Imagine a ski area with unreliable lifts. Not sure the area would be viable for long if at all. Customers expect reliable and safe lifts. Securing insurance might be a challenge and can’t imagine an owner taking the risk of running a ski area without insurance. The lack of reliability stems from poor maintenance. Poor maintenance is typically attributed to poor leadership and lack of trained and adequately paid staff.
Leadership is a broad subject and while I have shared my thoughts relevant to mountain operations leadership skills, here I’ll address training and compensation relating to lift maintenance. I am sure I will win some fans and gain some non-fans. To be direct, I fully believe as an industry there needs to be increased focus on the training of lift mechanics and an increase in the level of pay to attract potential lift mechanics/electricians to the industry and retain those who do join the ranks.
My beliefs, admittedly, have been gained post my ski area management experience so to all lift mechanics who worked for me, I apologize for not being as wise as I might be now on this subject. Aerial lifts, ski lifts, are essential somewhat like airplanes; people are being put in the air to travel over land. The risks may not be as great as they are in flying but there are significant risks so the care of the ski lifts should be in the highly competent hands of those who work in a well thought out preventive maintenance process. The good news is that there is oversight by state and provincial agencies, albeit varied state by state and province by province, and the process is guided by very well thought out standards, ANSI B-77 Standard for Passenger Ropeways in US and by CSA National Standard for Passenger Ropeways and Conveyors (Z98 Code)in Canada.
The issues are pay and training and they are both interrelated. This can be a classic chicken and egg situation. No one wants to pay someone a good wage if they have no skill but there is no incentive to acquire the skill because the pay isn’t there.
Based on 2010 NSAA Wage Survey adjusted for inflation, I calculate the weighted average for the following lift maintenance positions:
*is based on zero overtime, which is unlikely
The salary range for Caterpillar diesel mechanic as presented by Glassdoor, an online job placement service, is $28.00 – $30.00 per hour or stated annually $56,560 – $60,600. From Payscale, another online job placement service states salary range for diesel mechanic is $47,000 – $78,000 annually.
In no way do I belittle any Caterpillar Diesel mechanic, as they have a broad range of skills ranging from diesel engine mechanics, hydraulic, and electronic controls as they relate to engine performance. Having stated my respect for Cat diesel mechanics, I would make the argument that a lift mechanic requires skills equal to or to exceed those of a Cat diesel mechanic and this would be especially true with regard to newer detachable lifts and gondolas. Once you throw in the working environment, the risk factor exceeds that of what a typical Cat diesel mechanic has to experience.
It is completely unreasonable for the ski industry to make an immediate adjustment to correct this disparity. One of the steps I am advocating for is the commitment from senior level management to recognize the value of lift mechanics/electricians and begin the investment process. The investment begins with this recognition but also incrementally increasing the compensation levels to eventually be fully competitive with the open market. Secondly, it begins with supporting NSAA’s efforts to bring awareness to the training needs of our lift mechanics and maybe the eventual standardization of skills and expertise needed to professionally maintain ski lifts. This second step should also be coupled with each ski area instituting a fully documented training program for all lift maintenance staff. There are many very good examples to follow and to those ski areas that have these good programs, I would encourage you to share the structure and syllabus of your programs.
While there is a cost associated with taking these steps, there are significant upsides. First, management’s stress levels and sleep patterns might improve, all kidding aside, having quality well-trained staff serving your lifts greatly improves reliability and reduces risks. Lift reliability should not be downplayed. The customer expectation is when he or she buys a ticket or season pass is that the lifts will run, not stop frequently or be closed for maintenance. Yes, the weather will affect lift operations and a mechanical part no matter how well maintained may fail but frequent stops are signs of poorly maintained lifts, not meeting customer expectations. Raising the bar on lift maintenance is enabling the ski are to meet customer expectations.
Let’s not kick this can down the road, love your lift mechamics/electricans!