Ongoing Training for Service Repair Department Employees

Ongoing Training for Service Repair Department Employees

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2020

Sour notes often get sounded when machines break down. Some harsh tones will meet the ears of a service department repair employee. A service department employee must, therefore, be able to maintain good cheer in difficult situations. That’s in addition to being able to expeditiously assess and provide a solution to a problem.

Is that all? By no means. Service repair department employees must be eager learners. Ongoing training keeps employees on the leading edge of protocols and best practices.

How best to provide the training to repair department employees can be vexing for distributors. “It is difficult; most of our training is on the job, conducted by experienced service techs and managers,” says Dennis Black, president, McHenry Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Frederick, MD.

“We have implemented quick service tips, ideas, and training at our company meeting,” explains Black. “We attempt to supply a five- to ten-minute presentation to cover subjects like basic electrical information, safety, plumbing, etc.”

Black says there are many good ideas for keeping employees in the service department current and strong. He likes the idea of self-check lists, for instance.

The complexity comes from the sheer number of topics in which employees must be solidly versed. A distributor must determine what these topics are and then find a way to provide instruction even as business continues.

“Having a source for the training” can be a difficulty, says Black. “We struggle for good information and resources for training our service staff.”

Black suggests that our industry could use more resources for training. He points to training from manufacturers, which is good, but too often limited to introductory or basic services. He would like to see more updates and advanced training opportunities.

Taking the initiative to find a format for more advanced training in our industry, Black has reviewed what’s going on in other industries. “We have looked at other industries for training, such as heating—HVAC—and electrical supply houses, etc. I have long been a proponent for CETA to orchestrate a continuing training program. Hopefully, a program like this will become a reality in the future.”

In his responses to us, Black touches upon many of the forms of training that can be exploited, ranging from manufacturers to professional organizations. He also sets the foundation for looking to other industries for a template for training.

We take the next step here and look at seven ways a distributor can approach ongoing training for service department employees. Putting a few of the approaches together may yield a stronger method, still. For example, rewarding employees to take a course at a local technical school would tie together incentives and formal technical training.

A word of caution: Ongoing training for service repair department employees may include attainment of certifications, but the training is not a substitute for required certifications. The scope of the work of employees determines mandatory training and certification requirements. An employer is responsible for hazard assessment and process training required if chemicals are in use, for example. OSHA requires a hazard and operability study (HAZOP) if processes are being used that use highly hazardous chemicals, though the design of the study is not dictated.

Seven Starters

  1. Manufacturers, the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), are the foundational source for information about their machines. Most offer extensive documentation, usually in digital format. When newly designed machines and ancillaries are received, they should be accompanied by up-dated or new schematics and manuals. If they are not, the service department employee should be ready to inquire why not.

         When manufacturers offer training in new equipment or use of chemicals and detergents, a distributor should send someone to the training. Even if it is training by video conferencing, it may be better to send just one focused individual who then has responsibility as an on-site trainer to train fellow service department members. Training others can be a great way to reinforce learning.

  2. Technical schools situated within a reasonable distance of a distributor may be just the answer for a new employee who is industrious but struggling with some basics. Perhaps the employee has difficulty with diagnostic tests because of a lack of understanding of how digital readings correspond to the structural configuration of a machine. A class might help.

         Similarly, perhaps a class that perfects the employee’s skills in digital data storage and retrieval will better enable the individual to make the most of the service department’s online record-keeping system. The class may even allow the employee to make or suggest improvements to the system.

  3. Consultants can help. If a distributor gets a referral to a terrific consultant, who can come in for a few days and observe the activity in a service department and point out where there are knowledge gaps or opportunities to improve, hiring that person may be a good investment.

         By hiring a consultant to list weak spots, a business owner can stay somewhat clear of the negative reaction concerned employees may have to we-can-do-better advice. A consultant also brings a fresh perspective that can invigorate everyone.

  4. Federal and state regulators that provide free training may not make a service center employee more skilled at repairing equipment, but the training from OSHA, EPA, and DOT can serve as a powerful reminder to employees of why getting it correct matters. Much of the training from regulating agencies is available online. Participation in online reviews of regulations and expectations provides a focal point around which employees can gather and broaden their understanding of the importance of their work.

         PHMSA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation, offers a robust list of training modules commensurate with its wide-ranging regulations. True, most service repair employees will not be working with hazardous materials. Yet the modules can deepen the knowledge of employees on topics ranging from safely sending batteries and battery-powered devices by mail to sampling and testing programs for unrefined petroleum-based products. (See www.phmsa.dot.gov/training/hazmat/training-modules for the complete list.)

         Here we restate the caution regarding where ongoing training and mandatory training diverge. The excellent PHMSA modules are made available with the reminder that completing them does not substitute for training mandated to meet hazard regulations.

  5. Professional organizations offer many courses related to certification requirements and to methods. Courses related to aspects of tackling mechanical and electrical systems do not seem to be as readily available. But they could be.

         We looked at an online calendar of instructional opportunities for plumbing and mechanical services prepared by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Sixty-nine events were listed for April 2020. Topics included “What’s New in the Uniform Plumbing Code,” “Math for the Trades,” and “What’s New in the Mechanical Code.” (See idph.iowa.gov/pmsb/training/calendar.) The calendar format could easily be adapted by professional organizations as they fill it with topics and training relevant to their members.

  6. Incentives may be used to encourage employees to learn. They range from employer reimbursement for job-relevant courses to increases in pay tied to more training or certifications.
  7. Adoption (with retailoring) of techniques used to train employees in highly specialized areas) can be useful. Take repair of equipment used in ophthalmology as an example. Writing in the open-access Community Eye Health Journal, Sam Powdrill, Ismael Cordero, and V. Srinvasan published an article titled “Training for equipment maintenance and repair” that could serve nicely as a starting point for fortifying a program for repair department employees in our industry. (See the entire text at www.cehjournal.org/article/training-for-equipment-maintenance-and-repair.)

A few tips from the eye journal follow. Establish the setting for learning: demonstrate, supervise first tries (practice), be patient, and have a backup plan. Make sure employees understand the significance of their work, such as the risk posed by a machine that is not properly repaired. Remind employees to take the opportunity of having a machine in the shop for a specific issue—repair should not be the only goal, but there should also be routine checks on filters and renewable parts as well as checks for damage.So rich in good ideas for training is the article from the eye journal that we cannot give it adequate treatment here. We strongly encourage readers aiming to bolster their training for service department repair employees to read it. It’s especially useful for a distributor that wants to set up a self-check list for employees.

Ultimately, a distributor will use a variety of methods to ensure ongoing training. The mix of approaches will certainly change over time: If there are veteran members of a service department, they can train and supervise new hires. If there is a sudden turnover in employees, the entire department may need training.

The goal is always the same, however. It is to assemble a highly skilled, dedicated group of employees working in a well-designed and maintained service area. The knowledge and willingness to learn among employees is fully supported by a work area that has good lighting, storage, ventilation, and workspace, as well as excellent tools and easy access to parts and diagnostic equipment. 

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