Frustration from the field

Joel Leonard, contributing editor, says the name has been withheld to protect the honest.

By Joel Leonard, contributing editor

The following is from an e-mail I received recently:

“I figure I’d add my two cents worth of experiences, observations, frustrations and suggestions to help the Maintenance Crisis. A link that I came across (http://ecmweb.com/nec/whats_wrong_here/electric_whats_wrong_82) has something you might show to your audience.

“The picture shows an older machine control panel that’s been modified over the years. This type of wiring spaghetti mess usually appears during breakdowns when you don't have trained people fixing an electrical problem or modifying a control panel. Or, you had plant management involved in something they have no clue about.

“As someone who worked as your catch-all ‘maintenance technician/mechanic,’ the biggest problem I find at job interviews is that the person interviewing you usually has no clue about your technical abilities. They look at your resume and see terms such as electrical, electronics and PLC. Then they send you for testing at Wonderlic or National Occupational Competency Testing Institute. Then, they hire you and send you to the maintenance department manager, who sends you to fix gearboxes, to lube conveyor systems and to repair toilets and steam piping leaks.

Plants need to get technical people out from under the maintenance department and into a technical department.

– Joel Leonard, contributing editor

“Occasionally, you replace somebody who produced the mess shown in link above. It gets frustrating when the plant’s general manager, an accountant by degree, tries to tell you how to wire a VFD without him ever seeing one outside a catalog. Ask the maintenance department manager why you shouldn’t correct a mess like that in the link, the reply usually is, ‘I'm the boss and if you don't like it, there's the door.’ You flip ’em the bird, roll your tool box out to your truck and try the next place.

“After coming out of high school being able to fix TVs (they had tubes back then), going into the military to repair nuclear sub missile systems and getting an AAS degree in computer science or electronics technology, I gravitated toward electronics/electrical troubleshooting and repair. It’s a specialized skill that takes years to develop, but I’ve found there are few maintenance managers who understand the amount of time and effort one has to put into their career just to stay on top of things.

“In the current economy, most companies cut back or eliminate training. When you must foot the bill to take a vendor’s five-day maintenance and troubleshooting course because you don't want to look like an idiot trying reprogram a blown output into a good spare output, company loyalty seems meaningless. The cutbacks usually mean that the training you need to maintain job skills is something you determine on your own. ISA does a good job of providing a national certification process - I’m a Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST) Level II - but it emphasizes chemicals over other industries.

“So, now that I’ve got cynicism all over you, the question is, ‘What do maintenance departments need to do to train, staff and retain the highly-skilled technical people needed to keep the company assets functional?’ There has been too much written that tries to address this issue.

“My opinion is that plants need to get technical people out from under the maintenance department and into a technical department. If a technical department doesn’t exist, build, fund, staff and train one. You don't need a CCST-type person checking light bulbs in the parking lot. Have them study the process, machine drawings and electrical systems so they can determine what is causing the downtime, calibrate it, use Autocad to prepare preliminary drawings, etc.

“To the bean counters, it might seem like a waste of money (everyone is consolidating or eliminating departments these days), but in the long run, the technical department has its place, just as the IT department has its place. The alternative is to outsource the work to a CCST-type contractor for the occasional tech-type work. The trouble is that breakdowns occur at 2:00 p.m. on Sundays. Can the contractor get onsite soon and get familiar with your equipment?”

I thank you for your comments, and I hope more maintenance professionals will share their frustrations, observations and experiences. Sharing problems can lead to shared solutions.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at joel@skilltv.net.

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