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Leaving a Legacy of Industrywide Workforce Development - Steve Johnson Retires from AED

All of The AED Foundation’s workforce development initiatives are the result of a collaborative effort between schools, colleges, dealers, manufacturers, vendors, and of course, the Foundation itself. As such, it is difficult to attribute the success of AED’s accreditation program or their Certified Technician Program to any one person. But if you were going to try, you might start with the person coordinating the efforts of the many professionals in the industry sectors listed above.

For the past 16 years, The AED Foundation’s Vice President of Foundation Academic Accreditation, Steve Johnson, has had a considerable impact on assembling the heavy equipment technician pipeline. Before he joined the Foundation, there were AED Foundation-accredited diesel-equipment technology programs at just seven postsecondary schools. However, The AED Foundation’s technical standards and the program fundamentals were in place and ready for further development and program expansion. The Foundation’s Canada College Affiliate initiative was still well in the future, as was AED Foundation Recognition of high school diesel technology programs. The progress since has been the result of the innovation and determined implementation of Steve Johnson, and our industry is infinitely better because of these efforts. But all good things must come to an end, and after 16 years of tireless effort, Mr. Johnson retired from the Foundation on April 28.

“I couldn’t have anticipated such a lasting and fulfilling career,” says Johnson. “I remember when Matt Di Iorio hired me at AED in 2004, there was a 90-day trial period, and at 90 days, he said, ‘I think there are some long-term possibilities here.’ It’s been a good ride, and I don’t take that for granted.”

Here are just a few of the programs that Johnson has worked on throughout his career with The AED Foundation

AED Foundation Accreditation

When Johnson started with The AED Foundation, their college accreditation program for heavy equipment technicians was inefficient. There were only seven colleges with accredited programs in 2004, and the Foundation was averaging one new accredited school per year. Today, its accredited colleges set the industry standard for equipment technology excellence.

“Steve was always the backbone of the accreditation program. His relationships and contacts with industry experts helped The AED Foundation succeed,” says Jason Blake, the Foundation’s Executive Vice President and COO. “In 2019, Steve delivered an unprecedented nine new programs for the industry.” This year, the Foundation is looking to accredit 15 new programs.

Quick to humbly spread credit for the success of the accreditation program, Johnson commented, “It’s always been a team effort. School representatives, leading manufacturers, local dealerships and AED’s regional managers worked hard with us. The schools and dealers do a lot of the heavy lifting.” Johnson conceded, “Yes, I’m the coach and facilitator, but the whole team deserves the recognition.” Asked how the accreditation program will manage in the days, months, and years to come, Johnson answered, “More schools will build off the existing pipeline of schools, and this will only continue. The program has evolved and is bearing fruit now.”

AED Foundation Secondary and High School Recognition

In 2017, The AED Foundation started the Secondary and High School Recognition program by recognizing the Anne Arundel County Public Schools Center of Applied Technology. “Given the lost opportunity and missed chances created by the 2.4-billion-dollar technician hiring shortage, we had to develop a high school and secondary level program,” said AED Executive Vice President and COO and former AED Foundation Chairman Robert Henderson. “And Steve started that initiative.”

The secondary recognition program borrows technical standards from the Foundation’s national technical college standards, creating a uniform application for younger technicians. The standards for secondary schools are then developed by the school, The AED Foundation and various industry stakeholders. Much of this consensus-building has historically been left to Johnson, who finds great pleasure in helping young technicians transition from secondary to college technical education.

“It has been very rewarding working with schools and students to present these young technicians a meaningful career of their own, something that they can support their families with and have a career path with,” says Johnson. “It has been a real privilege working with people from all of the technical schools that I interact with, including the program deans, the chairs and the instructors. It’s just an outstanding group of people. It really is fun to interact with students and watch them prepare themselves for a good career. To see the results of that, seeing students a couple of years down the line and watching them develop, it’s a good feeling.”

Johnson offered a word of advice for aspiring technicians: “It comes down to preparing yourself. If you want to be a technician, then do the right things to become a technician. Take the science and math courses that you need to be successful in a top-notch diesel technology program. Do your homework, make sure you know what the best fit for you is, in said programs. Be diligent, work hard, no matter what you are doing, whether you are preparing for college or are in college or working at the dealership.”

Certified Technician Program

Launched in 2012, The AED Foundation’s Certified Technician program allows technicians to benchmark their knowledge and skills with a two-hour online assessment. The program is now used by schools and dealerships to ensure their technicians are objectively up to speed on the latest industry-developed technical standards. “Eight years ago, Steve single-handedly put together the assessment test,” said Henderson. “Now, it is distributed globally by schools and dealerships alike.” Johnson’s recollection of the formation of the assessment test was far less unilateral.

“We brought a task force team together of technical experts from manufacturers, dealers and technical colleges with diesel technology programs, and we created the certification assessment that we are now using. That was a major accomplishment because that gave some benchmarks for the schools and people using the test. It contains information that can help colleges get better at what they do, find areas of possible improvement and where they are doing well, etc. It actually validates the results of what they are teaching through the student scores because it covers the whole two years of instruction. This added a lot of teeth to the accreditation program.”

The technical assessment platform underwent a significant system overhaul in 2017. Once again, Mr. Johnson facilitated this change, though he does give much credit to Mr. Sean Fitzgerrel, AED regional manager, whose work he says was essential to project success. The improved platform brought new user functionalities, a new interface and new possible integrations of the system. These features give schools and dealerships increased back-end analytical capabilities while also allowing administrators to pose different types of questions that better assess the knowledge necessary to succeed as a technician.

Canada College Affiliate Program

One of The AED Foundation’s more recent initiatives, the Canada College Affiliate Program, is helping to build relationships between Canadian technical colleges, the industry and the Foundation. Affiliated Canadian diesel-equipment programs are exposed to high-level networking opportunities, sharing of best practices, and student scholarships. Steve Johnson, described by Henderson as the “impetus” of this new program, has created a way for colleges unwilling or unable to become AED-accredited to get involved with AED.

Lester J. Heath III Award

During The AED Foundation Fundraising Gala at this year’s Summit, Johnson was recognized for his role in the Foundation’s workforce development initiatives by being given the Lester J. Heath III Award. First bestowed in 2017, the award is named after the first AED Foundation president, whose continuous dedication, support, and commitment helped form the Foundation and affect the industry.

“It is the most prestigious award that The AED Foundation has,” said Henderson. “Steve was most deserving of the award because of his many contributions to the industry. He was surprised, because it had never been given to a staff person. Just goes to show you the impact and influence he has had in the past 16 years.”

Parting Message

Along with thanking his wife, Bobbi, for her support and devotion throughout his career with AED, Steve left a few words for the industry: “I would like to say that the industry is well-positioned to move forward. We are doing a lot of things right. There is a lot of momentum in Washington, D.C., that the dealers and AED and The AED Foundation staff are a part of.

“Don’t join a trade organization like AED just because it is the thing to do; take advantage of the membership. Find a few things that can really be valuable to your own business, and then participate in those. Work with a college to set up a top-notch tech program in your area that is AED Foundation-accredited to develop your technician pipeline of the future. Utilize AED’s industry-specific educational offerings to develop your employees; continuing education is critical to dealer success. Join in AED’s lobbying efforts at the federal and state levels. We have our Washington Fly-In along with other events. There are lots of opportunities to make yourself heard as well as being a part of the voice of the equipment industry as a whole.

“And, again, it has been my pleasure to work in and serve the equipment distribution industry.”

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