Maintenance

Keeping Up With Off-Road Training

October 2014, Government Fleet - Feature

by Stephane Babcock - Also by this author

While online training has its benefits for experienced technicians that need either a refresher or a look at a manufacturer's updated products, it will never replace the need for hands-on training both in the classroom and at the shop. Photo via istock.com.
While online training has its benefits for experienced technicians that need either a refresher or a look at a manufacturer's updated products, it will never replace the need for hands-on training both in the classroom and at the shop. Photo via istock.com.

No matter how much technology evolves, there will always be a need for the basics, whether you’re working on computers, vehicles, or even off-road equipment. When it comes to ensuring your backhoe is ready to move earth, snow, or stones, or your mowers are ready for the fall foliage that fills your parks, technicians need to be ready with the latest and greatest skills to meet your department’s needs.

Starting with the Basics

Before a technician can jump headfirst into off-road equipment repairs, he or she needs the basic knowledge afforded by a well-trained technical school staff. Those with a thirst for equipment repair have a long list of choices when it comes to finding the right programs for them. In some cases, the schools will partner with a manufacturer, as is the case with Indiana’s Vincennes University, which offers both a diesel technology and a John Deere program. Graduates are awarded an applied science associate’s degree to help them begin their journey.

“Initial training is essential for technicians today. With the advancement of electronics in the transportation industry, basic theory and principles of electricity/electronics is a must,” said Tim Hale, Vincennes Transportation Department chair. “Technicians must know basic theory of the equipment they service. However, more attention is being put on diagnostics to determine the failure as well as the root cause of said failure.”

In some cases, off-road equipment technician training can differ from other forms of technician training in that the off-road technician must sometimes perform repairs in remote locations away from information or other resources needed, according to Hale.

“Therefore they must be well trained and experienced in their field,” he added. “Many technology colleges provide classes tailored for current technicians.”

Jeff Klehr, a diesel technician program ­instructor at Central Lakes College (CLC) in Minnesota, believes that although changes in technology for off-road equipment are happening every year, future technicians still need to know the basic principles in order to understand how to troubleshoot and repair off-road equipment.

“In a hydraulic system, the principles haven’t changed,” explained Klehr. “Engines still require air and fuel, and the pistons still move up and down. Indeed hydraulic systems are more efficient and complex than they were years ago, and that is covered, but without the basic understanding behind the theory of hydraulics, a future technician will not be able to use their test equipment, which now includes a computer to troubleshoot and repair a hydraulic system.”

CLC’s program also trains its students on the newest technology, which is usually covered hands-on with the specialized equipment. But, Klehr also understands that students need to be able to learn on their own.

“We can’t memorize everything in our industry, and technicians need to be able to learn for themselves when they get out in their career,” he added.

The heavy equipment in use today is more sophisticated than other forms of transportation, according to Klehr. Although it might have many similar components, a number of sub systems also need to work together to make the machine more efficient.

“Heavy equipment has changed a lot and we as educators must also change what we teach and how we teach,” Klehr said. “We must get input from people out in the industry as to what they think an entry-­level technician must have in order to be successful in their place of work.”

Keeping Up with Technology

Even with a degree and advanced technical skills under their belts, technicians need to be ready to catch with the numerous changes in technology, which can happen in the blink of an eye.

“Just as the automotive technician must adjust to technology changes, the off-road equipment technology has certainly equaled the pace,” said Thomas Jelley, fleet manager of the City of Arlington, Texas. “With the addition of multiplex electrical systems and drive-by-wire technology, the training necessary to diagnose one of these systems is more than likely to be available only from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

However, training is often not free, or cheap, so government fleets, with their tight budgets, need to look for ways to reduce costs. Jelley suggested managing the cost of training by writing the training, the manuals, the diagnostic software and even the necessary hardware into the bid proposal when purchasing equipment.

“If you go this route, don’t forget to include the software updates, at least throughout the warranty period,” he added.

During the hiring process as fleet manager of the City of Arlington, Jelley had a specific list of requirements that he first looked for when interviewing prospective technicians.

“I have always looked for strong fundamental knowledge and thorough understanding of the basic principles of electronics, hydraulics, force, heat, and especially mathematics,” Jelley said.

Todd Perrine, vice president of product support at Leslie Equipment Company, a construction equipment dealer, advises fleet managers to ensure that a very serious training path is followed for each technician in the department.

“There are so many brands and models, this forces companies to standardize in many models and even brand familiarity,” Perrine said. “More commitment to training and scheduled training is and will be a must.”

But, it not only falls on the shoulders of the technicians themselves to keep abreast of the latest changes in off-road equipment. Fleet managers need to stay in constant communication with the equipment dealers and manufacturers to know when training is offered, according to Jelley.

“OEMs are more willing to open up their training seats to customers during their scheduled sessions than to be forced to provide bid-specified closed sessions,” he added. “There were OEMs that were more difficult to work with than others, and some were downright not worth the effort, but providing a tech with the opportunity to learn will not only increase confidence and cut his or her repair times, I found that it serves to place a positive image on the fleet and of course, helps the bottom line.”

Taking Training Beyond the Classroom, Maintenance Bay

While hands-on training is a must for initial and often ongoing training, many technicians have found that online training is a viable option.

“As a general rule, the growing use of electronics in virtually all vehicle segments has driven the need for more of this type of training,” said Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). “We’re seeing more distance learning solutions being offered online.”

This type of training could be done on the job at a work station, at home on a personal computer, or even on the couch with a tablet computer. But, before technicians take this type of training, CLC’s Klehr advises a more traditional preliminary approach.

“A lot of the training for the future will be online, but if a technician doesn’t know the basics it will be harder for them to understand,” he suggested, adding that some of his current classroom assignments involve students getting online and taking a particular course from the equipment manufacturer. “Now you can get a picture or video on how something works or even how to repair a component. Most of the time this is free, and also a person can do this anytime they have free time and do it in the comfort of their own home.”

Like Klehr, Vincennes University’s Hale believes that while the online courses are a great training tool, they should be geared more toward experienced technicians as update lessons.
“The less experienced technician may need instructor-led, hands-on training for full understanding of course content,” Hale added.

Perrine from the Leslie Equipment Company sees the benefit in using online training for refresher courses and even certain types of pre-training, “but real training is done by trainers that have field experience and ones that can teach what happens in the real life.”

Online training has cost-saving benefits as well, according to Jelley, Arlington’s fleet manager. Specific diagnostics and OEM training that once required technicians to travel to a classroom or a conference can now be performed over the internet via web conferencing at their convenience, which ensures that fleet services are not interrupted by their absence.

“Having a tablet with a diagnostic or repair manual right inside a cab with a tech is also an advantage that some of us never experienced. It probably affected our longevity to some degree; having to climb down from a piece the size of a Cat 924 [or larger] to read a wiring schematic,” said Jelley.

For Klehr, in the end the onus, in many ways, falls upon not just the students and certified technicians, but the men and women who prepare them to work in the real-world setting.

“Heavy equipment has changed a lot and we, as educators, must also change what we teach and how we teach. We must get input from people out in the industry as to what they think an entry-level technician must have in order to be successful in their place of work. I am a strong believer that a technician must know the basics behind the many systems that are used in off-road equipment in order to be a successful technician and be willing and motivated to be able to learn on their own as the heavy equipment keeps on changing,” he concluded.

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