Ryder recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of its annual Top Technician (Top Tech) program. For 15 years, Ryder has used the program as a platform to identify, recognize, and reward its top performing truck maintenance technicians.
I’ve attended the event for the past few years, documenting the experience on Ryder’s social media pages, and I’ve witnessed the event get bigger and better in that short span of time. I can only imagine what it must feel like for people like Ryder’s former Chairman & CEO Greg Swienton, who started Top Tech in 2002, to witness just how far this program has come. We started out with just 212 participating technicians at our very first Top Tech Level I and have brought that number up to 3,220 this year—the highest level of participation we’ve seen to date. The prize for winning the final competition has also changed dramatically. It used to be a tool box; some years later, it became a pickup truck, and in 2015, the winner drove off in a sleek Corvette Stingray. This year, Ryder shook things up once again by presenting the Top Tech winner with a $50,000 check!
Just as the Top Tech program has evolved over the years, so too has the profession. Vehicle technology continues to rapidly change, along with things like EPA regulations, which means our techs must keep abreast of the latest and greatest in order to keep our customers’ vehicles up and running. Fifteen years ago, a Ryder truck had 100 to 150 sensors; today, it has 450! The days of a diesel technician turning a wrench all day are long behind us.
Out of 3,220 qualifying technicians across North America, eight top technicians, who advanced through three increasingly demanding rounds of tests, emerged as this year’s Top Tech finalists. Participants must pass a 50-question written exam at Level I, a 100-question exam at Level II, and eight hands-on skills tests at Level III. Level IV, a.k.a. the final competition, consists of 10 rigorous hands-on skill tests, including vehicle electronics, preventive maintenance, and air conditioning.
This year, Top Tech was held in Washington, D.C., where the finalists—five from the U.S. and three from Canada—had the opportunity to do a great deal of sightseeing, both leading up to competition day and after. They were also able to enjoy some down time at the beautiful Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, where the competition and award ceremony were hosted, as well as where the techs took up residence for the week. They were led on private tours of Mount Vernon, the Capitol Building, the Library of Congress, Newseum, and Arlington Cemetery. They also enjoyed a private Illuminated Washington Tour that took them through all of the iconic monuments in D.C., including the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Memorial.
While there was a great deal of fun to be had, there was also a sense of pressure and competitiveness that could be felt among the techs leading up to competition day. Many are friends from previous years’ competitions, while a few were new to the experience altogether. It’s evident that all of these techs take a tremendous amount of pride in what they do, and they’re determined to be the best of the best in the industry. When asked what kind of “extra work” goes into making it to the final competition, Ken Bilyea, this year’s runner up, said he puts in extra hours multiple days a week at the shop and sometimes even goes in on his days off. His wife Bonnie then chimed in and said, “to give you an idea, he went in to the shop early in the morning the day we had to catch our flight out here to D.C., and he worked right up until the time we had to leave.” At the competition I told her how proud she must be of her husband, and she sighed, “Oh geez, I was just telling him that last night with tears in my eyes. We’re so happy no matter what the outcome is tonight. This is just such a wonderful experience surrounded by amazing people.”
It’s evident that the level of support these finalists receive from their loved ones, co-workers, and shop supervisors is a big part of what fuels them to push further. It’s also apparent that this program becomes so much more than just a competition for the participants. It becomes an opportunity for Ryder’s technicians to challenge themselves and learn as much as they can; to connect with fellow Ryder techs from across the country and build lasting relationships; and if they’re lucky, win an amazing prize at the end of it all.
Being the 15th anniversary of the program, Ryder invited its previous years’ winners to partake in the experience, and inducted them into a Ryder Top Tech Hall of Fame. Jonathan Timmons, 2013 Top Tech winner, shared a valuable lesson from his experience. He said it’s all about overcoming the fear of failure and taking the risk…not allowing fear to hold you back. Needless to say, I think he could agree with the idea that the rewards far outweigh the risks.
These techs are leaders in their shops, and they are the reason why many newcomers enter the competition. For example, 2016 Top Tech finalist and 2009 Ryder Top Tech winner Chris Barnett has made it to Level IV a total of seven times, and this year, he wasn’t the only one representing his Hebron, KY, shop. The day before the competition, I asked Wayne Beil, 2016 Top Tech finalist, why he chose to compete this year, and he pointed to Chris and said, “because of this guy.” Five technicians from the Hebron shop made it to Level III this year, and a big part of what fueled that participation was their desire to prove that they too can rise to the Top Tech challenge. The day after the competition I asked Wayne what he’d thought of the experience and he said, “I hope I can come back.” Another Top Tech newcomer Chris Johnson said, “I’ve learned so much!”
During Ryder Chairman & CEO Robert Sanchez’s speech at the award ceremony, he mentioned how Ryder customers trust the unparalleled service that our techs provide. He said, “We earn that trust through collaboration, open and honest communication with our customers, a commitment to safety, and consistently delivering on our promise. We earn that trust because we have the best people, specifically people like the technicians here today.” And Bill Dawson, Ryder Top Tech Chair and VP of Maintenance & Engineering, honed in on Ryder’s three priorities in the shops: “safety, quality, and speed—in that order.”
By the time the winner was to be announced, the audience had gained a glimpse into the world of a Ryder technician. They erupted in applause when the lucky winner, Darek Mowinski, was announced. Darek is the first-ever technician from Ryder Canada to win the Top Tech title. He has worked for Ryder for 19 years and has made it to the final competition for the past three years. Darek said that Top Tech is a humbling experience that presents you with new challenges, which remind you that there are still new things to learn. “I’ve found that the things I’ve learned at competition are never forgotten, and they help me when I’m back at the shop working on trucks for our customers.”
When asked how he felt about winning he shared, “I’m still trying to process what it means to win Top Tech. It was definitely a very exciting moment when my name was called. It validates all the hard work, studying, and preparation. It really does take a village to accomplish great things, and Top Tech is no exception. There were many people over the years who are also a part of this award. I learn a lot by studying on my own, but so much is learned by working with others on the shop floor, sharing tips with other techs at Level III & IV, talking to the Ryder trainers and vendors and maintaining a constant curiosity and desire to learn. My goal this year will be to inspire more techs to enter at Level I and motivate them to strive for Level IV.”
Top Tech epitomizes what it means to be passionate about your work. What it means to be hungry for knowledge, to be determined to prove to yourself and others that hard work and sacrifice really does have its rewards. Ryder’s Top Techs are an example and reminder to all of us that you are all capable of rising to any challenge you set your mind to.
2016 Ryder Top Tech Competitors:
- Chris Barnett of Crittenden, Ky.
- Wayne Beil of Crittenden, Ky.
- Ken Bilyea of London, Ontario, Canada – 2nd place winner
- Robert Cooper of Charlotte, NC – 3rd place winner
- Robert Gonzalez of Tampa, Fla.
- Chris Johnson of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
- Rick Morra of Hanford, Calif.
- Darek Mowinski of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. – Top Tech winner
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