It’s probably happened to every fleet manager at one point: A technician wants to take time off, but this employee knows vehicles and equipment that your other technicians don’t. What happens if there’s an emergency? Who would you call? This scenario is the perfect example of why you should be actively involved in cross-training your staff.
Expanding Skill Sets
Jerry Drake, CAFM, emergency vehicle fleet superintendent for the City of Tucson, Arizona, Fire Fleet Management, said it’s been his department’s goal to support continuous development to improve processes, increase efficiencies, and decrease costs for customers. His employees are cross-trained in all positions so they have an appreciation of their co-workers’ duties, can make suggestions on improvements, and proficiently serve in any position as needed.
When training budgets were cut in 2011, Tucson Fire Fleet Management implemented a program for its emergency vehicle technicians (EVTs) to cross-train its employees. Tucson Fire Fleet Management has highly trained and qualified technical staff members who possess individual areas of expertise, so technicians allowed time to prepare a lesson plan and conduct training classes to share their knowledge and strengthen the team.
An initial concern with implementing this type of program was the time employees needed away from their positions to prepare for the classes and conduct the training. Although implementation was challenging at times, the outcome produced a stronger, more knowledgeable, and versatile team. EVTs are now able to fill in when needed in supervisory positions, as parts specialists, small equipment/ self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) technicians, and tire technician positions.
“All these positions require multiple Master Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), EVT, Tire Industry Association (TIA), and Scott Air Product certifications for SCBA and breathing air compressor for maintenance and repair, which they have also achieved,” said Drake.
To initially get everyone on board, Drake held meetings to explain and discuss the excesses of workload and workflow issues causing stressed conditions due to being severely understaffed. Specific tasks, duties, and roles were identified, and technicians were asked who was interested in teaching in their areas of expertise.
“Most remain eager to learn other areas of fleet management. We are at the point that should there be absences in any area, our cross-trained employees have been given the autonomy to work independently in that area and can maintain continuity efficiently,” he explained.
Tapping Into the Desire to Be Better
While technicians may enjoy working in a specific niche, fleet managers may be surprised at how many are interested in advancing their knowledge of other pieces of equipment. That’s why Nathan Wachtendonk, fleet manager for the City of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Department of Public Works, asks for volunteers instead of forcing them into it.
“By getting their take on it and showing you care about what they are comfortable with, they become more willing to participate,” he said.
Wachtendonk said he hasn’t faced too many difficulties in finding cross-training volunteers, because it’s doubly beneficial to those undergoing the training. The knowledge can help them climb the ranks and discover possible new passions. Don’t make it as much about the operation as about their own professional growth when pitching the idea.
Usually, he will have a technician who is well-versed with a particular vehicle type team up with another technician on various projects until the “student” feels comfortable with attempting the kind of work on his or her own. After the initial training is done, that’s not the end of the assistance the technician receives. The pair will continue to help each other out with any necessary troubleshooting.
“The bottom line is that nobody wants to be ‘voluntold,’” he said.
One benefit for those who decide to embark on their cross-training journey is more flexibility when it comes to requesting time off. If more than one person knows how to deal with multiple kinds of equipment, fleet managers won’t run into the problem of having to worry about “what if” scenarios, thereby making it easier to give the go-ahead on requests for paid time off.
However, cross-training isn’t just beneficial if someone is out of the office. With more technicians who are familiar with specific equipment, it makes it easier to troubleshoot issues. Those who have undergone cross-training can put their heads together to figure out problems faster than if only one is trying to figure it out.
“One technician might be able to approach the issue from a different angle than the others. No two brains work the same, which means the more people you have thinking on the issue, the more likely they’ll be able to solve it quickly so they can move on to the next task, which minimizes downtime,” Wachtendonk said.
Making use of strong vendor relationships can also help when it comes to training.
“Often, vendors will come in and do training as part of an equipment purchase or as ongoing support. Some are more willing to do this, especially because a lot of it can be done virtually now. When I spec out a piece of equipment, I typically include a request for a representative from the company to come and train for a few hours,” he explained.
Expanding Skill Sets
John Hyatt, fleet manager for the City of Dublin, Ohio, said when it comes to cross-training, it must take place during normal working hours and be fully supported by management by allowing technicians to collaborate on troubleshooting various problems as a team and, at times, with hands-on instruction.
“A huge mistake I’ve seen over the years is when someone sees a couple of technicians huddled around a piece of equipment, the first thing they think is ‘there they are, goofing off again.’ In reality, what they are doing is working together to become more familiar with the piece of equipment and solve a problem,” he said.
Hyatt said the benefits he’s seen from cross-training are plentiful. It guards against employees thinking they are indispensable because more than one technician can work on a variety of vehicles and equipment. This also comes in handy when an employee gets sick, leaves, or retires — there are no hiccups in service levels. Finally, cross-training provides on-the-job professional development, which benefits all involved.
“When all technicians are capable of performing any given task, and equipment is in for repair, scheduled or unscheduled, I know as the fleet manager that any technician can perform the repair promptly. This helps to make our customers more productive and keeps our shop turnaround percentage at a very high level,” he explained.
This leads to technicians making fewer mistakes, which in turn results in a reduction in labor costs, fewer unneeded repair part purchases, and less downtime.
Hyatt said most skilled technicians who are not working flat rate are more than willing to share their knowledge with anyone wanting to learn the trade as long as they will listen to them and are not afraid to ask questions.
“In my years of supervising skilled tradesmen, I have never had to assign someone to teach another person something. It just kind of happens with time,” he said. “I believe most shops are already doing this on the side without realizing it. Technicians talk and share ideas constantly. We as a team stretch most every morning, and as we stretch, all types of conversation arise; problems they are having with equipment and issues they are troubleshooting. It turns into a meeting, which to me is another way to cross-train. Cross-training is also a great way to save on your training budget — send two technicians for training, then allow them to share the knowledge with the other technicians when they return.”
Gilbert English, parts and services manager for the Engineering Service Department, Vehicle Fleet Services, City of Raleigh, North Carolina, said when he has technicians off the floor due to physical restrictions from an injury or recovering from surgery, he pairs them with a service advisor or parts technician to learn the role. Or if a technician shows interest in moving up, the shop supervisor will begin by bringing that technician in when time permits and guide him or her through the supervisor’s tasks and roles. At a certain point, the supervisor will allow the technician to run the shop when the supervisor is out to test the waters.
English has also sent service advisors over to the parts department to learn that end of the operation as well. A few service advisors have had financial training to process invoices and do requisitions, too.
The time invested in ensuring technicians can fill multiple roles isn’t just worth it for the ones being cross-trained, either. It frees fleet managers up, enabling them to tend to managerial duties rather than covering for those who are absent.
English said before he started cross-training personnel in parts, when two or more parts technicians were out, it caused significant service delays.
“This translates into vehicles not being repaired on time, and repair work starts backing up. We have had to require overtime of our employees to overcome the backlog,” he explained.
One factor to keep in mind when cross-training, however, is to make sure technicians stay efficient; in other words, once they learn something new, provide opportunities for them to practice it. There’s no point in showing them how to do something if they are only needed for it in times of lack of personnel.
As more seasoned technicians start to retire, cross-training becomes essential. If and when you lose your “key player,” you might not find his or her replacement as quickly as you would have hoped. Gilbert also noted that in the unfortunate event of a technician getting hurt and being unable to continue to perform the job, being cross-trained in another area can open up the possibility for the technician to transfer and maintain a position with the fleet team, in a different manner.