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C. M. Consulting
P.O. Box 407
Odell, Oregon 97044
United States
Phone: 541-352-7942
Fax: 541-352-7943



A Division of Cliff Mansfield Incorporated


In House Personnel Training
A Blueprint for Small Companies


Cliff Mansfield

  It's Sunday afternoon. The wife and kids flutter about the house, happy to have you home for a day after the grind you've endured-- they've endured. For the first time in several months you can lay back and relax. Monday morning that new paving contract you've worked so hard to get ready for finally starts. All the equipment is on-site, the crews eager for the start of the project. Signs are up and the flaggers are set to begin traffic control at six thirty AM. You plan to use rental trucks on this project so they've been set-up to arrive at your asphalt plant at eight minute intervals starting at six o'clock. The operator should have the storage silo full by then. You're hoping for a strong start so every last detail has been mothered into place, every precaution taken.
  Or has it? It's after five when the phone rings. Your Project Superintendent's on the line. Earlier in the day your asphalt plant operator was in a traffic accident. He's doing fine, but unfortunately he's going to be in the hospital for a while and it may be several months before he's able to return to work. Now what do you do?
  For the larger paving companies the answer to this question is relatively simple. They either bring in an operator from one of their other plants or they have a temporary replacement trained as part of an ongoing in-house training program.
  But what if your company is small, say one AC plant, maybe a small crusher and a seasonal paving crew, elements of which are borrowed from other areas of your company? This can be a problem if you haven't planned ahead. There are companies, like mine, which provide personnel for daily operations and also provide on-site training. But these services are not always available at the time the need arises.
  Over the years I've found myself at numerous small paving organizations suffering scenarios similar to the one described above. In nearly every instance their asphalt plant operator was one of their key people-- one the company thought would be around forever. Management simply never foresaw a need to cross-train someone for his job. When things went wrong they found themselves scrambling for a solution to a dilemma which could easily cost them a substantial amount of money. For this reason an in-house training regimen is essential for even the smallest of paving companies. At this time we will deal with the asphalt plant operator, but the issue could just as easily be the paving superintendent or grade superintendent or any other position that is key to the overall operation of a small paving spread.
  For some companies the hardest part is making the decision to begin a training program. Either management is unsure of the need, the personnel aren't available or the existing plant operator sees such a program as a threat to his/her job and stands in adamant opposition to the proposal. Soothing words can often ease the plant operator's fears, but the personnel issue and management reluctance are more difficult to address. Money issues can be bantered about and potential lost time discussed, but the only compelling argument will come in a situation like that described above. A frank discussion on the effects of such an occurrence should serve to dispel any reluctance. One point to consider is the fact that a back-up operator can be utilized to reduce the amount of overtime at the company's HMA facility.
  Once the decision is made to proceed, implementing a training program even if you don't have a person to commit full time shouldn't prove that difficult, given the potential benefits of such a program. What follows is a synopsis of the course I use to train operators for customers.

    There are four phases of an operator's training:
      1- repair, maintenance & familiarity
      2- control room & daily operations
      3- mix designs & specifications
      4- mechanical & electrical troubleshooting

  I start by recommending that the company find a reasonably intelligent person with a mechanical background. While welding and electrical experience can be a plus, they are not essential if others in the company possess the requisite skills, or commercial help is available in time of need. Not all small companies have sufficient staffing to provide a person dedicated full-time to the asphalt plant. Under those circumstances a person from the company's shop is a good choice. These people normally have an interest in mechanical things and are less likely to be intimidated by the noisy environment of an asphalt plant where many things are happening at once.
  If a full-time person is unavailable and a part-time person is chosen then, in addition to the trainee's normal duties within the company, he/she should be assigned to the asphalt plant as ground-man/oiler for a certain number of hours per day. Under these circumstances, the more hours the better. Primary activities should include all phases of oiling and preventive maintenance, with a healthy dose of 'why things work this way' from the plant's lead operator. Care should be taken at this time to fully explain each and every question the person asks. The answers these people receive at this point in their training bear heavily on their attitudes later on.
  Additionally, it is essential that the trainee be involved in all plant repairs from the mundane to the critical. This is important because it gives the prospective operator a feeling of being involved in, and sense of belonging to the AC plant. It seems reasonable that a person who feels a part of something greater will do a better job than one who is marking time until payday.
The most important part of the job to teach a prospective operator is the repair and maintenance phase. Anyone can pick-up the fundamentals of the control room in relatively short order, it's simply a matter of pressing the right buttons in the correct sequence, given a certain set of circumstances. What separates exceptional asphalt plant operators from the rest is the ability to address problems before they mushroom into a crisis that causes major downtime. To do that an operator must be intimately familiar with the machine to be operated. Familiarity only comes from hands on experience. No amount of book learning or lecturing can replace that knowledge gained through one's sweat.
  As with any training program, the length of time a trainee works as a ground-man is directly proportional to the amount of time they spend in that environment each day. I've encountered situations where companies have streamlined this phase of the operator's training. Their logic was that the person was a back-up operator, therefore they needn't have as thorough an understanding of the equipment as the primary operator. I disagree with this premise: Under certain circumstances like those described in the opening paragraphs that back-up operator could become the primary, and gaps in his training could surface in costly manifestations of shattered parts. Broken machinery costs money to repair. But more importantly it fails to make money while it's idle. Some people shrug off that argument, but I'd like to point out that in reality it's the only reason for a paving company to own a plant. On the other hand an argument can be made to lightly cover such issues as conveyor troughing rolls and the like where the daily maintenance schedule is limited to visual inspection and instead concentrate on things like dryer trunnions, slat conveyors, belt tensions and a comprehensive greasing routine. This issue is one best decided by individual companies, but bear in mind that the more the trainee learns in this period of their training the more successful their transition to lead operator will be at some future date.
  Once the trainee begins to demonstrate an understanding of the hot mix processes and the function of the different components, try to move them into the control-room for short stints in the driver's seat. During this time it is essential to cement in the trainee's mind the fact that if things don't work outside, there's no need for anyone to occupy the operator's chair in the air-conditioned comfort of the control room.
  At this point it is advantageous to insulate the trainee from the worry of mix designs or specifications. It's best if someone else addresses these issues until such time as the new operator has a firm grasp on the job at hand. Most companies have a member of management whose attention is firmly focused on these issues and, should the need arise, would be able to guide the trainee through any adjustments to be made.
  As time progresses, gradually allow the trainee more and more time in the control room. Care must be used to assure that the individual's training doesn't proceed at such a pace as to confuse the person. A clear focus on the phases of the job will produce a better trained employee in the long run than will a hurried curriculum.
  As the trainee becomes more familiar with the day to day plant operations and begins to feel comfortable at the controls it might be a good idea to send them out with the paving crew for a few days. This would give them a sense of purpose for what they are learning. It would also allow them to see what their product is used for and the reasons why the pavers sometimes call for hotter/cooler temperatures or courser/finer mixes under certain conditions. The best plant operators have a certain amount of empathy for the crews who are using their mix, and again, experience is an unparalleled instructor.
  Once the trainee is competent to operate the HMA facility it is time to begin training in mix design specifications. Most operators don't get involved in the actual submission of mix designs. Their job is to make the plant produce a product which satisfies those designs. While this skill is only acquired with time and experience, a few days working in the company's Quality Control Lab will go a long way toward helping the individual understand what effect, for instance, a two percent change in the sand ratio has on percent passing the quarter screen. To someone who has never been exposed to them, these principles are as alien as brain surgery and only a bit less intimidating. Lab time can go a long way toward de-mystifying this phase of the job.
  The skill that will take the most effort to acquire is the ability to troubleshoot the plant. Most times mechanical problems are self explanatory: It's not hard to see why the dryer won't turn when the drive belts are lying on the ground under the gearbox. But electronic troubleshooting is different story. For example: Some operators, even after years of experience, still find themselves at a loss to figure out why a Ramsey belt scale suddenly looses its read-out. Unless the wiring is ripped out of the belt speed sensor or something equally as obvious these people have to call for help. We all have at one time or another so a well stocked Rolodex is an essential tool at any asphalt facility. Repair companies specializing in electronics abound for good reason. In recent years advances in computerized AC plant controls have simplified plant operations immeasurably, but in doing so those systems have become so complicated that only the most experienced plant operators have the exposure needed to generate any kind of diagnostic skills in contemporary electronics.
  Several companies are offering 'Plant operator workshops', and it is a very good idea to enroll the trainee in as broad a cross-section of these as are available in the area. No amount of training is wasted when it comes to an HMA facility. It must be remembered that an AC plant is a complex facility, which is probably why everyone doesn't operate one. To train a good plant operator requires consummate patience and a willingness to risk a certain amount of money. Very few plant operators can say that, early in their career, they didn't at one time or other make mistakes which resulted in wasted time and product. This is to be expected. But the more thorough a person's primary training the less likely it is that that person will experience a catastrophic problem of their own making.
  Once you have an individual trained as a back-up, try to give them some time each week in the operator's chair. This will help to keep their newly acquired skills sharp. Maybe this would be a good time to cross-train your lead plant operator as a paving superintendent?


For additional information on this subject or help with any problems encountered contact Cliff Mansfield, 541-352-7942, 7:30am to 9:00pm Pacific Standard Time.

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