AED’s Senior Regional Manager Phil Riggs turns some Summit Small Talk Into A Big Success in Salt Lake

It was right after former Vice President Dick Cheney’s interview at the 2017 AED Summit in Chicago; I was at the MTU dessert reception when Bob Minichbauer of Arnold Machinery came up to me. After his compliments to the AED staff for the excellent Summit experience, he was interested in hearing my thoughts on a topic that has certainly been a concern of the industry and at the forefront of our focus for several years now: the workforce shortage crisis.

Throughout the Summit you were hard-pressed to find an area of the property where The AED Foundation wasn’t being talked about in terms of what it is doing to address the issue.

Bob wanted to know what we could do in the Salt Lake area to make an impact and raise money for The AED Foundation to advance this work. He wasn’t the first person to raise this question. Folks like Jeff Scott with Intermountain Bobcat in Salt Lake, and guys like John Shearer at 4 Rivers and Giles Poulson at Faris Machinery in Colorado, had also discussed this with me in the past. The good news? Utah has an AED Local Group of nearly every dealer in the state that meets quarterly. The not-so-good news? I had my work cut out for me. I mean, how do we get competitors to put aside their differences for a day and help grow the talent pool? I told Bob I’d be at the next AED of Utah meeting to present my proposal and we’d take it from there. Later, I would come to the realization that BBQ tends to bring people together.

A month later, in February, I attended the first quarter meeting ready to go. One of the problems our industry has is that too few people outside of it know about the career opportunities in it. Students don’t know about it because teachers don’t know about it. Teachers don’t know because the guidance counselors aren’t aware, and the classes that used to teach mechanics are by-and-large gone. Salt Lake City already has an AED Foundation-accredited program at Salt Lake Community College – so the institution to educate students post high school is there, but the challenge of awareness and recruitment remains.

The plan was to hold a career day specific to the Construction Equipment industry, featuring a hog roast. Dealers would be able to bring equipment, have their own tents and put their best foot forward in front of students who might be future employees. I had strategically identified specific school districts with auto, diesel, welding and shop classes from which to invite the students, teachers, and counselors to attend, and I made it clear to the dealers that they should encourage their employees and customers to attend with their families. The only thing the dealers would have to do was make a $2,500 donation to The AED Foundation and put their best foot forward – their AED regional manager would handle the rest. I made it very clear to the nine dealers sitting around the table that day what success looked like. If we could raise at least $12,000 and have 200 people attend (50 of which would be students, teachers and parents) this would be something we could grow year after year and replicate across the country.

All the dealers thought it was an outstanding idea and was something they could “own,” as opposed to just participating in one of your run-of-the-mill career fairs. Unlike those, the AED of Utah Construction Equipment Career Day & Hog Roast would be attended only by students who had an interest in a career path like that of an equipment technician, and they would be able to see every local employer in that industry. On the other hand, many of the dealers thought I had my work cut out for me as I made it clear from the beginning that I wanted them to focus on their business and let me handle the logistics.

To say there wasn’t a lot to do to prepare for this event would be false. Obtaining quotes for party tents and catering, identifying a venue, sending out media alerts and generating press, inviting mayors, the governor, members of Congress, meeting with various school districts, developing marketing materials – anything needed to make this a successful event was taken into consideration. Several months later, with school having started up in September, we were ready to go. But the question remained: Would it be a success or a flop?

Let me start by saying the late September weather in Salt Lake isn’t much different than it is in Chicago at that time of year. You don’t know if it’s going to be warm or chilly. However, you should have a pretty good idea on the chance of rain – which in our case was high for that day. With the event being held outdoors under a 40’ x 60’ canopy tent, it was a risk we had to take. “Never wait on the weather” is what I always say. And even though it had been calling for rain all week, we stayed dry throughout!

Next up: attendance. Would we hit our head count goal? Well, we certainly took a hit on catering costs, but in a great way. Rather than our hope of 50 students from across the area, more than 200 students and teachers were bused in from four different districts – most of them with resumés in hand. We went through two whole pigs and fed 300 people. The team from Meier’s Catering was definitely keeping busy.

The dealers were at the top of their game, too. Nine participated in the event: Arnold Machinery, Intermountain Bobcat, Century Equipment, Ditch Witch of the Rockies, Honnen Equipment, Kimball Equipment, Komatsu Equipment, Rasmussen Equipment, and Wheeler Machinery. Everyone had at least one piece of equipment out there, and most brought service trucks as well. Technicians from the shops and various employees from the dealerships joined us. Most had swag, and some took down information for scholarships. Century Equipment even did a drawing for an incredible-looking grill that resembled a tool box – in CASE colors, of course.

I arranged the event so that students would fill out a card with their contact info on one side and a place for each dealership to sign off on the other side, as they made their way around to each booth for a chance to win a prize. At the end, they turned in the card to the Salt Lake Community College booth, where they learned about the Heavy Equipment Technology program there. At the end of the day, 125 of the more than 200 students turned in those cards, meaning the dealers now have access to the contact information of potential hires. It was a win-win situation for everyone.

As a side benefit, Congressman Chris Stewart, a supporter of AED’s legislative priorities, was also in attendance. He spent time meeting with the equipment dealers and even addressed the first group of students about how rewarding careers like this can be. He encouraged them to consider opportunities that don’t require a four-year degree and the debt typically associated with it.

At the end of the day, everyone went home extremely happy – and not just because it was a Friday and the Utah Utes would beat the Arizona Wildcats that night. It was because everyone had an opportunity to make a huge impact in a way that hadn’t really been done before, and they did it without competition really being a factor. Now, are all those students going to go off and become equipment technicians? No, not all of them. However, I can bet most of them went back to school on Monday and told their friends all about the awesome equipment they were able to hop in and check out, and that’s what it takes to spread awareness about this. Oh, and their teachers and counselors? Let’s just say some of them are considering different career paths now that they know the salary ranges for technicians.

The crazy thing is, all of this started with small talk at the AED Summit in Chicago  – just an extra part of the program that we typically don’t include in the brochure but that everyone knows is there. Don’t underestimate the value of that, because sometimes it can lead to some pretty incredible opportunities.

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