The polar ice caps might be getting all of the attention, but they aren’t the only winter resource that is steadily shrinking. The ski industry’s lift maintenance departments have witnessed a marked decline in the pool of candidates qualified for technical positions. Some attribute it to the elimination of shop classes from our public schools, others say it’s the outlying locales and sub-competitive wages. Whatever. With all the technical employment opportunities outside the ski industry, it is the unique individual who chooses to work in freezing temperatures and blinding whiteouts and who can tolerate the higher prices that are the trademark of resort-town living.
Factor in the high number of lift maintenance managers, supervisors, and technicians expected to retire over the next few years, and it’s clear that ski areas need to take action. Training current staff to fill upper level positions vacated by retiring employees, as well as recruiting and retaining entry-level technicians, will be critical.
All this inspired California resorts to empower the California Ski Industry Association (CSIA) to find a solution. While there is no doubt that much of a technician’s training must occur on the job, lift maintenance managers agreed on the need for professional, integrated, off-site training. The fast-paced nature of a typical day on the job restricts the ability of upper level technicians to spend quality time training staff in a comprehensive way. Information comes at junior technicians in bits and pieces to be connected later (or not).
The challenges of retaining staff and improving on-the-job training were not the sole impetus for this educational endeavor. Increasingly complex operating systems and rapidly evolving technology require a broader and more comprehensive understanding of lift components. Gone are the days of a simplistic mechanical/electrical division of labor. Today’s maintenance technicians need to be able to troubleshoot a wide variety of problems. Additionally, with OSHA standards becoming increasingly strict, a comprehensive training program has become a necessity.
CSIA first took a hard look at its established program, the annual Maintenance and Operations Conference, with its three days of trade shows, cantaloupe-catapulting contests and courses. The CSIA Board felt the technicians needed more intensive education that would provide solid training and hands-on experience, while preserving the networking and career motivation that were an important part of the maintenance conference.
So, with the help of ski industry veteran Marshall Lewis, CSIA found the perfect partner for an entirely new training program: Sierra College (SC), located an hour west of Tahoe in Rocklin, Calif. Sierra is known nationally for excellence in career/technical programs and training. The college is a leader in hands-on project-based learning and is one of only two educational institutions in the country to offer a degree in mechatronics technology.
The Answer: Mechatronics
Mechatronics is the study of the principles, components, symbology, and troubleshooting of electrical, electronic, mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, and machine control systems. It is a discipline widely known internationally, but just beginning to grow in the United States. “The curriculum of the mechatronics program focuses on the skill set of mechanics, electronics and computer control,” says mechatronics professor Mike Halbern. “Since the fundamental design of ski lifts uses all three of these technologies, our program is an ideal fit for training maintenance personnel.” It provides just the type of comprehensive training approach lift mechanics need in order to maintain lifts that run the gamut from the Yans and Riblets of yesteryear to the state-of-the-art lifts from Doppelmayr CTEC and Leitner-Poma.
Sierra College professors Steve Hunter and Halbern specialize in tailoring training programs to meet industry-specific needs. The duo devoted themselves to learning every aspect of how ropeways work, how ropeways are currently maintained and what the technological trends are. Then, in collaboration with leaders in the industry, Hunter and Halbern developed a unique 40-hour intensive course called “Introduction to Ropeway Mechatronics” or “RoMec I.”
Two sessions of the course were held last summer at Sugar Bowl. RoMec I turned out to be the answer that California’s resorts were looking for. The collaboration between SC’s professors and California’s top lift maintenance experts resulted in a curriculum that was grounded in theory and technical concepts, but focused on hands-on projects, practical applications and critical thinking. Professors Hunter and Halbern helped technicians connect the dots of their on-the-job training out on the slopes. Halbern observed that “students who participated in the Ropeway Mechatronics course have often seen ski lift machinery without necessarily understanding the fundamental operating principles. The value of this course is that it provides insight into the operation and maintenance of these machines.”
Melding Theory and Practice
Hands-on projects or “labs” comprised about 65 percent of the course and complemented lectures on topics such as electric/electronic circuitry, electric motors and fabrication. The professors had no shortage of training tools at their disposal; they had hauled about $250,000 worth of equipment with them from Sierra College. Students had the opportunity to work on SC’s one-of-a-kind custom training modules, referred to simply as “trainers.” These $7,000 systems are made entirely of off-the-shelf industrial components that integrate pneumatic, mechanical, electronic and electrical functions. Even more impressive are the computer programs that allow the trainers to simulate ropeway conditions such as emergency stops and rollbacks. A maximum class size of 24 students preserved the integrity of the hands-on training experience and allowed for personal attention from the SC professors. Mechatronics concepts were reinforced during a half-day tour of Sugar Bowl’s detachable and fixed grip lifts, which provided students the opportunity to translate their coursework to what they see every day on the job.
By the end of each week-long training session, the same attendees who on Monday were bemoaning the demise of the cantaloupe catapult were showering platitudes on Sierra and the CSIA. Being away from their home resorts for five days allowed attendees to focus on their training, ask questions and compare notes with their colleagues. The limited class size encouraged networking and camaraderie among attendees.
In all, between the two sessions, Sierra College professors trained 38 lift technicians from 18 resorts and three states, plus four industry leaders, to prepare them to team-teach upper level courses in the future. Attendees left Sugar Bowl with a certificate of completion from Sierra College, a wealth of new colleagues to call upon, and a solid foundation in and understanding of the mechatronics principles that govern their trade.
California’s chief lift inspector, Jorg Ludwig, provided the valedictorian note: “This is exactly the training anyone touching a lift should have—including top management.”
The CSIA/Sierra College Technical Training program will be back at Sugar Bowl for its sophomore year in June 2007. Session I, June 18 to 22, will offer the RoMec I “Introduction to Ropeway Mechatronics” course, which focuses on the fundamentals of mechatronics principles. It’s intended for entry-level lift technicians with approximately one year of ski industry experience. Session II, June 25 to 29, will offer RoMec I as well as the inaugural RoMec II, “Intermediate Ropeway Mechatronics.”
RoMec II targets lift technicians with at least two years of lift maintenance experience and will focus on more advanced topics, including rigging, hydraulics and pneumatics. The RoMec II course will be team-taught by a Sierra College professor and four ski industry lift maintenance experts who have completed the RoMec I course.
Each class will be capped at 24 students, and all resorts are welcome to apply. Courses will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis, with an early application option for CSIA member resorts. Pricing will be just $20 more than last year at $945 per attendee (exclusive of lodging).
For the future, plans include the addition of RoMec III, “Advanced Ropeway Mechatronics,” in 2008, along with a Certificate or Associate’s Degree program through the Tahoe-Truckee campus of Sierra College. For more information or to request an application, visit the CSIA website, www.csia.biz, or contact CSIA director of administration Kathy Hubbard at (415) 543-7036, email@example.com.