How, where, when and does it need to be stepped up?
In this post I’ll address the how and where fairly well, the when will be discussed, but the “does it need to be stepped up” is the bigger and broader question, which I will share my thoughts on but the ski industry has to address as a whole.
All current lift technicians/mechanics are to be respected for the job they do and the learning they acquired either through schooling or in the field. All the people I have met in this profession have strived to do the best job they possible could with the skills and tools they have. This post is really in support of their work and their desire to be better at their trade.
In full disclosure, when Rick Kahl of SAM called me as he was writing his excellent article about lift maintenance training, “How Good Are Your Lift Mechanics?”, it stirred my mind to more deeply look in to what is actually available in North America for lift maintenance training. I approached the subject as if I was a young person really interested in becoming a lift maintenance technician/mechanic and what was available for training such that I could apply for a full time lift maintenance position.
As to whether what we have needs to be stepped up, I’ll share my opinion on that first. Bluntly and to the point, YES. There are several reasons I have this opinion.
- The skiing public expect safe reliable lifts
- A traditional ski area can’t operate without reliable and safe operating lifts
- The age of many of our lifts is exceeding 30 plus years and competent inspection and well-engineered repairs is needed
- Knowledge and competency has a direct correlation to reliability, minimization of risk, and cost; thus, return on investment
- There is a shortage of qualified lift mechanics continent wide, lift mechanic ads consistently make up the largest percentage of employment ads in SAM, month after month, current month 22% of employment ads are for Lift Maintenance positions
- Tramway Boards, state and provincial regulators of aerial lifts, are putting more pressure on ski areas to have better trained staff. In Canada British, Columbia requires certification of trainers and Ontario requires certification of all lift maintenance staff.
- I have visited too many lift maintenance departments where the wage is slightly above minimum wage levels and the technical expertise just isn’t there.
All ski areas, large and small, have difficulty allocating time and funding to provide in-house training for something as technical as lift maintenance. So maybe hiring staff out of technical school into an apprenticeship is the one answer. Short term there is a need for more technical expertise on the ground now. How will that happen?
What is available today?
Lift Maintenance Seminar, LMS, and Rocky Mountain Lift Association, RMLA, in USA and Canada West Ski Areas Association, CWSAA, in Canada are the major training sources. Most of this is classroom training and available once a year in the early spring for a period of 3 days.
Doppelmayr holds classes in its Salt Lake City facility during the summer depending on demand and will provide onsite training if requested. Leitner Poma does not provide training as a unique service, although they offer excellent short videos via YouTube on maintenance for most components of a lift.
Some trade shows have training offered at their annual shows, again mostly classroom but some are held at ski areas with hands on training available.
There are two specific certification programs in the USA, Gogebic Community College and Colorado Mountain College offer specific lift maintenance programs.
Selkirk College in BC, Canada offers a “Train the Trainer” program for training in house and in compliance with British Columbia’s Elevating Devices Safety Regulation requirement of certification of passenger ropeways trainers.
So that young person in North America would have two choices. One would be Gogebic Community College’s Ski Lift Maintenance Technology Program. This program is offered in three consecutive parts and the participants must complete each level in order before taking the next level. The courses will run for one hundred and sixty hours, during the month of May, each year, as yet to be determined. The person will have to work lift ops until the certificate is earned, 3 years. The advantage of this program is that Gogebic owns a ski area, MT Zion, and has a lift which to work with so the there is plenty of hands on teaching.
Or, enroll at Colorado Mountain College in their Ropeway Maintenance Technician program, a three year, and 34 credit hour program in either in mechanical or electrical field. This program requires 519 hours of field work. The advantage of this program is that the classroom work is online so existing staff can enroll and yet not be offsite for an extended period. The field work has to be signed off and verified by a supervisor at ski area where the student is working, preapproved by the college.
In contrast, in Europe a young person can elect to go to college for lift maintenance. Having met staff from one of such institutions, the difference in approach is quite dramatic. Here is a YouTube of the opening of a new training facility at LBS Hallein, a vocational college in Salzburg, Austria. Imagine having this type of facility, also notice the names on the gondola cabins, sponsors of the facility. This facility has five lifts undercover fully operational. This program is three and half years with the graduate being certified as a ropeway specialist. This won’t happen on this side of the Atlantic.
There aren’t many choices on the where and when with the how being very limited if it isn’t an in house program. As mentioned above there is a short term issue, the need for qualified staff now and also a long term issue, developing a feeder system of educated staff as the current aged lift maintenance technicians retire.
Given the resource challenge in the USA, taking a page from our Northern neighbor, where an academic institution, Selkirk College, provides training to the trainers, with the province certifying the trainers and then the trainers train the ski area lift maintenance staff. This would be more of a long term solution to keeping the staff at a high technical competency level. The Selkirk program develops the in house curriculum in addition to the skill develop offered to the trainer. Many larger ski areas such as Vail and Steamboat, to provide reference, have such programs although there is no certification of the trainer or oversight by any entity.
On the short term enrolling existing staff at Gogebic Community College or Colorado Mountain College could accelerate the supply of competency. Cost certainly is a factor, not including transportation and wages, Gogebic has a total cost for 3 years of tuition with room and board of approximately $6,900. Colorado Mountain College tuition only for 3 years for non Colorado residents is approximately $7,600, Colorado residents is approximately $2,400.
This is certainly is not the solution to a long standing issue, just some thoughts on how the ski industry can raise the level of training for lift technicians/mechanics. I have questions that the industry needs to answer:
- Are ski areas willing to enroll existing staff in the two current proven training programs?
- Are ski areas willing to step up and provide a defined in house training program with a certified trainer?
- Do we need certified trainers?
- Who would be the coordinator of the certification process if deemed needed?
- What should be basis of training standard? ANSI B77 in USA and Z98 is in Canada seem to be the sensible and logical choices.
There is no right time to address this issue but the hope is that by raising the awareness a solution workable for all, technicians and ski areas, will evolve.