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Joel Leonard is on a mission to turn industry recruitment around

Oct. 18, 2004
Managing Editor Lisa Towers writes that the North American maintenance crisis now has a champion in Joel Leonard, who's on a mission to turn industry recruitment around.
There’s a perfect storm brewing, and we are all about to get soaked. If recruitment of younger workers into the maintenance industry doesn’t increase quickly, this dousing will take place as early as next year, says Joel Leonard, a trainer for MPact Learning Center in Greensboro, N.C.If you haven’t already noticed, the maintenance industry is fast losing its most qualified and reliable workers — through retirement and attrition — and is not replacing them as quickly as required to avert a full-on maintenance crisis.You may have heard the maintenance crisis refrain before: Leonard was interviewed recently by National Public Radio (NPR) about this topic.Leonard is one of the few people who has made it a personal mission to turn industry recruitment around. His zeal has earned him the nickname “maintenance evangelist,” and he plans to make all media outlets his pulpit for improving the image of this shrinking industry.What qualifies a person to start such a movement? Leonard’s entrance into the maintenance field wasn’t planned, but now that he’s worked in it for almost 20 years, he realizes how valuable these industry jobs are to the health and wellbeing of not just our facilities, but to our national economy. For him it’s not about qualifications or status; it’s about passion.“The biggest issue in the maintenance world is the marketing of maintenance,” he says. “Most executives do not truly appreciate maintenance nor understand its purpose. I have a marketing mind and heart for engineering and maintenance. I really respect and marvel at the technical skills of good maintenance practitioners and engineers. With the best of the best retiring and with future generations not even considering this as an option, it truly scares me. Working to avert the maintenance crisis has evolved to become my personal crusade.”You may be familiar with “The Maintenance Crisis Song,” which Leonard wrote, because it has appeared on www.plantservices.com, as well as other industry Web sites. It has had more than 23,000 downloads and has been played on television newscasts and on NPR.However, this initial exposure and success is tempered by the realization of how big a challenge the industry is facing. “We have to educate our society about the true purpose and function of maintenance,” Leonard says. “It will take a lot more than my efforts to make a difference, but as more join in, we can make a difference. If we don’t stand up, who else will?”His experience as a maintenance industry advocate is what he will write about in future issues of Plant Services in our “Up and Running” news section. The articles will be about methods and processes that describe how to “toot our horns without blowing it,” he says. Leonard will be covering aspects of training, maintenance technology, fighting budget battles, defending headcounts and improving maintenance value.He will draw from his experience working at a furniture factory behind a veneer press. “It taught me the meaning of real work,” he says. After ascending the ranks of management at the mill and earning his MRO stripes, he took a job at a startup software company that needed marketing support. “It just so happened that they specialized in computerized maintenance management software [CMMS],” he says.Leonard found himself teaching CMMS skills to engineers, managers and maintenance technicians. He has installed more than 1,000 CMMS systems during his career, deepening his knowledge of the technology that maintenance professionals work with every day. “I taught many classes myself and also helped lots of engineers lobby their leadership to invest in these performance-enhancement tools,” he says.He has spoken at several Association for Facilities Engineering (AFE) conferences and has helped recruit and retain members while serving as regional membership chair, and he later became the volunteer national vice president of membership. “While serving in that role, I became acutely aware of maintenance challenges, especially the evacuation of talent nationwide,” he says.Now he and the rest of the industry face the stark reality of this statistic: Every 10 maintenance workers who retire are replaced by three to seven more, which creates a deep deficit. The average age of a maintenance worker is 48, and most companies do not have a succession-development program in this area. It all adds up to a gaping hole in our industry’s knowledge and resources, and all of this is happening while maintenance technology is becoming more complex, requiring more training. “There’s nobody coming down the pike,” Leonard says.Whether you choose to involve yourself in this movement is ultimately up to you, but either way, this “perfect storm” is shaping up to produce some watershed moments for North American manufacturing.Lisa Towers is managing editor for Plant Services magazine. E-mail her at [email protected].