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Song draws attention to crisis in the maintenance profession

by Daniel Bayer

Every day the media bombards us with stories of a new crisis that seems to threaten the existence of life on planet earth: melting icecaps, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, civil war in Iraq, rising oil prices, the growing shortage of maintenance men’….

Come again?

If you’re unaware of the crisis in the maintenance industry, it’s not for lack of effort on the part of Joel Leonard, who says that deferring the maintenance of both private and public infrastructure has already claimed thousands of lives.

‘“New Orleans was an accident waiting to happen,’” says Leonard, referring to the levee failure following Hurricane Katrina. ‘“We all know it, but none of the government people had enough guts or foresight to say, ‘Hey, we’ll put that money into it.’ That’s a real sad case.

‘“Deferred maintenance is not preferred maintenance,’” he adds.

To draw public attention to the crisis, Leonard has turned to a medium long used by those seeking to jumpstart a movement: song. His lyrics to the ‘“Maintenance Crisis Song,’” set to the music of friend Harley Denio, warn of impending breakdown and social upheaval:

No one wants to work in the boiler room,

no one wants to work with the tools.

The nation’s busy taking the easy way out,

There’s no one left to fix our schools.

Maintenance technicians are about to retire.

Company executives got no one to hire.

How safe does it make you feel?

Since the ‘“Maintenance Crisis Song’” was first recorded in 2003, it’s been ‘“covered’” by several other groups, including a hip hop rendition by the ‘“Toolkit Kids,’” a group of Cone Elementary students who are part of Heavenly Voices Performing Arts, an after-school music and dance program active in several Guilford County Schools.

‘“The message is that maintenance is an awesome, awesome job,’” says Mary Stevens, a substitute teacher in the Guilford County School system who organized Heavenly Arts in 1989 when she lived in New York and brought it to Greensboro when she moved here in 1992. Stevens first heard about the ‘“Maintenance Crisis Song’” last summer when she was a hospitality volunteer at Greensboro’s Fun Fourth Celebration.

‘“I overheard Joel talking about the song, and I told him about the children,’” says Stevens. The backing tracks and lead rap were recorded by Terrence Jenkins, with the children singing a background chorus of ‘“How safe/ How safe does it make you feel?’”

Stevens says that being part of the project had a positive effect on the 18 children involved, aside from introducing them to the possibilities of a career in maintenance.

‘“It helped the children with their self esteem, and it improved their schoolwork and behavior,’” says Stevens. ‘“The children saw they could really do something totally different’” when they went into the studio to record the song. ‘“It changed their attitudes.’”

Leonard says that an obstacle to luring more young people into the field is a negative public perception of the job and those who do it.

‘“The job has been culturally stigmatized to the point where people don’t want to get their hands dirty,’” says Leonard. ‘“They don’t want to do manual labor, and they look down their nose at people who do. We’re trying to overcome that, because our whole economy rests on the back of people who do this kind of work.’”

Pop culture has certainly not been kind to the maintenance profession. The disco-era sitcom ‘“One Day at a Time’” portrayed apartment manager Dwayne Schneider as a would-be ladies’ man constantly hitting on struggling single mother Ann Romano, while on ‘“Good Times’” a character is almost killed after hapless and obese building superintendent Bookman fails to fix an elevator in a timely fashion. The only positive television portrayal of maintenance personnel that he can think of, says Leonard, is ‘“Star Trek’s’” chief engineer Montgomery ‘“Scotty’” Scott and his 1980s successor Geordi La Forge.

‘“The maintenance industry needs its own ‘MacGyver,”” says Leonard, referring to the 1980s TV action hero who was known for assembling evil plot-foiling devices out of common household objects.

Leonard first learned to appreciate the value of the maintenance profession while working in a factory after graduating from Elon College with a degree in marketing.

‘“When I got my degree, there was 25 percent unemployment in my hometown of Lexington,’” says Leonard. ‘“I took a job as an industrial technician. It was a pathway to becoming a plant manager when I was forty’…. it put me in every job in the plant. I also got to shadow the maintenance manager and I was amazed at the complexity of the things that that guy had to know. I was also amazed at how taken for granted he was. I kind of developed a kinship for him and never would have thought I would have gotten into the field.’” After several years in marketing and sales, Leonard joined Mpact Learning Center as it was being spun off by its parent company, an ailing Burlington Industries.

Leonard ‘— dubbed by one trade magazine as a ‘“maintenance evangelist’” ‘— shows a visitor around the teaching facilities at Mpact where he trains future generations in the arts of maintaining electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems.

‘“We’re trying to move away from the reactive maintenance, which we’ve named ‘Bubba’ and ‘Skeeter,’ just to personify it to get people to recognize, ‘Hey, that’s not the way it is anymore,”” says Leonard, pointing to a Plexiglas tombstone that reads ‘“Bubba and Skeeter RIP.’” Leonard pauses to demonstrate the principles of hydraulics at a learning station that resembles a child’s science kit on steroids, with switches and pulsing tubes of red fluid.

‘“The guys have to be knowledgeable in all these technologies,’” says Leonard as he presses a button to activate a hydraulic plunger. ‘“They can’t just be a Bubba and a Skeeter and get the job done anymore. What we try to do here is teach them why things do what they do, not just what buttons to push, so when they get out to the real world where there’s not one concrete solution [to a problem], they know enough of the systems in place to know how to make a solution work, and how to build a solution.’”

Every time you ride an elevator, fly on a plane or merely adjust the thermostat in your office, you’re relying on the unseen and for the most part publicly unacknowledged skills of maintenance people, or ‘“facilities managers.’” As baby boomers retire, the nation faces a critical shortage of people with the technical skills to maintain these systems, Leonard says.

‘“I’m the former national vice president of the Association for Facility Engineering. We found out that the average age of maintenance workers and plant engineers is 48 years old,’” says Leonard. ‘“We went to a conference in Nashville in 2002. There were 600 of us, and a guy up onstage said, ‘How many of you are going to retire in the next ten years?’ Eighty to ninety percent of the people in the room raised their hands. Then he asked ‘How many of you feel comfortable turning over the reigns to the next generation?’ Nobody raised their hands. ‘How many of you have somebody in the wings that you’re training to take over your job?’ Nobody raised their hands. They said that they can’t find the kids who want to do this kind of work.’”

David Holley, director of opera at UNCG, says Leonard supplied him with the inspiration to do an opera version of the ‘“Maintenance Crisis Song,’” sung to the tune of the ‘“Largo al Factotum’” aria from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

‘“I know Joel through a mutual friend, and he just emailed me out of the blue with this wild idea for an operatic version,’” says Holley. ‘“I thought of different arias that would fit the text, and I found a CD with an orchestral version of The Barber of Seville. I just inserted Joel’s words into the melody that was already written.’”

Leonard plans to release a compilation of the different versions entitled Pipe Dreams: Build It or They Will Leave. His goals for the CD are suitably modest: draw more attention to the crisis and win a Grammy.

‘“I’m waiting on two or three more genres,’” says Leonard. ‘“I’ve got eight right now.’” In addition to hip hop, opera and garage rock, there’s also reggae, funk and blues versions, plus a song called ‘“Find Me A Maintenance Woman,’” which he hopes will inspire women to enter the field. He’s currently looking for Spanish, gospel and bluegrass versions of the song.

‘“The bluegrass one will be called ‘There’s A Maintenance Crisis, I Reckon,”” says Leonard, laughing. While Leonard ‘“wants to have fun’” with his song, the crisis, he says, is no laughing matter.

‘“The jobs are out there,’” he says. ‘“They’re just behind the scenes and taken for granted.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Daniel Bayer via editor@yesweekly.com.

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