Essential Training Strategies for School Bus Mechanics

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on April 1, 2000

The era of the “shade tree mechanic” in the school bus industry is over. With the advent of computerized engines and transmissions and antilock braking systems, school bus mechanics can no longer rely on the “old school” of wrench-turning to get the job done. “With the arrival of the computer age, the years of the hammer and screwdriver repairs have disappeared,” says Paul Cochran, fleet manager at Kyrene School District #28 in Tempe, Ariz. “Our field has changed more in the past five years than in the previous 20.” “It isn’t like you just go out and get your hands dirty anymore,” says Richard Bauder, head mechanic at Firelands Local School District in Oberlin, Ohio, and past president of the Ohio School Bus Mechanics Association. “I started 27 years ago as a school bus mechanic and had never worked on anything bigger than a car. I learned that way, but things weren’t as critical as they are now.” These days, school bus technicians require specialized training to stay abreast of the latest technological developments. “We now see laptop DVD diagnostics and diesel engine technologies that our fathers could not have foreseen,” says Cochran. To keep pace, it’s imperative that school districts and contractors expand training opportunities and provide incentives, financial or otherwise, that encourage the development of their garage staff’s skills and knowledge base. This article discusses strategies for improving technician training, ranging from opportunities afforded by mechanic organizations to the usefulness of certification through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). For information on the availability of vendor workshops, either on-site or at a training facility, contact your local dealers or factory representatives.

C’mon, join the club
One of the most effective methods of staying in touch with equipment advances is through either loosely knit or formal associations. Many states, including Arizona, Arkansas, New York, Ohio and Texas, have organized associations for school bus technicians. Other states have pupil transportation associations that offer programs for technicians as well as transportation supervisors, driver trainers and drivers. In the Lone Star State, mechanics pay a $10 annual fee to belong to the Texas Association of School Bus Technicians (TASBT), which is associated with the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation. In addition to coordinating training programs around the state, the TASBT is currently working on a certification program that would include courses in tire inspection and repair, preventive maintenance and air brakes. Successful applicants would be required to attend an six-hour class and to pass written and hands-on examinations. “It’s all about training, training, training,” says Jesus Cavazos, shop coordinator at Edinburg (Texas) Consolidated Independent School District. He is the TASBT’s representative in the Rio Grande Valley and, as such, organizes all-day training sessions for school bus technicians in the valley during spring break or summer. “We get about 50 supervisors and mechanics from Laredo to Brownsville,” Cavazos says. Usually, a vendor can be coerced into providing instruction. “If we want something bad enough, we can get somebody to do it.” Vendor workshops are common in the school bus industry, but not all technicians are satisfied with these presentations, which they say can be more of a marketing session than an instructional gathering. “It’s more of a selling program, which I don’t need and don’t want,” says Bernie Miller, a mechanic at Independent School District #622 in North St. Paul, Minn. “Some do and some don’t, but I would say that the majority do.”

ASE as tough love
ASE certification is being used as a requirement for promotion at Denver Public Schools. Guy Champlin, the district’s executive director of transportation, says he negotiated with Amalgamated Transit Union 1563 to base the advancement system for technicians on mandatory ASE certification as well as on-the-job performance. “It took six or seven months to negotiate this,” Champlin says. “And I’m really excited about it. It sends a signal that you just don’t come to work and go home. You have to do a little more than that to advance. We want you to be the best of the best. I look at what school bus mechanics do as being only one step down from working on airliners.” The new system was put into place in January. It requires that any person who wants to become a maintenance technician, an eight-step position in a three-tier system (Vehicle Service Technician I, Vehicle Service Technician II and Maintenance Technician), must meet certain requirements. These include obtaining additional training and ASE certification. To reach the next step within the maintenance technician position, employees must pass an ASE exam. Each step requires another ASE certification. And, to reach the seventh and eighth steps, the technician must acquire all seven certifications. “Even if they’ve been here for 25 years, they can never reach the seven and eighth step unless they become an ASE Master Bus Technician,” Champlin says. “So we’ve linked their performance to ASE certification,” Champlin says. “They cannot get any more money per hour unless they get their ASEs.” Champlin says each of the eight steps in the maintenance technician classification is worth about 4 percent. “We’re willing to give them more money, but there are strings with it,” he says. “If they don’t want to pursue anything on their own, then they’ll get the salary commensurate with someone who doesn’t want to pursue improvement.” Denver Public Schools is not alone in embracing ASE certification as a method of encouraging the advancement of their school bus technicians. David Voiles, service manager at Bend/La Pine School District in Bend, Ore., says his district, which operates 93 school buses, is making ASE certification a requirement among its technicians. “We’re asking them to become master certified in the school bus area in two years,” Voiles says. Other maintenance workers, such as garage helpers and journeyman technicians, are not under the same pressure. “I leave it up to them, but I’d like to see them become certified in one or two areas if they’re doing any kind of mechanical work.” To encourage his technicians, Voiles puts their ASE plaques up on the wall and has hung ASE signs at the shop. “It seems like across the board, the school bus technician has always been considered a lowly job in the school district,” he says. “We have to turn that around.”

The funding dilemma
To ensure that funding is available for technician training, both off-site and in-house, garage supervisors need to be aggressive about stressing the importance of continuing education. “It’s an investment,” says Voiles. “We generally send as many people as we can to the state association conference, which offers seminars by the engine, chassis and body manufacturers.” Engine manufacturers such as Caterpillar, Cummins and International and transmission manufacturers like Allison also offer separate multi-day classes, but Voiles says the budget is too tight to take advantage of these opportunities. “It seems like it’s always a matter of money,” Voiles says. “It can cost $300 to $400 per person for, say, a three-day class.” And that’s just for registration, not including the cost of airfare, lodging and food. “You might do that once a year, and your budget is gone,” he says. Jack Rice, garage supervisor at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Gardena facility, says training funds are available for his mechanics. “Any class we find out about, we send them to,” he says. However, finding classes can be a problem. “The district doesn’t have a training officer who can help with that,” he says. “It’s left up to the garage supervisors to find these training classes, but you also have a garage to run.” In Rice’s case, more than 400 school buses and 200 other vehicles are maintained at his facility with a staff of 46 mechanics. On some occasions, Rice says he has hired instructors from a local community college to teach on-site classes. He also encourages his technicians to attend courses at occupational and vocational centers. “But there’s no incentive as such other than the motivation to repair the equipment,” he says. Dan Sharron, fleet supervisor at Spring Branch Independent School District in Texas, says he has a hard time finding commercial instructors for maintenance training. “The problem is that there aren’t enough of them to go around,” he says. The alternative, sending mechanics to manufacturer training sites, strains budgets and work schedules. “You can’t afford to have the technicians out of the shop,” Sharron says. “A lot of school districts just don’t have the resources to cover their absence. In fact, there’s a real big shortage of good technicians.” “We try to find everything we can for the mechanics,” says John Bosselman, coordinator of vehicle services for Polk County Schools in Bartow, Fla. The district maintains and operates approximately 650 school buses and also services about 350 “white fleet” vehicles. Vendors such as Ricon, Federal Mogul and Raytheon occasionally will provide in-house seminars on their products, and mechanics are encouraged to attend summer workshops sponsored by the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation (FAPT). But Bosselman says obtaining instruction from the major bus, chassis and engine manufacturers is difficult because the training centers are too far away. “The closest International training center is in Atlanta,” he says. “So, when the local dealer offers some training, we try to jump onboard.” Rob Brooks, fleet maintenance supervisor at Sarasota County (Fla.) Schools, which operates 326 school buses, says the FAPT offers school bus certification for technicians and mechanic helpers during its one-week summer workshops. “Some districts will pay their mechanics another 15 cents an hour for this certification; at others, it’s a plaque on the wall,” he says. ASE certification is also worth something. Brooks says his district gives gift certificates for tools to mechanics who become ASE master technicians. “It’s a win-win situation, because they buy tools to help them do their jobs,” he says. Another training resource that is available in Sarasota is videotapes. “We try to accumulate as many as we can,” Brooks says. If necessary, training videos can be borrowed from the Florida Department of Education in Tallahassee. The effectiveness of video training is hit and miss, however. “Some people can get something out of it; others fall asleep,” Brooks says.

Help from vendors
Dealers and factory reps say they’re more than willing to fulfill the needs of their customers. Mike Pringle, corporate service training manager for Thomas Built Buses in High Point, N.C., says the company is upgrading its customer training programs into what he calls a “corporate training process.” Although regional managers will continue to provide one- to two-day on-site training sessions for customers, Pringle says the goal is to hold weeklong train-the-trainer classes at Freightliner’s regional training facilities. This will allow Thomas’ training instructors to do their presentations using their own equipment at a state-of-the-art facility, like Freightliner’s training center in Cleveland, N.C. “That way, you don’t have to rely on the customers’ buses,” Pringle says. “And, if you need a bare chassis, you have a bare chassis.” The company has been training dealer service technicians at Freightliner training centers since January but would like to include customers as soon as possible. For its part, Freightliner uses the Cleveland facility to provide school bus technicians with training in its FS-65 chassis. “Our mechanics love it,” says Jeff Smith, transportation director at Onslow County Schools in Jacksonville, N.C. Smith has sent a dozen technicians to the Freightliner facility for two-day training sessions. “They picked up a lot of things that they can use in the future,” he says.

A dealer’s perspective
Peter Crossan, president of Coastal Bus and Equipment Sales Inc., a Blue Bird distributor in Rowley, Mass., says he offers three or four days of summer training at his facility with a Blue Bird factory rep and his service manager. “Attendance is good because we really work hard at encouraging it,” Crossan says. “We find that mechanics are champing at the bit for this, but it’s not an opportunity that afforded as many mechanics as I’d like to see.” Crossan says many local school districts and school bus companies might employ only one or two mechanics because they typically have small fleets. This makes it difficult for them to attend an off-site workshop. The majority of the training is classroom-style instruction, but time is also spent troubleshooting problems on an actual bus. While the training includes preventive maintenance procedures, Crossan says the bulk of the instruction over the past couple of years has been on diagnosing electronic problems. “In the past, once a diesel engine started, it never stopped unless it blew up or ran out of fuel,” Crossan explains. “With the new electronic engines, there are a thousand scenarios where the engine could shut down or go into a fault code.” Crossan stops short, however, at encouraging his customers to bring their buses to the dealership every time they bump into a diagnostic wall. “What we really try to do is encourage the customers to know enough so that a well-informed phone call to us can generally troubleshoot most problems,” he says. “Part of the training is to get them to know our service or parts guy, so they feel comfortable calling us,” Crossan says. “That’s what we really encourage.” It could be a few years before the industry becomes comfortable with some of the high-tech aspects of new school bus components. “Our customers are very adept at changing water pump and putting new heads on and other traditional repairs, but give them an electronic problem, and you give them a run for their money,” Crossan says.

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