Experts warn of an impending shortage of qualified workers. Worse yet, the world of motion stands to be one of the hardest hit areas. We face a perfect storm of complex, ever-changing technology coupled with growing demand for expanded solutions. While it's too early to predict the exact effects, I believe today's recessionary times will further contribute to the severity of the worker shortage. A quick phone survey of several Fortune 500 end users reveals an interesting phenomenon: The most experienced members of the maintenance and engineering departments are “opting out” in early retirement plans. In other words, the people most needed to set up and maintain new motion systems are out the door and heading to their favorite fishing holes.

Our industry draws its very lifeblood from knowledgeable designers and a trained workforce once the system arrives in the field. There is a critical need for training. Fortunately, help is available: A knowledge-based distributor can and should play an important part in ongoing education strategies. When those outside of our industry think of technical training, local, state, and private technical schools probably come to mind. While it's true that technical schools fill a valuable role, there are limitations: In tech-school environments, students are presented with generic information about all-encompassing applications. Often, the instructor's roots are academic rather than industrial, and training equipment is outdated.

Distributors present a natural bridge to training because they themselves must stay current on new products and applications to differentiate their organizations. During the past decade, their sales presentations began a metamorphosis, changing first to infomercials, and then transforming into certifiable, honest-to-goodness training. Distributors noticed that “ad free” training attracted more customer attention than sales tactics.

Training vs. sales pitch

How does one determine if the “event” to which one is invited is a sales pitch or bonafide training? Expect to pay for a real class. As a rule, “free classes” are sales pitches and discussions of why the distributor's products are perfect in every way. On the other hand, real classes are unbiased looks into product technology and application — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Real classes use up-to-date, hands-on training units. The average distributor class uses more than $40,000 worth of newer equipment in each session. Think about it: This is equipment regularly made obsolete by new and revised technology. Distributors, by necessity, have learned to manage the constant need for new equipment. Many technical schools struggle with this issue and use older equipment.

Today's motion system customer draws from a smorgasbord of training options. Distributors offer everything from classroom-based seminars to one-on-one tutorials. One Power Transmission Distributors Association (PTDA) member at the vanguard of distributor training is Motion Industries. They deliver training in three ways — traditional classroom, live webcast, and recorded online training.

When asked what makes training work well, Danny Waters, Motion Industries assistant VP of training, says, “We understand that our classroom training is only a precursor to real hands-on work in an industrial environment. It's not enough to be book smart; we have to provide application experience. We wouldn't dream of using an instructor who didn't carry real-life credentials.”

Beyond the classroom, instruction often takes place in customer conference rooms and on the shop floor. “We've conducted classes in every imaginable location, and at every conceivable time. First, second, third shift, we've done it - weekends and holidays too. Students learn best when they attend class during their normal waking hours. It's hard when you work eight hours, then stay up an additional eight to attend a class,” says Waters.

Think about training as part of the motion control procurement process. To get started, determine the following:

Does your distributor provide classroom-based training? Who provides the training and what are their credentials? Where is it held and how much does it cost? Is training standard or customized for the specific application? Is there a process for keeping up to date on revisions and product enhancements?

Frank Hurtte consults at River Heights Consulting, Davenport, Iowa, specialists in knowledge-based distribution. He can be reached at frank@riverheightsconsulting.com.