Comedian George Carlin used to point out that behind every silver lining, there is a dark cloud.
We would like to talk briefly about the dark cloud.
It's probably time that we do so, because almost every story Trailer/Body Builders has written about computer use in our industry has been supportive. And we have written a lot of such stories — ever since parts departments first discovered that they no longer needed index cards to keep track of inventory.
Even in this month's issue, in which we focus on aftermarket parts and accessories, two companies show how computers track inventory in ways that card-shuffling parts managers could not imagine. For example, Trailmobile Parts & Service Corporation recently added satellite tracking to its system. With a few mouse clicks, dealers can find out exactly where on the trailer the PDC placed the order and precisely where the trailer is along the route. A kinder, gentler alternative to bellowing, “Where's my order?”
Meanwhile, Buyers Products has implemented a parts tracking system that monitors the progress of pulled parts. Optical scanners along the automated conveyor line identify individual bins of pulled parts as they pass by. The system enables management to know the status of orders in real time as orders snake their way through the equivalent of a three-story parts warehouse.
Granted, almost every silver-lined computer system has its own dark clouds to overcome — installation, training, maintenance, glitches. Dave Zelis calls the Buyers Products experience “the Big Bang Theory” in which the company tried to implement multiple changes — including a sophisticated new computer system — all at once. Customer service suffered until the company could overcome its learning curve and get everything flowing smoothly again.
Yet the chronic dark cloud hovering over computer use may be found more in the classroom than in the parts room. Virtually every parts room in the industry has computers now. But every parts room has employees. So do the shop, sales, administrative, engineering, and production. And every segment of our industry, from manufacturer to dealer and distributor, tells us the same story: well-trained personnel are vital — and increasingly hard to find.
If your business is based in America, you rely on the American public school system to prepare your future employees for jobs in your company. Yet critics of our schools increasingly are questioning how well our nation's children are being prepared for life in the workplace. Our schools, they say, need more money and more computers. But could it be that the very solution some are proposing — cutting-edge computer technology for the classroom — may be contributing to the problem?
In an award-winning article published several years ago, author Todd Oppenheimer cited a poll that asked teachers to rank the importance of the subjects that schools offer. According to the results of the survey, teachers considered it more important that students have computer skills than to learn biology, chemistry, or physics. The result: other subjects may not get the support they deserve when they vie for limited resources of time and money.
“We get kids who don't know the difference between a screwdriver and a ball peen hammer,” Oppenheimer quotes James Dahlman as saying in 1997. At the time, Dahlman was chairman of the last vocational department still remaining in a public school in San Francisco. “How are they going to make a career choice? Administrators are stuck in this mindset that all kids will go to a four-year college and become a doctor or a lawyer, and that's not true. I know some who went to college, graduated, and then had to go back to technical school to get a job.”
While computers are vital for conducting business today, we doubt that computer literacy is the most important qualification most companies seek in job applicants. Instead, potential employers want to know answers to questions such as these: Can the applicant see an issue clearly and develop solutions? What kind of people skills does he have? What kind of job skills? Can he read and write? Listen and speak clearly? Is he honest? Dependable? Hard-working?
Job applicants who possess these attributes probably can be trained quickly to run a computer in the parts room, the accounting department, and elsewhere in the company. But in our industry, there is a good chance that a computer wizard lacking basic skills is and will continue to be…lacking.
This is not to say that computers have no role in today's classroom. But each proposed application in the classroom should get the same scrutiny that has made computers useful tools in the parts room.