Powerful ideas for revitalizing American technical leadership come in many forms

Nov. 5, 2010
Joel Leonard, contributing editor, says maintenance and reliability are keys to industrial economic prosperity.

If you were given the opportunity to speak before thousands, what would you say to overcome the stigmas and stereotypes of the engineering and maintenance profession, to inspire more to pursue the education that addresses our current and future maintenance crisis challenges, and to make a difference?

In the United States, the National Mall is viewed as hallowed ground as that’s where millions have gathered to urge social change. The speech Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered there led to civil rights changes that still echo today in our national conscious.

I’m supporting the inaugural version of the National Science and Engineering Festival on the National Mall. The organizers are going to play my songs during the intermissions. Yes, I, too, have a dream, and hopefully this will inspire much needed change, remove stigmas and stereotypes that impede our performance forward, and help advance our profession. Well, this might be considered a “pipedream,” but a worthy dream, nonetheless.

Despite the daily deluge news displaying pipeline leaks, train derailments caused by mechanical failures, exploding natural gas lines and thousands of water main breaks, the general populace still has a dim (and wrong) view of the maintenance profession. Most of our kids consider it merely job to fix the toilets and don’t understand or appreciate the complexity, knowledge, responsibility, discipline and energy required to deliver reliable performance. Too many corporations focus on quarterly stock performance and have deferred maintenance to almost critical levels. Because of the recession, they’ve pruned staff and cancelled or drastically reduced training programs.
Because of low enrollments in industrial curriculums and the high cost of industrial training equipment, many of our nation’s community colleges became four-year preparatory schools and phased out or minimized the focus on developing future industrial technicians.


In the movie “Field of Dreams,” it was said “Build it, he will come.” We need to remind society that if we don’t fix it, competent technicians won’t appear. As former Secretary of HEW, John Gardner said more than 30 years ago during the Carter administration, "The society that scorns excellence in plumbing, because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy, because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy — neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

After the Gulf Coast crisis with its more than 100 days of oil leaks, when are we going to wake up and do something to prevent failures as opposed to ignoring visible alarms and marshalling anemic responses after the most serious damage already occurred?

I firmly believe if the United States shifted its view of maintenance and reliability programs from being a cost to being a profit-contributing value-added service, our nation’s economic status would change and long-term sustainability would increase.

We have much to learn from the Netherlands, which realized that its urban sprawl strategy for growth has been played out. Population has grown beyond the land use potential. To fight the possible exodus of factories to China, the country upgraded its view of maintenance and has been putting government subsidized Ph.D.s into its factories, implementing predictive maintenance such as infrared thermography and acoustic ultrasound systems to control energy costs. The Dutch have been developing new condition monitoring programs to increase uptime. Also, they’re funding interactive 3-D training programs to build a solid pipeline of future technicians.

If the U.S. converted maintenance from an afterthought to forethought, we’d see significant performance upgrades in equipment and infrastructure performance as well as enjoy greater economic gains and stock market performance. If we glorified scientists, engineers, technicians at the same level we glorify athletes and entertainers, we’d no longer see job positions critical to our economy go unfilled. The capability and performance of those positions would grow as well.

The fact is we must “fix it forward” if we’re going to remain an economic powerhouse. Talk is cheap, so let’s get out and formalize our mentorship programs, upgrade our apprenticeships, change our community colleges from four-year preparatory back to fulfilling their original charter of developing technicians. We must educate our future executives with MBA programs that value the contribution maintenance makes.

Perhaps we need to offer tax incentives for companies to measure the quality of their reliability and sustainability program’s performance and not just on quarterly stock values. We must not only invest billions of dollars in converting ideas into cutting edge future results but we also must polish the rusty edge of technology to maximize performance today. In other words, as we invest in the smart grid, nanotechnology, biotechnology and other future technologies that will propel us forward, we also must work to preserve the hydraulics, pneumatics and other systems that sustain us today not only operational but yielding optimal performance.

We must get out and fix this mess, and we can, especially if more join us to fight the Maintenance Crisis head on. As we all know, it’s better to prepare and prevent, than to repair and repent. And thanks again for your past support to urge me onward. Feel free to send me your ideas to advance our performance.

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

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