As an industry, we have grown dramatically from our early days in the 1930s. Our uphill infrastructure has evolved from climbing or skinning up hill to rope tows, handle tows, single chairs, doubles, triples, quads, and now detachable chair lifts and gondolas transporting six passengers or more. These new pieces of equipment are much more complex than, say, the use of trucks-on-blocks-converted-to-rope-tow-drives, yet our training systems for the people that maintain these more complex machines has changed only a little during my 40 years in the industry. Most areas still look for an entry-level employee who may show some aptitude and team him up with a maintenance member already on staff to train him in maintenance.
This is the show and tell method of training. That is, the older, experienced mechanic will show the newbie how to do a job that the veteran probably learned from an even older team member himself. Question is, did the older mechanic receive the correct, complete training to begin with?
Another problem with this system, even when it works perfectly, is that the number of experienced team members on our staffs is shrinking. Many are also getting close to retirement age. At the Southeastern Ski Areas Association (SSAA) lift maintenance seminar last spring, as I looked around the room, I noticed that many in the audience were around my age (61). Some were in their late 30s to 40s, but very few were younger than that.
The other method to find mechanics is to steal from other resorts with good training programs. And that, too, points up another problem we are facing: how to attract and retain the next generation of maintenance personnel.
Moving Beyond Show And Tell
Our lift infrastructure is aging and requires more and more in-depth service, maintenance and inspections. Any accident that happens at a ski area due to inadequate or improper maintenance anywhere in the country will have a negative effect on all of us. For this reason alone, we need to work together and improve our training and maintenance staff retention.
This is all easier said than done, of course. To properly perform our jobs, we need to refer to our maintenance manuals and follow the procedures in those documents precisely. These manuals should be our main source in the development of our procedures for training our mechanics. We also need to update our manuals with any and all service bulletins that may have been released. And finally, we have to make sure we meet the requirements of the ANSI B77 standard.
In addition, we should log our “show and tell” training to the individual receiving it, to ensure that we have documentation of his/her training.
There’s another sticky wicket, too. Manuals generally do not include step-by-step instructions in the performance of maintenance tasks. It is left to us, as operators, to create documentation as to the tools and equipment needed, safety steps, PPE used, and develop the actual step-by-step procedures to be followed on specific jobs—in other words, SOPs (standard operating procedures). To that end, we should support the regional maintenance seminars, encourage manufacturers or associations to hold training sessions, and develop in-house programs that train our staffs, and document all of it along the way. (See related story, “Getting With the Program.)
Training Is a Retention Tool
One benefit: by creating better, consistent, and more in-depth training, we have a tool for attracting more young people to seek the industry as a career. I personally feel that we are behind in what we offer as compensation, but providing thorough training and having a defined development and advancement path will boost retention.
Whether we like it or not, we are competing with several other industries for skilled workers. A young person with any aptitude can go to a variety of trade schools and become a mechanic or electrician working on a variety of equipment—cars, heavy equipment, even airplanes. Most of these jobs start at pay rates much higher than what we offer in the ski industry. These industries also advance people as their skills and knowledge develop. A Caterpillar service rep in our area makes from $18 to up to $30 an hour. We are lucky if our best people are at the lower level of that pay scale. So it is understandable that young men and women who give our industry a try often move on.
Changing our training and development systems is not going to happen overnight, but we need to nip the snail in the butt and speed up the process. The two major lift-training programs in the U.S. arose as the direct result of lift accidents—RMLA from the Vail gondola incident, and LMS as a result of an incident at Jimmy Peak. The ANSI B77 standard itself came to be as result of a lift incident in 1956. It’s time to break this chain of events. If we do not develop our own standard practices and staff training, we will be regulated by outside parties, which will be bad for all of us.
Artie Speicher has worked at seven different resorts in the Pacific Northwest, Northeast, and Southeast. He has attended lift maintenance schools sponsored by Riblet, CTEC, Poma, and Doppelmayr, and has attended maintenance seminars hosted by PNSAA, RMLA, LMS, and SSAA.