American Idol spurs reminders of the Maintenance Crisis

March 8, 2007
With American Idol returning to the television air waves, Joel Leonard is reminded of why he started his crusade for awareness for Maintenance Crisis in the first place.

The fuss and attention being paid to crowning still another singing American Idol has gotten on my nerves again. In case you didn’t know, almost five years ago I was a guest speaker at the Society for Maintenance & Reliability Professionals (SMRP) Conference in Nashville. That conference changed my life and started me on a crusade against the maintenance crisis.

At the time, I was serving as VP of the Association for Facilities Engineering and the board had been discussing the pending retirement of the boomer generation. To my surprise, that was a key concern at SMRP. Bob Baldwin, then editor of Maintenance Technology, led an open discussion about the pending crisis. He polled the audience of more than 600 engineers and maintenance pros from the biggest companies in the United States and said, “Raise your hand if you plan to retire in the next 10 years.”

More than 90% of the audience  reached for the sky. Then he asked the attendees to keep their hands raised if they felt comfortable with the next generation. Everyone dropped their hands.

Baldwin then asked why. One said,  “The kids aren’t hungry and aren’t pursuing the education needed to advance in this competitive profession.” Others chimed in, saying, “The insecurity of manufacturing is scaring the younger generation away,” and, They don’t want to get their hands dirty.” Some said that most of them don’t even know about the maintenance, reliability and facilities engineering professions. Or maintenance simply just isn’t cool.

When we adjourned for a break, a couple of us stretched our legs outside in the 30° weather. To our surprise, around the corner we saw about 5,000 of the very people we had been looking for — 16-to-28-year-olds — standing in a line outside the Nashville Coliseum. They were waiting to audition for American Idol. While we were discussing the exodus of retiring talent, whose salaries averaged more than $80,000, and wondering where the next generation was, we realized there they were, hoping to sing their way to the top.

That evening, we decided that talking at maintenance conferences or writing books and articles for other engineers won’t fix the problem because we need outsiders to be aware of the problem and the opportunities it presents. After a couple of barley-infused beverages, I posed, “Why not write a song about the maintenance crisis?” My friends agreed that it was a good idea, but they said I couldn’t do it.

They were partly right: I couldn’t do it alone. With the help of some friends, real musicians took my original lyrics and now we not only have a song, but in nine genres, with one version especially for women, and jazz, Spanish and French renditions in the works. The songs have been played at industrial and engineering conferences worldwide. Rolls Royce Aerospace and others have made it their department’s anthem. The songs have been downloaded from my Web site more than 50,000 times. Radio stations, including National Public Radio, have played it. Even a class of sixth graders knows the country version, “Find me a Maintenance Woman,” and at least three of them memorized the lyrics.

It’s getting the word out, but I wonder what else we can do to inspire more of the next generation to avoid an economic dip as we make the transition and make sure we don’t lose our national security.

How about highlighting the achievements of current and past maintenance heroes? “Maintenance” and “heroes” aren’t typically in the same sentence, but many professionals are heroic — just not by the usual definition.

When I think of a hero, I think of Superman. He appears from  nowhere to save the day That reactive definition doesn’t fit the modern, proactive maintenance hero. The true value of maintenance professionals isn’t in the problems they fix, but in the ones that never arise. True maintenance pros  are behind the scenes. When maintenance has to react to problems, the company is losing money.

A true modern maintenance hero has set up systems and processes where reactive maintenance is minimal and no emergency occurs. An even more influential maintenance hero is one who has moved on from being an individual producer to recruiting, mentoring and developing future maintenance workers.

E-mail Contributing Editor Joel Leonard at [email protected]

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