By Keith Sanders

Pump Industry Australia ran a member survey recently, asking for opinions on what should be prioritised for action within the industry. One respondent wrote, “TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING. The absolute need to re-introduce a high degree of professional expertise and try to stem the brain drain”.

In many respects this sums up a feeling expressed by many within the industry in recent years. It is often prompted when the level of expertise available for meaningful technical assessment of offers for pumping equipment is poor on both sides of the negotiating table. This may lead to purchasing decisions being made predominantly on price considerations without the engineers getting a say.

As a former CEO of a pump manufacturer in Australia, I understand and sympathise with the dilemma that many companies face when making the decision to invest in training for their key personnel. I recall agreeing to sponsor a young executive to undertake an advance marketing course to improve his level of expertise, obviously with a view to enhance the contribution that he could make to the business. All went well and our young executive completed the course with flying colours. Our next step was to find a new role for him in the organisation that would provide him with greater opportunity and the company with increased resources. A real win-win outcome. Imagine my frustration when he came to see me and handed in his resignation. He was moving interstate to join one of our major competitors. I was “not happy Jan”.

It is clear that companies need to invest in the skills development of their staff, but without some understanding that this investment will have a reasonable return, it becomes more difficult to justify these decisions, especially when the business environment is uncertain and profitability is under pressure. In tough times, the natural instinct is to “batten down the hatches” and cut out all unnecessary expense that does not improve the bottom line in the short term. Training budgets and promotional budgets are often the first casualties in this process. This applies as much to pump users as to pump equipment suppliers.

Now, as a training service provider, I see the issue from a different perspective. However, I still recognise that it is important for training to be seen as an investment decision rather than an expense. Pump Industry Australia has long been involved in activities that provide inexpensive training tools for their members. The latest editions of the two PIA publications, the Technical Handbook and Pipe Friction Handbook, are clear examples of a successful initiative in this direction. The PIA has also run a series of very good pump application seminars in recent years, but it is worth noting that these have not always been well supported by pump consultants or pump users. This has been a key dilemma for PIA in planning their programs on an annual basis. How do we spread the good oil?

Ultimately, it is people that purchase pumping equipment. There are plenty of suppliers out there in the market, so it becomes much more important for there to be an intelligent dialogue between client and supplier, to get the optimum pumping solution for any particular application. There is no “one size fits all” approach in this process and a knowledge of how systems operate is extremely important so that the pump selection parameters are clearly defined. Only then can one begin the task of determining the appropriate size and type of pump, the speed of operation and the materials of construction that are best suited to giving efficient and reliable operation in service. It takes time to undertake this analysis and, since time costs money, it is often not given the priority it deserves. Short cuts often result in bad outcomes when the equipment is put into service. Rectification costs become the subject of disputes and significant cost in litigation can ensue. All this can be avoided, if the right analysis is done initially and updated if any changes occur during final design and installation.

One of my recent trainees from a major consulting engineering company was asked to provide feedback on the value he got from our Level 1 program. As an adjunct to his response, he indicated that several of his colleagues questioned why he wanted to know more about pumps. His answer was enlightening. “How can I make a decision to recommend equipment to a client, if I do not know how to properly evaluate the operating conditions and match these to the submissions I receive?”

Oh! How we wish there were more people who are prepared to make this level of self assessment and then do something about it. Unfortunately, there are plenty of pumping myths that are perpetuated by people who may not have been properly trained and it is important to be able to recognise fact from fiction. Too many people these days are assessed by KPI’s that have little relationship with good technology or long term customer satisfaction.

Pump Associations all around the world recognise the importance of technical training. This is available at a variety of levels and from a wide range of reputable sources. Australia is a big country with a small population, which makes face-to-face training somewhat more difficult, despite the fact these programs are available from local companies with expertise in this field. PIA has these listed on their website. The BPMA of UK and Hydraulics Institute of USA offer on-line courses, which provide excellent information for those who cannot make it to capital city locations, but still wish to improve their skills.

While it is evident that fewer bare shaft pumps are actually “Made in Australia”, the demand for pumps increases year on year according to market statistics. This means at the very least, we need to know how to evaluate submissions and ensure there is adequate capability to service and maintain that equipment in future. Otherwise we will be importing this expertise from overseas suppliers at great expense somewhere down the track. We owe it to the next generation of pump engineers, whether they be on the supply side or the user side, to provide them with the skills and experience to make good procurement decisions. This means setting aside some funds for structured training programs, both theoretical and practical, delivered by people that know what they are talking about.

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