Some would argue that I have done this discussion on Lift Maintenance backwards. I’d say maybe, maybe not. It has been something I have thought about for a long while but Rick Kahl’s article in SAM really motivated me to say what I have had to say.
As I progressed through this thought process, I had the great idea to talk with some lift technicians whom I thought were very knowledgeable, anyone of them I’d chose to lead my lift maintenance team. I did not ask for anybody else’s opinion on them, I just chose them from my own perspective.
My methodology was to ask all the same questions and look for trends or patterns. I had no plan to score or quantify their answers just summarize their input. I can assure you that the sample size is too small to be statistically meaningful.
My questions were developed on a couple of overall questions. They were:
- Why did you go into ski operations?
- How did you acquire your skill level?
- What is your opinion on the future of lift maintenance training?
These were the fundamental aspects of what I was trying to learn, the interviews were about 30-40 minutes in length, and some were done over the phone, some in person and some by written response.
The first question had varied answers with the love of skiing being the key for a few and the luck of the draw, shall we say, for the others. Luck of the draw meaning they needed a job and working at a ski area on lifts looked interesting, all of the respondents had a western beginning. The age span runs from 42 years’ experience to 8 years’ experience.
The acquisition of skills was very varied. It ran the gamut from pure hands on training with excellent mentors, military training that was very applicable to lifts, to working with lift manufactures installing lifts as a laborer to educational training. Several worked for lift manufacturers during the summer while having seasonal jobs such as lift operators, groomers, trail crew or snowmakers. Only one was fully committed to being a lift maintenance technician for an extended period of time prior to actually becoming a lift maintenance technician. Two of those interviewed had early in their careers worked at Keystone and both shared that Keystone had a very strong in house lift maintenance training programs, which they both emulate at their current ski areas. One of the interviewees took full advantage of my home states, Vermont, apprenticeship program and is now an instructor within that program.
All put significant value in their training at RMLS and LMS sessions and the value of having the luck or the cunning to have worked with a mentor who was instrumental in their skill acquisition, to the point of saying that they would not be where there are without having had the opportunity to work with someone who helped them along.
The feeling about hiring was unanimous; you have to create your own talent, it isn’t going to walk in off the street responding to an ad, which was how some of the interviewees got their start. I was very curious about the way they created talent and asked some questions about how they did this. Many use lift operations as a feeder to lift maintenance, paying attention to lift operators during the course of a season to see how interested the operators are in the workings of the lifts. The majority of the ski areas covered in the interviews utilize the lift operators in staring the lifts, having the operators perform a certain level of daily checks. This allows for lift maintenance to gain insight into the operator’s actual mechanical skill abilities. Some areas have actual defined attributes they look for in lift operators as potential lift mechanics and if they have these attributes they’d bring the lift operator on as a laborer/helper for the summer, exposing the lift operator to a much more detail about lifts. State apprenticeship programs or defined in-house training programs are then used with the individuals the ski areas believe to have potential. I asked about passion for the sport as to how important that was with some of the interviewees and all indicated the more passion the better, the retention factor is higher with those who have the passion.
I did ask about in-house training and all said they do but only two had a program that I would say was well defined. These two both had worked at Keystone and had indicated how good that program was when they were there. The programs of these two are similar and closely mirror in concept what I presented in my last post. One ski area is actually exploring development of an online training program similar to those offered currently by Selkirk College and Colorado Mountain College. There is full and strong agreement that more training venues are needed.
The last question had to do with certification. There was a mixed agreement that certification is needed. All thought it was needed but there was some hesitation as to how it might come about. The concern is how the certification will be defined, by people who know what is needed or by others who might have good intentions but not understand what is needed. Common response there needs to be consistency such that a Level II tech from Utah needs to be that same as a Level II in Maine. Another concern was accountability, the system has to have teeth and address those who tend to go outside the certification process. Who will do is seen as the overwhelming challenge. How mid-size and small ski resorts can support such a program is seen as the significant challenge. All felt that certification is coming and all hoped that it is controlled from within the industry.
My big take away is nothing prophetic but that with the retirement of the skilled mentors who have been the strength of this trade, there is not enough capacity to do the training as these mentors have done in the past. Certainly there will be those who will develop and become the gurus of the lift maintenance world but with the evolving complexity of lifts, the needs are growing for higher skills. One comment received left an impression on me: “I would like to think that someday we could get an accredited program that could be taught in several areas of the country and make lift maintenance a career again.” A career again are the words that were impactful to me. I have always felt this is a profession and it is not recognized by managers and owners as such. Maybe if the industry can change this perception, those with better aptitude and attitudes will seek lift maintenance as a profession.
Thanks so much to the interviewees for taking the time to share their thoughts and be open with me. I hope this can prompt some type of action. One thing I do know, it needs to be supported by the industry of ski areas and lift manufacturers. Next steps?