Engineering and construction contractors in Iraq there to fix and maintain military equipment and vehicles can't afford to send their workers through "on the job training," as time, safety and getting it right the first time are of the essence in an atmosphere of war.
So, one government contractor--URS Corporation's EG&G Division/Lear Siegler Services--called upon Montgomery College to develop and implement a skill-level testing program that measures a candidate's ability here in Houston before they are ever sent overseas.
EG&G/LSI has a long history of providing operations and program management, maintenance overhaul and repair, logistical support, systems engineering and technical assistance to both the government and private sector, but primarily to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. As a strategic subcontractor to KBR on the U.S. Army's LOGCAP contract, it has a large presence in Iraq covering 16 different sites with multiple operations on each site.
"Previously we worked under the assumption that when a job candidate told us they had welding or mechanics skills that they actually had those skills," said Jeff Clements, director of CONUS LOGCAP operations for EG&G/LSI. "But even though we did reference checks on our candidates, we were finding once we deployed some of the candidates to Iraq that they were not up to par, which obviously costs us the time and money associated with deploying them, but also undermines our performance because it creates a problem within the team."
Clements said he even has candidates sign an affidavit swearing that they are qualified and acknowledging that they are fully aware that there was no "on the job training." Yet they were still getting unqualified candidates that they eventually had to send home.
"We need our new hires to ‘hit the ground running," said Clements. "We take great pride in the quality of our work, especially considering that it affects the soldier's lives directly. When an unqualified employee arrives in Iraq, it negatively affects everyone; from the front line supervisor that has to mediate the problems that arise; the morale of the other co-workers who get paid the same as those who aren't performing and have to go behind them to ensure their work is done to or above standard; the safety of our military who depend on their equipment being operational; and of course, the employee, because he feels the pressure and embarrassment of underperforming and being sent home."
Clements said EG&G/LSI knew it had to address the issue of better evaluating candidates, but no program existed, so it was up to them to help someone develop one.
"Skill level testing is prevalent in the human resources and even the IT fields, but skill level testing in the maintenance field was brand new to everyone we consulted with," said Clements. "We ran into obstacles with everyone we approached, such as they didn't have the facilities, or too much liability, and even no interest at all in such an opportunity."
Montgomery College was interested, however.
"They were about six or seven down on the list of our contacts and when we approached them, it was like they were just waiting for us to ask," said Clements.
David Boden, program manager at Montgomery College's Conroe Center, was the first point of contact for the college on the project, serving as subject matter expert for test development. Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, director of the college's Lone Star College–Conroe Center, said he knew that EG&G/LSI's needs presented a great challenge to the college.
"We were more than eager to develop a program for them," said Rodriguez. "Now that we are working together on this, I really don't know why it took so long to get this kind of program going or how anyone ever did without it. It is our hope that we can also work with other companies on this same type of venture, because the benefits are incredible."
EG&G/LSI hires candidates to work in Iraq and before they are sent overseas, they are sent to Montgomery College where their ‘hands on' skills are tested and evaluated in several areas--wheeled vehicle and engineer equipment mechanics, HVAC, power generation, welding, machining, and fuel and electric. Since the program began in January, Montgomery College has tested more than 350 candidates for EG&G/LSI that were scheduled to deploy for Iraq.
Red River Army Depot LSI site manager Billy Harrist, who worked closely with Montgomery College in developing the testing program to meet EG&G/LSI's specific requirements, said the program is providing exactly what they had in mind when they came to them with the project--and more.
"Outstanding would be the word that I would use," said Harrist. "You can always measure a person's ability with a written test, and we have done that over ten different fields, but what Montgomery College has done is to evaluate every candidate in person and determine their skill level and provide us with that invaluable information on paper, per person."
One additional and key area that has developed as a part of the program is safety assessment, said Harrist.
"Safety is of the utmost importance to the company, and we have one of the lowest safety incident rates in Iraq. What we have also added to the ‘hands on' testing is to have the instructor evaluate the candidate's safety habits."
"You can ask a man about safety and he can tell you ‘I always wear goggles when I use a hand grinder,' but on a skill level assessment, an instructor will note whether he practices what he preaches."
Clements added, "Prior to the implementation of the skill level testing with Montgomery College, our OCONUS (Iraq) Program Management Office received a list of new hires and their skill set. Now, they receive the same list but with the skill level assessment scores added. This provides tremendous benefits to our Operations Management Team in Iraq. Having prior knowledge of a new employee's skill level allows OCONUS Operations to place the employee at the right site and in the right shop where their specific skill level will be the most beneficial to our customer, the U.S. Military. We have received very positive feedback to the effectiveness of this initiative from the Iraq Program Management Office all the way down to site level management."
Montgomery College has also developed a way to assess how candidates would perform in similar mediums, said Harrist.
"Someone with 20 years experience on a gasoline engine would still be valuable on a diesel engine, but they probably wouldn't do well on a written diesel test," said Harrist. "But Montgomery College has developed a way to help those that have experience with gas engines and apply that knowledge to diesel engines, and we now have gotten someone with 20 years gas engine experience up to par on a similar but different type of engine."
Rodriguez said for that particular situation, Montgomery College obtained a diesel engine to help train and test candidates.
"We didn't normally have a diesel engine at our disposal, but S.T.A.R. Concrete generously donated a high-dollar concrete pumping diesel truck for our use," he said. "From day one this has been a team project that includes Montgomery College, EG&G/LSI, as well as Conroe ISD, which allowed us to use its facilities for the testing."
Harrist said the Montgomery College "teamwork" attitude is one that is particularly important to their joint mission.
"Essentially, what EG&G/LSI does, and what the support of Montgomery College in this program contributes to, is help our military in Iraq," said Harrist. "I hear stories like when a group of our employees had just installed a ballistic windshield on a military vehicle in Iraq and not a few minutes later a mortar landed on that vehicle's hood. They brought that windshield back and told our employees ‘your work just saved out lives.' Our men hung up that windshield with the date and names of those servicemen and grown men cried with pride. We have felt that same sense of pride from Montgomery College in this venture and we are more than pleased with our partnership."
NHMCCD, among the largest and fastest growing community colleges in Texas, comprise, Cy-Fair College, Kingwood College, Montgomery College, North Harris College, Tomball College, six satellite centers, and The University Center.