Public sector fleet organizations have suspended their on-site training programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and groups offering technical certifications have canceled on-site testing and extended certification expiration dates.
As of May, states are cautiously opening up again. As public fleets try to go back to business as normal, expect more reliance on online training and testing, lower training budgets, and precautions to keep instructors and students safe.
How Training is Affected
Tomika Gordley is the training coordinator for the City of Long Beach, Calif., fleet and serves as the training coordinator for the Municipal Equipment Maintenance Association (MEMA) in Southern California.
She said training has been disrupted at the fleet level as well as the association level.
“We have roughly three training classes a month, so it’s drastically impacted our training opportunities here [in Long Beach]. For MEMA, we roughly try to aim for six training opportunities in a year and we haven’t been able to hold one yet this year,” she reported in late April.
And it’s not just because Long Beach had half its technicians working on-site for a week, then staying home the next week. It’s also because vendors are reluctant to schedule classes because they are unsure about class sizes and demand, she said.
Luckily, many vendors do provide online learning opportunities, offering hundreds of classes. Technicians who aren’t in the shop are asked to take these classes while at home, and Gordley said the most popular ones are ASE (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) refresher classes.
Gordley isn’t sure yet when in-person training will resume, but she does expect e-learning to continue to be available to technicians.
The City of Columbus, Ohio, has its technicians working in four-hour shifts to allow for social distancing. After a six-week training hiatus (as of early May), Columbus is already looking forward. Fleet Administrator Kelly Reagan said he’s looking into getting Cummins into the facility with compressed natural gas (CNG) motor training in the summer. The last time they did this, the class had 65 technicians — this summer, class size might be limited to as low as 25, he said.
Expiring Certifications Are Extended
ASE automatically extended expiration dates for those whose certifications are expiring June 30, moving it to Dec. 31. This allows those who were unable to take recertification tests due to test site closures and social distancing rules more time to recertify. ASE also announced it would resume testing in select locations in mid May.
Similarly, the EVT Certification Commission has automatically extended any certifications expiring in 2020 to the end of the year, Dec. 31. It canceled its June EVT nationwide exams and is expected to continue its next nationwide testing, scheduled for Oct. 14-20.
Testing Sites May Be Changing
The City of Columbus is an official testing center for ASE and EVT certifications, as well as CNG tank certification testing. Testing usually happens once a month, but the city had to skip its April testing, and Reagan doesn’t expect to begin testing again until July. Even then, things won’t be the same as before.
“We may not be able to test as many people, and there will be social distancing happening. There will be health checks before anyone can enter our facilities,” he said.
As of May, technicians must pass a health check before each shift (consisting of questions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a temperature check). To keep his own employees safe, Reagan anticipates all test takers entering the facility will have to undergo the same health check, and desks will be spaced out more. This could mean limiting the number of test takers by up to half, he said.
Reagan believes in the future, we may see more online testing and moving away from proctored on-site testing. He pointed out that universities are already using this technology to test students.
Why Online Training Can Only Be a Supplement
While fleet managers may be turning to online classes to supplement their training, Dan Berlenbach, fleet services manager for the City of Long Beach, wonders how easily technical skills can be taught online.
“Do you need to actually learn by touching and doing it with your hands?” he said. “And if you are [looking at] PowerPoint slides, how can you enhance retention of the knowledge…if it’s not in a live setting, if there’s no lab?”
Gordley agrees, stating that online classes are “extremely limiting.”
“Our group of guys here, they are definitely a hands-on group…Being able to touch and see the equipment, see how it works, see what to unscrew, see what to plug in, that enhances their training opportunity. So it’s definitely a change for them doing online training,” she said.
Budget Cuts May Reduce Training Opportunities
Gordley said she’d been told the training budget for Long Beach would likely decrease to less than half what it was the prior year, which was around $75,000. This will likely reduce the number of classes the city’s fleet bureau can offer.
Reagan expects a reduced capital budget the next fiscal-year, but a flat operational budget. His goal is to not cut the $75,000 annual training budget.
“I’ve said if we’re going to cut anywhere, that’s not one place we cut, is training,” he said. “I calculate the return on investment, and for every dollar I spend in training, there’s a return.”
And while other fleet operations may face larger cuts than his, Reagan urges them to keep their training dollars intact.
“I think what’s unfortunate is the first place [fleets] are going to look to cut is training, and that’s really the last place that we want you to look. Training dollars should remain in place so folks can continue to grow,” he said.