Cross-Training Pays

An Ohio county trains technicians in both mechanical and electrical maintenance and sees results in greater efficiency and better team morale

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It may sound counterintuitive, but two heads aren’t always better than one. At Montgomery County Water Services in Dayton, Ohio, officials found that sometimes one head is better than two, and proved it with a cross-training program that improved efficiency, saved money, boosted morale and better protected customers from events like flooded basements.

The program centered on the duties of nine maintenance mechanics and six electrical and instrumentation technicians who service 60 facilities, mostly water booster stations, sewage lift stations and underground water storage facilities.

By combining the two positions into one multitasking position, the department dramatically improved the odds of having an employee with the proper skills responding to alarms. Before that, “We’d send out an electrician to troubleshoot a problem during off hours, only to find it was a mechanical problem,” says David Hackett, manager of maintenance services.

“So then we’d have to call out a mechanic and end up wasting time and doubling the effort. By combining the two positions, we could send out just one person who is qualified to handle electrical or mechanical problems.”


Union approval

Initially, employees had mixed reactions to the program, which was completely voluntary. Some were excited about the chance to learn new skills, while others were skeptical, apprehensive or hesitant. “There was some mistrust, which is to be expected,” says Stephanie Smith, communications and training manager. “We had to underscore that the program would only succeed if they succeeded.”

The plan also required buy-in from a union, which was concerned about pay equity. There was a good chance that new hires would be needed because of impending retirements, and union officials didn’t want a new hire to receive higher pay than long-time employees.

“So we created an entry-level position for new hires,” Hackett says. “We also adjusted the pay scale to make sure someone from the outside wasn’t immediately making more money than mechanics and electricians who had been here 10 or 15 years.” Officials implemented the program in 2009, and 11 of the 15 employees took part. Eventually, three new employees were hired.


Comprehensive training

The department established three tiers of training for the new positions. First, electricians needed 500 hours of hands-on mechanical training, and mechanics 500 hours of hands-on electrical training. Immediate supervisors coordinated all training.

For the first 200 to 300 hours of training, employees paired up with veterans from the opposite discipline and focused on preventive maintenance. After they were deemed qualified, the trainees could perform simpler corrective maintenance by themselves, while being trained on progressively more complex tasks, including emergency work.

All the training hours were documented through the department’s computerized work-order maintenance management system. “They couldn’t get all the hands-on training from doing the same things,” Hackett notes. “They had to be exposed to a full gamut of situations.”

The second tier involved 14 self-testing modules that covered electrical and mechanical topics. Employees could skip a module by taking a pretest and posting a score of at least 70 percent. They also had to complete at least one module every 90 days with a test score of 70 percent or better and finish the 14 courses within three years.

“Self-study is better because making time for classes is difficult,” Hackett says. “You’re at the mercy of a local college that may not hold a class if there aren’t enough enrollees to justify it. Plus, a lot of people have families and can’t get away for classes. With self-study, they could do it at their own pace and fit it into their family life.”


One final course

The last training component was a class on water and wastewater distribution, treatment and collection — the same course water system operators must pass to get an operator’s license. The employees could take the class through self-study or attend off-site classes for two nights a week for about 12 weeks. “We felt this class would be good because it provides a fundamental, big-picture look at how everything in water and wastewater systems fits together,” Hackett says.

As an incentive, employees received a $1,500 bonus after completing the three training tiers. Department officials expected employees would need about three years to finish the modules alone, but 11 of the 13 completed them in less than one year.

“To be honest, that’s a reflection on the caliber of people we have working here and the materials selected for the training,” Smith says. “They helped each other out, which was especially good for those who hadn’t been at school for years and found the thought of learning again and taking tests almost paralyzing.”


Paying dividends

The department benefits from the cross-training in several ways. The response time for resolving many emergencies is shorter now that the employee responding can handle either mechanical or electrical problems. That greatly reduces the risk of things like flooded basements or unacceptably low water pressure that might have occurred when it took longer for the right person to respond.

“We’ve also seen an overall 30 percent reduction in overtime over the last two years,” Hackett says. “I can’t equate all of that to these positions, but they contribute substantially. If you want to put a dollar sign to that, we’ve saved about $30,000 a year over the last two years and expect that to continue.”

Hackett also notes that the cross-trained employees are better at troubleshooting. “As a result, we’re finding the root cause of problems sooner,” he says. “Before, you may have thought you found the cause of a problem, but it may have been just a symptom.

“It’s hard to analyze and put into numbers, but I think going back to school made our technicians think more analytically and look at things in different ways. They even come up with recommendations to modify equipment so we run more efficiently.”

For example, technicians suggested changing the pump operating sequence at a pump station, improving efficiency, saving electricity, and eliminating a clogging issue.


More ownership

In addition, Hackett believes the employees take more ownership and pride in their work. They are more likely to make sound in-the-field decisions, thus spending less time routinely lubricating a piece of equipment in favor of paying more attention to a facility with persistent problems.

“They saw that Montgomery County was willing to make an investment in their future,” says Smith. “They have a higher degree of professionalism and confidence in themselves. And we have a more flexible workforce, which is good for us and good for them. When a position opens, we have more people qualified to fill it.”

In Hackett’s eyes, the program is an example of what utilities need to do as they confront budget cuts, threats of privatization and public pressure to reduce expenses.

“No matter what you do, whether it’s manufacturing or treating wastewater, you need to look at how you can be more efficient and productive,” he says. “Governments have to provide the best possible service at the most affordable rates. The only way to do that is to be more efficient — and never sit back like fat cats and rest on our laurels.”


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