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Raising Mechanic Skills to Industry Standards

The Army needs mechanics with skills beyond those taught in advanced individual training. Private-sector certification programs offer a solution.

In critical situations when combat equipment must be returned to the fight, waiting on parts can be
detrimental to a commander’s ability to maneuver on the battlefield and win in combat; it can even cost the lives of U.S. Soldiers. The Army’s current operational environment often results in mechanics being constrained by a limited or overburdened distribution network, which has led to shortfalls caused by long leadtimes in receiving replacement parts. With the Army spread around the world, unit-level parts procurement is not always as easy as stopping at the nearest supply support activity. Sometimes maintainers must focus on repairing major assemblies and place a strong emphasis on proper fault diagnosis.

During the past 10 years of conflict, the Army has learned how important warrior tasks and drills are and has reacted by emphasizing that all Soldiers are riflemen first. We are learning from current operations that technical proficiency may be just as important. However, mechanics arriving at units today often are not competent technicians prepared to tackle advanced diagnostics, and units do not have the resources and time required to train to this level.

Modern computerized diesel engines are not just in trucks. They are the driving force behind the Army. Computer-controlled engines power our generators, transportation equipment, fighting vehicles, materials-handling equipment, and marine equipment. Diesel engines move the Army. These engines are not the black smoke puffers of a generation ago.

Many of the Army’s current engines have advanced mechanisms like stacked piezoelectric wafers in their injection systems, variable geometry turbochargers, and accelerometer pilot control units. These modern engines are computer-controlled monsters with significant capability. But they require a technician who is well trained to service, maintain, and troubleshoot them.

The Need to Increase Proficiency

As the Army settles into the modular force structure, mechanics from several military occupational specialties (MOSs) have been streamlined into a “super” mechanic called the 91B, wheeled vehicle mechanic (MOS 91B). The Army mechanic has become a multicapable maintainer who is required to troubleshoot using advanced onboard diagnostics and increasingly complex, interconnected vehicle systems.

Years ago, a Soldier with a basic understanding of engine theory could repair a high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle. With today’s equipment, a Soldier must be a proficient technician who understands how information is being fed into the computer from several sensors and who is familiar with the different vehicle systems that could create the symptom he is diagnosing.

Modern vehicles can have as many as 50 microprocessors on board. The modern maintainer must be able to use sophisticated diagnostic trouble-code scanners and then interpret and apply the data generated by the scanners to repair the equipment. On the battlefield, maintenance Soldiers without these skills limit operations in austere conditions by extending down-times caused by improperly diagnosed faults. This is a severe detriment to commanders who need their state-of-the-art equipment returned to the fight quickly.

Civilian trade schools for mechanics are 1 to 2 years; the Army is graduating mechanics every 13 weeks. It is time for the Army to revolutionize technical training to meet the needs of the combatant commander.

Army Vocational Training

During fiscal year 2009, the Army conducted the Army Vocational Training Program (AVOTEC). Through AVOTEC, a Soldier could attend training at a civilian vocational or technical school and pursue a non-degree-related certification. AVOTEC could be used as a model for a future multicapable, “maintainer-warrior” advanced individual training (AIT).

Many of the certifications offered through AVOTEC were in the automotive technical field. These civilian programs use a building-block approach that starts with the fundamental principles of system operation and progresses gradually to complex diagnostic and service procedures. The courses cover the latest developments in the automotive field, including an onboard diagnostics system (OBD II), enhanced emissions testing, misfire monitoring, and antilock braking systems.

AVOTEC also offered diesel certification that covered indepth instruction on diesel engine theory and design, engine performance, lubrication systems, induction exhaust and after-treatment systems, hydrostatic transmissions, heavy-duty torque converters, power train principles, antilock braking air systems, and much more.

Automotive Service Excellence

The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) is a nonprofit organization that administers exams that stress knowledge of job-related skills. ASE’s tests are industry-driven and are grouped into specialties that cover virtually every on-highway vehicle service segment.

Although ASE certification is available to Soldiers, it is not widely used or pursued, even though the Army pays for most of the credentialing costs. ASE tests are designed to guarantee a mechanic is competent to perform to specific standards established by the entire automotive industry. Soldiers who work on the same level of complicated equipment as civilian technicians should meet that minimum standard. However, most Soldier mechanics, if forced to take the tests, would not be able to pass.

AVOTEC was organized around the ASE automobile test areas and correlated directly with standards set by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF). The AVOTEC curriculum was designed to educate a mechanic to the competency level required to be able to efficiently and accurately diagnose modern equipment. Upon completion, students received nationally recognized certification from community colleges and technical trade schools.

AVOTEC Possibilities

While AVOTEC lasted, it was very successful and many Army mechanics received certification in their field. The program lost funding from Congress in fiscal year 2009, but the lesson learned was that this type of trade school training should be integrated fully into the Army’s training program for mechanics. This would benefit the Army in several ways:

  • Soldier recruiting incentives for technical fields would be increased because, while in the Army, the Soldiers would receive accreditation that would correlate directly to the civilian world.
  • The Army could rely less on contractors to provide maintenance since their own mechanics would have the expertise needed to repair modern equipment.
  • Commanders would enjoy increased readiness rates because of proper fault diagnosis.
  • Maintenance costs would be reduced as a result of increased troubleshooting accuracy.

The additional costs for the specialized training could be offset using a distance-learning program. Traditional trade school in the automotive field is at least 1 year long and often 2 years. The Army could reduce this time by using an online classroom. Students of distance learning have comparable test scores to classroom students, and the student-to-instructor ratio can be increased greatly on line. By using a distance learning program, in-class time could be reduced by as much as 50 percent.

Daily homework using the virtual classroom to supplement and reinforce training objectives would increase knowledge retention and contribute to reduced training time. A combination of NATEF standards and trade-school-style training, supplemented with homework in an online classroom, could create a 6-month technical school that produces highly qualified mechanics.

Certifying Mechanics as True Technicians

To ensure that mechanics are prepared to repair modern equipment, certification should be an AIT graduation requirement. ASE certification is a third-party, unbiased endorsement that a Soldier has clearly demonstrated proficiency in a subject area. Instructors teach the subject rather than the test, and students grasp a concept rather than test answers because they have no foreknowledge of the test questions. To reach the proficiency level required to pass ASE exams, Soldiers already in the field would use a virtual classroom to take courses like those provided by AVOTEC.

Along with the ASE certification, an apprenticeship program should be developed with the U.S. Department of Labor. With this program, once in the field, mechanics would log their hours working in 16 different areas, such as engines and brakes. Depending on the technical education level and experience, each mechanic would log from 2,000 to 8,000 hours of hands-on work in order to complete the program. Noncommissioned officers would serve as experienced and skilled journeymen who teach the practical skills that are learned on the job.

The schoolhouse training would be followed up in a practical way using a structured, systematic program of supervised on-the-job training. The logged hours would be verified by the supervisor, who would also monitor the Soldiers’ proficiency in each area. Upon completion of the program, the Soldier would receive his journeyman mechanic’s license from the Department of Labor. This certification is clearly identified and commonly recognized throughout the industry and would validate the Soldier’s skill set.

Using third-party accreditation to certify that Soldiers are prepared for what they will face in the field is not a new idea. Army network operators and medics both are required to receive civilian accreditation in order to be MOS certified. It has proven to work well; our medical facilities and system networks continue to be the best of any Army in the world.

One unit, the 551st Inland Cargo Transfer Company in Korea, adapted a certification program at the unit level. The company had 11 Soldiers enroll in technical certification courses and 15 sign up for ASE testing. Using weekly study groups to help them prepare, 20 percent of the mechanics earned ASE certifications. Under the apprenticeship program, 3 Soldiers received Department of Labor certifications and 15 are actively enrolled.

A certification program similar to the one used by the 551st Inland Cargo Transfer Company needs to be phased into AIT. The program would also serve as a rule to measure maintenance collective tasks in support of a unit’s mission-essential task list. It would take 2 to 4 years for each mechanic to log the required hands-on hours in each work area and complete the journeyman’s certification. These tasks could be tracked and used to gauge the maintenance section’s ability to support the unit’s mission.

After 10 years of combat, units are learning that their mechanics need to focus as much on MOS skills as they do on warrior tasks and drills. Commanders on the ground need technically competent Soldiers who meet the needs of our very complex current operational environment. The unit-level Army lacks the resources to train to this proficiency level. Maintenance training in the Army needs to be modeled after the industry training system and meet NATEF standards. It is time for a much-needed overhaul of the Army’s maintenance training program.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew R. McCaslin is the battalion maintenance officer for the 4th Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He is a National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence certified technician with a vocational certification as a modern automotive technician, and he is a journeyman certified truck mechanic with the U.S. Department of Labor.

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