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Trucking into the millennium;Comment;Opinion

Partnerships in vocational education is the theme for today, and the hope for tomorrow in Maryland in the United States, as I learnt recently with the TransAtlantic Technology and Training Alliance, which is nurtured by the Scottish Council for Educational Technology on Europe's behalf. Hagerstown Junior College was approached to provide truck driving training and the local businesses were so keen for this to happen that they provided most of the main ingredients. Dobson's, the nearby delivery firm, offered to interview all students who finished the course with a view to employing them.

That left the problem of finding a big truck or six to practise on, and somewhere to do it. Enter Mack Trucks. These leviathans of the truck world not only had space to spare outside their plant, but rustled up a few Mack monsters for trainees to learn upon, and the course began.

A group of us, from colleges throughout the state and Europe, visited HJC to learn about these links between colleges, manufacturers and small business and went on a tour of Mack trucks and their plant. The last time I visited an automobile production plant was in Dagenham in the sixties when our girls' school was taken out for the day to experience the hot sweaty world of manufacturing. Throughout the tour there was a range of strange sounds; the noise of the machines, the banging of metal upon metal, the screech of moving parts, and over and above, a permanent high-pitched shrill fanfare that we couldn't identify. Towards the end of the tour, the boss gave us an overview of the production methods and apologised for the whistles. It seemed that, for the whole duration of our walk around the Ford plant, the workers had been following us with catcalls and wolf whistles, a sound which we naive fourth-formers had put down to a specialised manufacturing process.

The overwhelming maleness of the workforce was apparent at the Mack plant in Hagerstown, but not manifested in the same behaviour, since all the men were most pleasant and helpful. As we made our way between lathes and embryonic gearboxes, it became clearer; not only was the workshop floor peopled by men, but by middle-aged men; not a woman, nor a young man to be seen, outside of the administrative offices.

This unusual staffing arrangement has come about because of a strong union influence. We learned that 10 years ago there was three times as many staff as today, and when layoffs came in the recession, a special deal was struck. All those laid off were eligible for a hire-back programme, which gives past workers the first opportunity should a job turn up at Mack Trucks. At this point it is worth mentioning just how prestigious these particular jobs are. Requiring no college education, the jobs pay up to $60,000 a year and are highly prized locally.

So, over the past 10 years, as the fortunes of Mack Trucks have improved, a single age cohort of men has taken the company forward. As some leave, their places are taken by their past colleagues, who return to the work they did years ago. During the previous week, a man returned to mind a machine he last tended nine years ago. Their retraining needs are seen as minimal.

To those on the visit, it seemed that a training timebomb was ticking away underneath the success of the Mack set-up. The average age of a worker is 52 and, since a man can retire with a Mack pension after 30 years' service, retirement is looming for all the staff. At the same time as the current workforce retires, their contemporaries on the hire-back programme will cease to be of working age, and a whole new group of staff will be required.

All agreed that the training issue was significant and seemingly underrecognised by the organisation at present. That the local college is already in dialogue with the manufacturer by providing the truck-driving courses will mean that they have a good basis for collaboration if and when the timebomb detonates.

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