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Q&A: Engineering Laundry Engineers (Part 1)

Challenges of finding engineers; feasibility of training

CHICAGO — For years, the laundry and linen services industry has struggled to locate and hire plant engineers.

Over the past few years, it’s become more of a challenge to find mechanics, technicians and full engineers to keep operations running smoothly.

One solution to this growing problem is for laundry operators to train up engineers from within their facilities.

American Laundry News communicated with four laundry professionals involved with the engineering side of the industry to find out how operators can train up their own engineers.

Jeffrey A. Carney is corporate maintenance director for United Hospital Services (UHS) based in Indianapolis.

Shane Ledbetter is senior vice president of operations for NOVO Health Services which makes its headquarters in Atlanta.

Jeremy Jabaay is corporate engineer for Wildman Business Group headquartered in Warsaw, Indiana.

David Griggs serves as general manager for Superior Linen Service’s healthcare division based in Oklahoma and is a columnist at large for American Laundry News.

How difficult is it to find laundry engineers today? Why?

CARNEY: Qualified laundry engineers are extremely hard to find in the market we operate in. Skilled trades are in heavy demand and qualified workers are in short supply.  

The hospitality, healthcare and manufacturing sectors all draw from the same pool of applicants. We are not graduating enough students with the necessary electrical and mechanical knowledge to step into these roles.  

Wages are also a concern as the Midwest has a heavy manufacturing presence that typically can pay a higher wage.

LEDBETTER: It is very difficult to find engineers with the unique skill set required by the laundry industry. 

Today’s equipment requires engineers with an advanced level of industrial automation experience, and there are other technical fields that offer more competitive pay and less stressful environments. 

It is tough to find employees across the board, but even more difficult to find laundry engineers. 

JABAAY: Finding experienced laundry engineers has been next to impossible for us. 

All of our higher-level positions have been filled with candidates from other industries. Mechanical and electrical experience in the industrial setting was the main thing we looked for.

GRIGGS: We have seen a big struggle as of late, over the last few years. I think it’s because more people don’t want to go into the service side of jobs. People want to be more of a computer tech or whatever the young people look for when they’re coming out. 

Even though there are PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and everything in the laundry industry now, we seem to get people who just strictly want to do that, which is only about 2% of the job. 90% of the job is doing preventative maintenance (PM) and cleaning. 

So, it seems like we’re really struggling to get that person these days.

How feasible is it for an operation to train up an engineer?

CARNEY: Training someone to be an engineer will take a strong time commitment to do so. You must be willing to dedicate the resources and the hours.  

Teaching someone basic mechanical skills is relatively easy such as how to remove a nut or a bolt without stripping them out. Electrical expertise such as reading a blueprint and tracing down circuits is a bit more challenging.   

We have what we call lead mechanics on every one of our shifts. These lead mechanics will oversee our trainees and junior mechanics. The lead mechanics will mentor the trainees and junior mechanics in their job duties.  

We utilize job classifications in the maintenance department and have promoted from within over the last three years that I have been leading the maintenance department. You would typically start out as a preventative maintenance person who cleans the machinery, blows down the lint from the building and assists the mechanics when assigned. 

The maintenance tech trainee position is filled from the preventative maintenance classification. This person would receive hands-on training and mentoring for no less than 18 months.  

The supervisor, lead mechanic and I would have to agree that the person is ready for the next classification after reviewing his attendance and job performance. These individuals are typically assigned to assist mechanics and learn from on-the-job experience.     

The next step is the junior maintenance technician position where the individual would receive training in pneumatics, hydraulics and electrical. Again, the supervisor, lead mechanic and I would have to agree that the person is ready for the next classification after reviewing or deciding what additional training is required. 

The senior maintenance technician classification has completed the training of the previous classifications and would receive machine-specific training to utilize in troubleshooting the machines either in person or through webinars. 

Lead mechanic classification is responsible for mentoring and training the individuals on his shift and recommending the training needed to advance the individual along. This individual may be sent for machine-specific training by the machine manufacturer.

LEDBETTER: It is definitely feasible to train up an engineer, but it requires a strong training program that is well administered and offers a broad range of skill development (for example, not everyone is strong in electrical, mechanical or fluid dynamics). 

In this industry, the work environment is frequently too demanding, technically detailed and time-sensitive for most techs to be trained successfully. Training from within demands a much longer learning curve, and its success depends upon the types of training programs in place and how well-rounded the existing team is. 

However, with the right candidate—one who has the ability to learn the field and apply what they learn—and a management team that commits to the practice that technicians will not be assigned tasks for which they have not been thoroughly trained, it is possible to hire and successfully train from within. 

For those organizations that have the proper structure and training in place, it is a great way to promote team growth and elevate overall team performance.

JABAAY: Training an entry-level engineer is feasible if you have an experienced engineer able to do so. 

GRIGGS: Of course, TRSA has a program that helps and then Milnor, Braun and all the major suppliers have schools about their techs.

What we’ve done in our Springdale, Arkansas, location is we found a little vo-tech (vocational-technical school) that if we have a person who, our last two really good maintenance guys actually came out of the production side, and we send them there to kind of get cleaned up a little bit.

It doesn’t take them all the way to rebuilding machines or anything like that, which is not what we’re looking for anyway. We’re actually exploring this in our Tulsa facility, too. So, if we get a man or woman who seems like they can do the job or wants to do the job, then we’ve been trying to send them and spend the money for vo-tech. 

Check back Thursday to read about the types of employees to train along with training options.

Engineering Laundry Engineers

(Image licensed by Ingram Image)

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Matt Poe at [email protected].