How to Build a Technician

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By Maria St. Louis-Sanchez

THERE'S NO QUESTION THAT TECHNICIANS ARE INVALUABLE TO THE O&P PROFESSION.


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"If you can't make a product, you can't sell anything," says Tony Wickman, CTPO, CEO of Freedom Fabrication, Havana, Florida. "As much as we appear to be very clinical, the fact of the matter is that we sell a product, and if you can't build it, you don't have a business."

However, truly great technicians go beyond their day-to-day duties. They can save money for the businesses they work for by streamlining their practices and cutting back on unnecessary materials. They also have the ability to look beyond the device that was ordered and think for themselves about what will work best.

"A great tech can anticipate the needs of the practitioner and the patient and create devices that have higher functionality than might have been originally specified," says Jennifer Block, MS, CPO, director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Technologies program at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, Okmulgee. "Great technicians distinguish themselves with their intellectual ability. Great techs use independent judgment and problem-solving skills to work around the limitations of specific materials and designs."

But great technicians don't just appear from thin air. Everyone starts out as a novice, but a combination of skills, education, experience, and aptitude can help good technicians become great technicians.

The O&P EDGE asked expert technicians and educators about the key components to build a great technician from the ground up.

Start with Curiosity and Passion

Great technicians are lifelong learners who are always looking for ways to improve, the experts say. To do that, they tend to have two key personality traits: curiosity, to keep seeking knowledge, and passion, to keep striving to do their best.

Wickman says he always keeps his eye out for a curious technician—that person will be more apt to develop problem-solving skills and will want to do things better in the future. "When I look to hire someone, I want someone who is pathologically curious," he says. "If you are curious to find out the answers or to talk to the right people to get those answers, then you will succeed. Curiosity also belies a passion for understanding and knowledge. You know that old phrase that you can never be too smart or too pretty? Smart is where it is at for me, and you don't get smart unless you are curious."

Besides curiosity, great O&P technicians also have a passion for what they are doing and understand the importance of their work. "I don't want someone who got into this thinking it was a great money-making job," says Ronnie Graves, BOCPO, CO, LPO, CTP, owner of Prosthetics Research Specialists, Bushnell, Florida. "I want someone who has a personal, vested interest in learning about it. That's the difference. I much prefer someone who has a passion for it."

That passion is exemplified when someone stays late at work to help a patient at a hospital or goes the extra mile to perfect a device, says Glenn Hutnick, CPO, CTP, FAAOP, president of Hutnick Prosthetic Center, Bohemia, New York, and chair of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists' (the Academy's) Fabrication Sciences Society. "They have to have a sense of caring because they are making a product that is impacting peoples' lives. They are making something that people have to use daily to function."

Add in Natural Aptitude

As with any career, there are certain aptitudes that can be beneficial to an O&P technician's job. First, it helps if a technician has a background doing something that requires using his or her hands, Graves says. "It could be working on cars, woodworking, cabinetmaking, or crafts like sewing, artistry, puzzles, or things like that," he says. "These are skills where they use their hands."

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Along with the mechanical skills, a good technician has an academic background, says Michael Brncick, MEd, CPO, the Orthotics and Prosthetics Technology program coordinator at Joliet Junior College, Illinois. "A good technician must be able to use both sides of their brain. Knowledge and spatial perception are critical in the O&P profession," he says. "[Doing] art, carpentry, crafts of any type, and a curiosity of how things work are great skills and knowledge to have. Most students who can visualize a project and execute the physical work to complete it are successful."

Above all, experts say that great technicians are especially skilled at problem solving. Every device they make is always a little different from the one before, and the best technicians are able to figure out the best ways to work around that challenge.

"A lot of people will look at a problem, and all they can do is superimpose their past experiences on this thing," says Wickman. "They don't have the curiosity to think 'Okay, this is different, and how can I change my tactics to make this work?'"

Combine With Training—Formal or Not?

Experts are divided about whether technicians should have a formal education before entering the field. Some, like Wickman and Hutnick, got their starts with on-the-job training and think it's a good path for new technicians. Wickman says on-the-job training is good at giving O&P technicians the skills and experience they need. It's also helpful for people who learn more by doing than by attending classes, he says.

"It depends on how you best learn," Wickman says. "Some people are going to learn more slowly and more comfortably in an organized fashion that you would get in a technical program. Me, I want to go face first into a product. I want to break stuff and find out what not to do."

Also, he says, a formal education isn't always a direct indicator of competence in the field. "No school can fire people," he says. "If you are all thumbs, you can still graduate. People might say if a person has a degree, he must be decent, but I've known people who came from a formal education background who could hardly do anything."

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Another argument for on-the-job training is the current lack of technical schools, Hutnick says. Right now there are only six technician-specific education programs that are accredited by the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE), and the closest one to his New York practice is in Illinois. There are some good schools out there, he says, but the students don't often find their way to him. "Being in New York, we don't see a lot of people from technical programs because of geography and the cost of living," he says. "The students don't migrate out here. They tend to stay in their own areas."

On the other side of the formal education spectrum are people like Brncick who say that a formal education helps give O&P technicians a solid foundation and helps advance the profession. He thinks all technicians should go through some sort of formal training so they have well-rounded backgrounds and the skills to work at a variety of places. "I feel the on-the-job training pathway must be eliminated in order to improve the level of knowledge, skill, and professionalism for technicians in the O&P field," he says, adding that he thinks that the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics (ABC) should require that every central fabrication facility and patient care facility that fabricates its own O&P devices have at least one certified technician on staff.

One problem with on-the-job training is that it can limit the technician's knowledge base, says Brad Mattear, CPA, CFo, midwest and national strategic account manager for Cascade Orthopedic Supply, Chico, California. "If the technician has been solely working in the same facility, they know that method fully and succinctly; but if there are any deviations, it's harder for that technician to adapt because they haven't been exposed to other fabrication techniques," he says. "Schools give the newer, non-seasoned technicians the ability to get...a wider exposure to general fabrication techniques, not just that facility's way of fabricating."

School is also a good place for new technicians to experiment and make mistakes in a safe environment, Block says. In the real world, mistakes can slow down production and cost owners money. But mistakes and "scientific play" are also what help build problem-solving skills, she says. By attending school and making mistakes there, new technicians can learn from their mistakes without compromising business operations.

"School allows for experimentation in an environment which is not constrained by financial outcomes," Block says. "We allow our students [to] explore their strengths and weaknesses and follow their decisions through, even when those decisions may be contraindicated in the real world."

Whether it is through on-the-job training or formal education, the experts say that new technicians need to be exposed to an array of work so they can get a solid foundation. If they have jobs that limit what they do, they won't be able to grow professionally.

"What you don't want is [for the new technician] to go into a giant facility and make Velcro straps for a year," Wickman says. "Then they've only done that one little tiny thing. That's not helpful to anybody really. They need someplace where they can get a broad array of experiences."

Top Off with a Mentor and Experience

With or without a formal education, a technician starting out needs a mentor to show him or her how things are done, the experts say. "You want that successful, seasoned individual...," Mattear says. "You want to learn from that person who has seen it, fixed it, and made it."

Block says that a good mentor will provide training that a new technician can't get anywhere else. "A good mentor imparts professional management skills, networking opportunities, and the chance to observe the intricacies of a working O&P practice," she says. "A good mentor fills in the gaps that school can't provide and becomes part of the support system that all professionals depend on to strengthen their careers."

Along with a mentor, all technicians need experience, whether through on-the-job training or an internship. The experience of physically making devices, especially making them correctly every time, will help new technicians grow in their skills, Brncick says. "Just as in any profession, practice makes perfect," he says. "Perfect practice is more important than continuous repetition. If you repeat the same mistakes, you only improve upon the speed in which you make those mistakes."

When all of the pieces of a great technician come together, everyone in the profession benefits, Brncick says. "I tell my students that a good technician is very similar to the relationship between a caddy and a golfer," he says. "A golfer depends on the support, assistance, advice, and knowledge of the caddy to help them perform to the best of their ability. A good technician does the same. A technician provides the support, assistance, advice, and knowledge to help the O&P clinician to better serve their patients with the best care in a timely and efficient manner."

Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be reached at