Operators In the Classroom.

Training reaches higher level as contractors meet industry demands.

by Lucy T. Avera


Training is an ongoing process for most producers and contractors. It never stops. Instead, it evolves. Methods, quantity, and consistency always change. What is the best method for training new recruits ? How much information should you present to them in one sitting? How often should you present that information to them? How well is the industry meeting the training needs of its employees? These questions draw some interesting answers about the asphalt industry training picture. A solid employee training program is essential for contractors who want to get an edge on the competition, achieve pay bonuses, and keep good workers. But other factors make training more critical right now. With the national highway system in place, the people who helped build it over the last 40 years are retiring, and with them go the walking text books of the asphalt industry. On the other side of the coin, because of the shift in job responsibilities from the agency to the contractor, talented people are highly sought-after right now. Plus, a healthy job market in some parts of the country has workers shopping around for the best employers.

The industry has "made major strides in the last five years" in training, and it's been a good effort, says Dale Decker, vice president of research and technology for the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), "But we need to do more. I recently heard the average (work) life of a person in this industry is five years. That's frightening."


Factors working against the industry

Gordon Harner, safety manager for Barrett Paving Materials Inc., Roseland, NJ, sees a major change in the level of ability of today's worker. "With the demise of the agrarian economy, we don't have the technical, hands-on inclination we used to have," says Harner. Years ago, he says, "when you got your drivers license, you worked on your own car. In the last 15 years, things have changed to the point where we can't work on them ourselves."

John Ball, industry consultant, also believes today's workers aren't the same type people they were years ago. They want different things in a job. "You don't see people coming in at the ground level, and moving up from the inside," says Ball, whose firm is Top Quality Paving, Manchester, NH. Historically, the laborer would work his way up. He would be promoted to roller operator after spending a few years as a laborer. "Now," Ball says, "You have people who want to come right in and be a roller operator and they have no clue about the fundamentals of equipment operations. People don't want to be the grunt, but they have to start somewhere."

Retiring workers present another challenge for all segments of the industry-or maybe not. Veterans traditionally have been relied on to show newer workers the ropes, and with their departure goes a wealth of knowledge- but maybe not for long. Harner says the whole retirement scenario is changing. "Years ago at Barrett there was a time when people on the firing line would get to the point where they had it and would move into another job. Today, someone (at management level) could retire to running a machine."

Ball Agrees. "For all the changes in worker expertise, the customer is just as demanding as ever," he says. That means the stress level is greater, as is the need for experienced workers. "There are specified compaction requirements, bonus spec requirements, ridability factors. The customer has not let up, and in fact is making more of a demand. So companies are stressed if they don't have talented people on their paving crews. As a result," says Ball, "retirees are not staying home for long. Guys are telling the local unions in this part of the country that they are calling on retirees to come back because the talent pool is not there."

Clarence Richard believes plant operators also have to change to keep up with the greater demands required of government agencies, other customers and the competition. "The operator has always been required to think, act and react all day long, and some in very harsh and stressful environments," says the plant operations consultant from Minnetonka, Minn.

But, Richard puts a positive spin on the situation, saying environments have actually become less stressful with improved working conditions, automation and communications. Plus, he says that sometimes retirement is a blessing for producers. "Some veterans retire operating their plant as they had done 20 years previous. They refuse to keep up with the times. Some companies actually look forward to the retirement."

The loss is greatest, he says, when a highly talented operator retires and the company is unprepared for the situation. If management has provided a qualified assistant for the retiring plant operator and the assistant has had the training needed to replace the veteran, then the loss is not as difficult for the company to deal with.


Making the bells and whistles work

Ball and Richard see a major shift in the sophistication of the equipment used today. With microprocessors, on board computers and more refined electrical systems in place, a different level of expertise is demanded of crew members at both the plant and paving sites. Ball says that shift effects not only the need for training, but the way new crew members think.

"These brand new machines are sophisticated. For example, now you have hydrostatic drive where you used to have clutch and chain." Ball says that today's crew members have book smarts, but they need "street smarts." He says it is sometimes difficult for same crew members to stray from what they've been taught. "They may have to improvise. For instance, a roller operator may not be able to just roll straight up and back like the book states." Factors at the job site require an operator to be flexible and quick-thinking.

Plus, he says that training is critical for crew members to keep up with today's high-tech standard equipment features. Manufacturers are beefing up equipment, while asphalt crew members are maintaining their par. Ball believes if contractors and their crews don't stay on the cutting edge of technology, manufacturers will pass them by.

Richard says today's plant operator is radically different from yesterday's. "The operator 30 years ago would not recognize his duties if he were thrown into the job today."It would be easier to train today's plant operator to operate the equipment of 30 years ago," he says. "It would be more difficult to train (the operator from 30 years ago) to maintain today's equipment for two reasons: 1) The equipment is more complex; and 2) The industry demands higher safety, quality, production and efficiency standards."

"The operations picture has changed dramatically," he continues, "Thirty years ago it was not uncommon to find batch operators pulling levers on the side of a hot dusty batch tower. Relays and stepping switches controlled batching and mixing in the fancier plants. Drum mix plants were in their infancy and controls were crude then. Twenty years ago integrated circuits improved accuracy and ten years ago the microprocessor/personal computer made it possible to manipulate all the data into reports for inventory control, billing, costing, and the like," says Richard.


Healthy job market creates job hopping

"Because of increasingly healthy markets in some parts of the country, job hopping has created yet another challenge for producers and contractors," says Ball. Crew members will move on if they don't like a company because there is a lot of work available. "As they become proficient, they check out the pay, ask questions, and shop around for better compensation. That puts more demand on companies to offer their employees a better compensation and benefits package," he says. "The market for jobs is so good, operators can shop around, and once they (gain experience), they know they can go wherever they want."


Meeting the training challenge

Ball, Richard and Harner all agree that the shifts in expertise and job market have forced changes in the way crew members and operators are trained today. Harner believes trainers now have to be more elementary with new people coming in. "We have to try putting ourselves in the position of new hires. We assume people have the ability, such as understanding how to use an adjustable wrench on a bolt. It's hard to handle, and new people don't always know how to do it."

"The challenge," he says, "is in discovering what forms of training are most effective. "Audio-visual techniques on their own without follow-up discussion are passé. Slide presentation are rare anymore. "I don't think most of us doing training have been trying to figure the mix. We practice hands-on training, but we don't follow up."

Ball believes the training team is a triangle. "The first side," he says, "is the company. Any solid training program has to come from within, and the company has to have a clear goal in mind. Are you establishing a training program because of production, quality, bonus pay? Once training goals are set, the second side of the triangle-the manufacturers-do they support the product? Are they knowledgeable of the equipment, not just parts and safety, but of operations?"

"Side three," says Ball, "is the employee. Crew members must have a 'wannabe' attitude: We want to be the best. We want to produce the best product. We want to have the best crew. To be successful, the training program has to have a buy-in from the people who are going to be trained," he adds.

Harner also believes companies must have an organized training program. "Contractors," he says, "need to be realistic when they hire people. Employers must present both the opportunities and limitations of the job. I often think some companies have misled employees and that can be a disaster. Further," says Harner, "follow-up is critical so both employer and employee know what the expectations are. Employees need to see the opportunity for promotions as a bench mark to judge how they are progressing."


Not so much what, but how

"How companies train has changed," says Ball. "Traditionally companies themselves hardly trained people. The training came from within the crew, and people worked up from the ground level. Then, maybe a veteran operator would be designated the official trainer, but might face a crew not ready for a formal training program, and not accepting of the trainer. Now," says Ball, "contractors are recognizing the need for outside involvement in the training process. Now, a company recognizes that the skill level in the field is going down, and looks to manufacturers, consultants and dealers to come up with a training program in the field."

"Manufacturers need to make sure operators use all the bells and whistles," he continues, "In the past, sales people would come out to the field, but they may not have been very well versed in the operation of the equipment they were selling. Now," says Ball, "the sales person will go back to the factory and bring out someone who has been in the field. So now it's a two-person team of sales and product support."

Harner of Barrett Paving also believes contractors should get manufacturers involved in the training picture. "Use manufacturers, for plant and paver schools. Have specific sessions where you bring aggregate and HMA people in at one time."

Richard, too, believes in manufacturer involvement. "Equipment manufacturers are always willing to make the effort to instruct equipment owners on the proper use and maintenance of their equipment. They have always been a great source of training."

"Training consultants/instructors may be an added plus to a contractor's training program," says Richard, adding that service type personnel capable of teaching the skills it takes to operate and maintain plants safely are good considerations for leading training classes.

"But," he adds, "training needs evolve, and producers must learn to grow their training programs as their companies grow. Companies initially develop their training in-house and only take advantage if outside sources when services come with equipment purchases," he says. "Training continues as experience is developed and education is acquired through the 'school of hard knocks,'" he adds.

"As companies grow they take on other plants and plant specialists are hired. These people now have a powerful group of minds to share ideas with," says Richard. "Small companies with one plant can be very stagnant in plant operation when the company has only the operator to draw on for ideas and direction."

"Where safety is concerned, Barrett Paving trains 'virtually every employee on the payroll,'" says Harner. The training comes in one-day sessions or weekly toolbox meetings. "And we use every source of information we can."

"Barrett has make a concerted effort to increase training over the last four or five years, tracking time, money, and the type of training needed," he says. The company has found that a combination of the most effective tools works best, and that variety is always good as long as there is a balance between theoretical and hands-on training. "Hands-on formats," says Harner, "reinforce what's taught in class, but manufacturers must be a part of the picture."

Richard believes in interactive lecture. "This means lecturing, questioning and hands-on show-and-tell. People are alive, thinking and moving. They sit and absorb, then they are allowed to think and act on their feet under pressure."

He says that this process works particularly well in teaching electrical troubleshooting. "So much of this is abstract. You can't see it. So stories are used to compare physical things to electrons and how they act." The intense lecturing in one sitting is more than most operators can take, he believes. So if you "stir in a little question and answer, team paper troubleshooting, and individual hands on physical troubleshooting, you'll get happy, satisfied, challenged operators who feel they have accomplished something significant that day."

Another teaching method Richard draws on is personifying problems. In many instances the operator comes to these classes with a problem, so classes are begun by identifying problems the operator may have. As the class runs its course, the problems are addressed at the proper time. The operator, class and instructor troubleshoot the problem as a team when everyone knows the fundamentals of the process.

"Many times the operator is so new he does not know he has problems. These problems will surface in the class if the instructor asks key process questions of all the operators at the class opening," he continues. "After the team troubleshooting process, these operators are now armed with solutions to take back with them to attack their problem."

Ball and Harner believe teaming, or the buddy system, also works. "We team new people with people who have been around awhile. It almost has to be an immersion thing. The new person will work with someone who has worked for the company and can translate actions. That way he can sieve through and sort out the information," says Harner.

"But," Ball says, "the situation becomes useless when retiring operators no longer have an interest in training their partners. As they reach retirement, after 30 or 40 years, they don't always want to take the time to teach the newcomer. Companies are taking the loss and the stress level is increasing." he believes.

Richard believes, although in most cases veteran operators are thoughtful, open-minded and considerate, partnering with a veteran operator can sometimes be scary. "A veteran," he says, "may have bad habits and ideas he is 'sowing into' a recruit, and retraining veterans can be difficult. These people have lived with certain concepts for such a long time it's almost like it is part of them. Some managers send plant operators to training workshops just so the operators can hear what the manager was saying all along from another source ."


Changing attitudes in and out of the industry

Ball says that sometimes it's merely the need to change attitudes. Veterans can pass along negative ideas, but often newcomers need reprogramming as well. Traditionally not the most attractive type of career to choose, the asphalt industry must do something about the negatives, he believes, and training is one way to do that. "We need to change the attitudes of people coming on board," he says. "We have to pay more attention to the new guys, follow up with them, make sure they are satisfied they know what they are doing, and are satisfied with the training they are receiving."

Harner agrees. "The industry," he says, "needs more positive exposure. We need to get people out to see what's going on. People often think our industry is just long hours, very hot, dirty, un-agreeable. They develop a sweatshop mentality."

The industry, he says, needs some defending as a career possibility. "It's not as bad as it seems, and we need to turn this mentality around. It's often harder (for newcomers) to see what will be accomplished two to three years down the road. But just think: They can point to something they have made and have pride in themselves."


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