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Launching The Certified Forklift Technician Program

MHEDA and the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC) partnered to launch the Certified Forklift Technician (CFT) designation in 2017 as an effort to combat the “skills gap” shortage in the material handling industry. The CFT was created to raise performance of forklift technicians, assist individuals in finding higher paying jobs and help employers ensure their workforce is skilled and robust.

At the 2018 MHEDA Convention, MSSC CEO Leo Reddy, Waukesha Technical College’s Dean of Industrial Automation, Mike Shiels, and MHEDA Board Member and President of Fairchild Equipment Van Clarkson, gave a presentation announcing the CFT Program and updating MHEDA Members on what steps to take to get involved. Clarkson and Shiels have worked together to implement the CFT Program in Waukesha Technical College and ensure students understand the career opportunities as a Forklift Technician in the material handling industry. The MHEDA Journal had the opportunity to speak with Van Clarkson about the program and get his perspective on where the program is heading and what it will mean for the material handling industry.

TMJ: What would you say was the general message for attendees from your Convention presentation?

Van Clarkson: The overall message was that we have to work together as dealers. We can’t think of ourselves as competitors in the market. This is an industry problem. I think it’s righting itself, and the CFT is a really good start, but when I go to a Community College or Technical school and say that I have 30 job openings, it’s not as compelling as when we say there are 10,000 nationwide. There may be, in the state of Wisconsin, 350 openings for these positions, and they’re high-paying positions. They’re a great job. Once people get into the role, the sky is the limit. There are people who started off as technicians that now own their own businesses. Or, who became a technician, continued their certifications, and are now making upwards of $35 per hour -acting as their own boss! They absolutely love life and that’s why oftentimes technicians stay in this role until they retire. The issue is that kids these days are not growing up playing with forklifts in their sandbox. They’re not thinking about going out and working on forklifts. They’re thinking of automotive technicians or maybe over the road truck technicians. Putting together the CFT is a start to changing that thought process, “widening the pool of applicants,” and explaining why a forklift technician is a really attractive option. Think about construction equipment. I’m from Wisconsin. Do you want to work on construction equipment in January outside? No. Chances are, if you’re going to be a forklift technician, you’re going to be working inside in a climate controlled facility. All of your tools are going to be in your van. It’s a pretty attractive job and we’ve called on high schools in our area, even middle schools, to try to raise awareness of this. And CFT is going to take it to the next step, just like ASE has for automotive. When you go to technical schools, you’re going to see this. It’s going to open the door to 10,000 jobs. The biggest message is that I want us to work together on this. I had three competitors in the audience. I want them to say let’s work together and get this launched, not only at Waukesha Technical College but other schools in the area.

TMJ: Take us through the story of how this all came together?

VC: I think MHEDA had been hearing about this for many years from forklift dealers, whose biggest complaint has been that they can’t get enough technicians, and their average technician age continues to get older. Four years ago, 25 percent of our technicians were about to retire within 5 years. And when you can’t replace them with that young talent, you’ve got to do something. Liz heard those complaints from the membership and took it to the next level. She spoke about the forklift technician shortage at a trade show and Leo Reddy of MSSC happened to be in the audience. Together they helped bring a vision to reality. We’re all really excited about it.

TMJ: How long has that process taken?

VC: Over two years.

TMJ: How much of this has been a messaging issue? There’s such a shortage of young technicians that the ones that can do it can pretty much write their own ticket.

VC: That’s it. It is a messaging issue. And what we haven’t done as well as the construction industry and the automotive industry is to get into these schools and offer scholarships. Offer for them to come into your facilities. Partner up with these technical colleges. Increase awareness by making the CFT an option. Forklift dealers just haven’t, for the most part, done that. You go into a technical school and you’ll see Caterpillar Construction or whatever the Cat dealer in the area’s name is, they have their own wing. So what’s that going to do? They’re going to go work there. At Waukesha Technical College, we donated equipment, helped fund a dual-enrollment program, which allows high-school seniors to jump start their technical college degree in automotive, diesel engines or robotics. The program lets students take classes at the college throughout their last year in high school leaving them only 1 year to finish the technical college degree. The CFT will now be part of the dual enrollment program at WTC and will be weaved into those different programs their senior year, so then they only have one year left. Some students go on to a four year school, because they hear all through high school that they have to have a four-year degree. That’s changing. In the state of the union, the president didn’t talk about a four-year degree, he talked about technical colleges and skilled trades. We need it. You think about the people who get a four-year degree and then at 32 they have a history degree and they’re a barista. Technical students are getting out and they’re making immediate money and have little to no debt and have the ability to make more money. We have techs who came to us in their early 20s and by 25 they’re maxing out the pay scale.

TMJ: And being a technician doesn’t have to be a forever job. You can start as a technician and work your way into other areas of the company.

VC: It’s a very common career path. You start off as a technician and then you become an aftermarket salesperson and then you can move into parts or service management, from there you can become shop foreman. A lot of people go into sales and then sales management. Some become dealer principals. Our corporate sales director started off as a technician. The sales manager in our Milwaukee market started out as a tech and worked his way up. What better way to know the equipment?

TMJ: How much does having an intimate knowledge of the equipment benefit them?

VC: Immensely. They’re really bringing value to a customer at that point.

TMJ: What would you be looking for from other MHEDA members to ensure that this program is a success?

VC: There will be no two schools that are exactly alike. Waukesha County Technical College really came together very quickly. We already had a relationship with them, which helped. Liz can be pretty compelling when she comes out on a sales call as well, but just because we did this at Waukesha County Technical College doesn’t mean that Gateway Tech or Gwinnett will do exactly the same thing. It’s raise awareness. Get out in front of these schools. Start a relationship. In some cases that means you might have to pay for some scholarship money, but if you’re using a head hunter to find that talent, you’re paying 10 times that much. So for us it was a very easy decision to do that. I would just say get involved. The goal is to widen the pool of higher skilled applicants. As much as I would love to have Fairchild be the one who has a relationship with all of the schools in our footprint, I think we’ll be better served as a whole if everybody is out there because then all of the students will know that this is really a good career path.

TMJ: What’s Your Vision for this program?

VC: I’d like to see the CFT be just like the ASE for automotive. I’d like to see more of our dealerships sponsoring things within the schools. We have a lot to sell. We’re selling fully automated forklifts today, which require service. For a kid coming out of technical school at 20 or 21, that’s pretty neat. We have a lot to offer. I want to see us all get on board.