoing need for qualified technicians and parts personnel. Once a student is accepted into a qualified program, an RDO Equipment Co. dealership formally agrees to sponsor him or her. The program provides part-time employment for students, and upon completion of the program they are offered employment at one of the dealerships, along with reimbursement of up to $8,000 in educational expenses. To get the word out about the program and attract students, RDO Equipment Co. trained its service managers to work with local high schools and recruit into the dealership. "They are able to go in and 'talk the talk' about technical careers and why RDO Equipment Co. is a great place to build a career," said Zimmerman.

"We have a two-pronged approach to recruiting – the service managers work with the high schools and shop teachers, and our employee relations team participates in recruiting fairs, college advisory boards, and collaborates with our manufacturing partners."

According to Zimmerman, the program, which is supported by both Vermeer and John Deere, has been very successful. Partnering schools include the Minnesota State Community and Technical College (AED Accredited),Walla Walla Community College, North Dakota State College of Science (AED Accredited), Miramar Community College, Texas State Technical College, Central Arizona Technical College (in the process of AED Accreditation), and Montana State University - Northern Montana State University, a four-year degree program. Despite their ongoing efforts, Zimmerman said the company still has a need for technicians, particularly in Western North Dakota where the oil industry is booming.

AIS Turns Training into a Business
Before 1995, AIS Construction Equipment, with six locations in Michigan, was like many dealers who would try to recruit technicians from local community college technical programs. But according to Steve Higgins, director of training for AIS, it wasn't successful. "We used to go to Ferris or some of the colleges and there weren't the people you wanted or everyone was working for someone else, and you were kind of stuck."

So in 1996, the company started conducting operator-training programs for Lansing Community College (AED Accredited). In 2000, it expanded and joined forces with the Eaton Intermediary School District to conduct training for area high schools. A program that started with five students now includes 165 students and employs four full-time and four part-time AIS trainers. AIS is a Komatsu certified technical training center and also conducts training for dealers all over the U.S. All of the training is done at existing AIS facilities. (For more information about training, visit www.aistraining.com.)

According to Higgins, the program is a win-win for the dealer and the school. "There is no way they could run a program with a half-million dollars in equipment," said Higgins. For AIS it means they can select the cream of the crop from the community college training program they run. "We tell students, you are here on a job interview for two years," said Higgins. He adds that there were really no obstacles in setting up the self-funding training program. AIS is paid by the college for the classes it runs.

Higgins believes perceptions of the industry are changing. "The idea that the industry is for the lesser achievers isn't really so," he added. "I would just as soon attract the guy that wanted to be an engineer." He finds that most students today recognize the need for some kind of post-secondary education to secure jobs.

Like other dealers, AIS sometimes loses good technicians to customers. "That is why you are always looking," who we might be interested in."

Dealer Engagement is a Stumbling Block
The reality of the workforce shortage situation is that while many dealers are frustrated by both the number and quality of students graduating from construction equipment technician programs, lack of dealer involvement is perhaps the biggest stumbling block for schools.

More diesel/equipment technical programs, at both college and secondary levels, are needed to meet industry demand. The AED Foundation has created an accreditation infrastructure to ensure that colleges will meet the Foundation's technical education standards. The standards have been developed and updated by Foundation task forces of technical experts, who represent a broad cross-section of AED dealers, industry manufacturers and technical colleges. The AED Foundation's goal is to have accredited technical programs at 30 colleges by the end of 2012. There are currently 33 AED Accredited and Education Alliance technical programs at 24 colleges throughout the U.S.

"There are a lot of auto- and truck-related, or combined on- and off-highway programs, but if you really look at programs with specific focus on construction equipment, there are not so many," said Johnson from The AED Foundation. "Our diesel/equipment technical standards are rigorous enough that they require every bit of available classroom and lab time to accomplish our standards and get a student out in two years with an Associate in Science or Associate in Applied Science degree.

"We have a list of more than 50 schools identified that we would like to work with, but getting people interested in working with us and getting the schools involved in the accreditation process is another challenge," said Johnson. So critical is dealer support to the process that the Foundation requires at least one AED member sponsoring dealership. "The reason is that without industry help, it is not likely that schools will be able to achieve accreditation," explained Johnson.

The stumbling blocks for schools include the high cost of equipment and supplies, student recruiting challenges, and a shortage of instructors, as well as dwindling state funding. The AED Foundation's model is built on community-based, school-to-work programs in which the community and local industry support the schools that are training the people that they hire. "Those personal connections are more effective than just about anything you can do," said Johnson.

Still, the cost of a heavy equipment educational program is not cheap. "A student is going to have to buy at least $5,000 worth of tools just to get through a two-year program," said Johnson. "In total, a technician might need $20,000 in tools for his first job. In most cases, the schools could use more support."

Idaho State University's Bullock feels he has good support from industry through dealers such as Western States Caterpillar, but they still struggle to keep up with new technology and could use more involvement from dealers. Other schools, such as AVTEC Alaska Institute of Technology have found that donations of equipment, parts and supplies have really waned in recent years.

"We would like to see dealers involved in our recruitment efforts," said Bullock, "by going into schools and showing the students how the machines operate, and the needs the companies have. Everyone agrees it is a good idea, but the commitment hasn't been there.

"There are things you can do even in a tough economy," he said. "It is about resources that they have that we don't." This might include up-to-date service manuals and training catalogs from the manufacturers, and allowing the school's faculty to sit in on training seminars. "We need their help to keep the curriculum up to date. It always ought to be a win-win."

Targeting a Different Demographic
With shortages looming, dealers might consider targeting women for technician and parts positions. Donna Milgrim, executive director of the National Institute for Women in the Trades, Technology and Science (NIWITT), has a lot of ideas for how to accomplish this. The organization is a national nonprofit that works with educators and employers to close the gender gap.

In a program developed for Las Positas College, NIWITT succeeded in increasing the percentage of females in automotive and welding classes, going from a baseline of 5.4 percent for women to 14.3 percent in spring 2010 – an increase of 8.9 percent. In addition, classroom strategies employed by instructors resulted in improved retention for both males and females. Over two years, retention rates went from a baseline for female students of 74.2 percent to an average completion rate of 97.6 percent (an increase of 23.4 percent), while the male completion rate went from a baseline of 88.2 percent to an aggregate of 95.8 percent (an increase of 7.6 percent).

"There are some common strategies that work across all vocational areas," said Milgrim. Among them, identifying female role models and obtaining photos and quotes to use in posters, brochures, flyers and a dedicated website section for women. Also effective are retention strategies such as training faculty to use teaching methods that recognize female learning styles, as well as providing building block skills and ensuring female students spent equal time using the equipment in the labs.

Milgrim finds that getting women exposed to these careers is a key factor. "If they get career information, that often is a difference for them – having information and thinking that it is possible." Educators have found that women in their programs do quite well, but that industry hasn't really recognized the opportunity. Bullock would like to see the industry develop some marketing that would help schools attract more women. A wealth of information and tools can be found at www.iwitts.org.

Retaining Workers Just as Important as Recruitment
When both contractors and dealers are short on technicians and parts people, your workers become a target for competitors. So what can you do to keep employees happy? Josette Goldberg, president of Goldberg Executive Coaching, finds that development and people feeling as though they have an opportunity to advance their skills, is becoming the new commodity. "At the end of the day, companies need to find out why people are leaving," said Goldberg. "It might be pay, it might be advancement, it might be culture."

Goldberg works with teams to facilitate communication. "People don't ask the questions," said Goldberg. "What is important to you and what do you need? You can't guess that." With four generations in the workplace, employers need to understand that tensions will exist. "Understand what each generation brings to the table to meet the same goal," said Goldberg. "There is a tension, but it should be a healthy tension."

Jobs are attracting talent to the industry right now, but there aren't enough schools to meet even the current demand. There are a number of ways dealers can get engaged in workforce initiatives, but without their involvement, the workforce will simply not be there when we need it. Our industry has a good story to tell, but schools can't tell it for you. Schools can't operate without industry support and The AED Foundation cannot do it without your help. It's time for everyone to do their part.
Building Connections with Students and Schools

10 easy ways to support workforce development
  1. Contact a local heavy equipment technical school and talk to them about getting involved in AED accreditation.
  2. Participate in career nights at local high schools and community colleges.
  3. Donate construction equipment, parts or supplies to a community college that teaches heavy equipment technology.
  4. Provide job shadowing opportunities for high school students.
  5. Provide heavy equipment instructors with opportunities to train at your facility.
  6. Provide access to parts resources and technical training manuals.
  7. Provide summer job opportunities to high school and technical college students.
  8. Invite local heavy equipment school instructors and students to events at your dealership, such as an open house.
  9. Sit on an advisory board for a local technical school.
  10. Contact your legislators and let them know that your schools need more technical programs.
For more information on supporting The AED Foundation's workforce initiatives contact Steve Johnson at 630-574-0650 or visit www.aednet.org.
Joanne Costin is a freelance writer and marketing consultant focusing on the construction industry. She can be reached at (847) 358-1413 or jcostin@costincustom.com.
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