Field service demands travel — and not just in service vans. For some it means jetting off at a moment’s notice to repair complex machinery around the world. Ken Vallet-Sandre is one such road warrior. A Minnesota resident who served in the military, Vallet-Sandre spends up to 300 nights a year on the road as a packaging specialist with Reiser, a food processing and packaging equipment distributor based in Canton, Massachusetts. Got heavy-duty food packaging machines that need attention or repair? Vallet-Sandre is your man. He’s been in the field for 17 years with several companies and spoke with Field Service Digital about the ups and downs of traveling, why humility is key to the job, and how his wife convinced him that field service was indeed a dream gig.
What’s a typical day like for you on the road?
I usually work between 12 to 18 hours per day. You may be called upon to work first, second and third shifts. The longest I’ve spent at a plant at any one time is 37 hours consecutively. We’re on the production line, working in a freezer that’s 28-30 degrees F or in bakeries that are 120 degrees. It all depends upon the location and customer. You have to be able to work, and work efficiently, in that atmosphere.
How far afield does your job take you?
I’m all over the place for my work. I’ve been everywhere from Mexico to England to the Caribbean, and anywhere in the U.S.
You must have some fairly specialized skills to be sent all over the globe.
Packaging machines are definitely complex. If you are dealing with caviar or prosciutto, for example, the customer could be losing tens of thousands of dollars per hour of downtime on the machine. As the technician, you have to get in there, find out what the issues are and get parts in as soon as humanly possible. You have to apply whatever knowledge you have, think quickly on your feet and be able to pacify a customer who may be very, very worried about production. A lot of it comes down to making something out of nothing to make the customer happy.
So improvising is critical in your job?
You have to be very careful when it comes to that. With the sophistication of the machines nowadays, if you go down the slippery slope of being a MacGyver, you end up having an orphan in the field that cannot be supported by the parent company. Customers will order parts that no longer fit because a technician has massaged the old parts to make them work.
You need sustainable fixes. Otherwise, the next technician won’t know what was done or why the new part doesn’t fit, which causes further delay — and possible a great amount of additional downtime. You always want to do it right the first time. It costs less.
How much notice do you get before you leave for a job?
I usually get the call on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m., and on Monday morning I’m up at 2 a.m. and at the airport by 3:30 a.m. to get in line for security for a 6 a.m. flight. We usually plan to stay at the customer location for a week, but there are many times when things beyond our control keep us hostage. Normally, I plan for a week, pack for two weeks and hope to get home the next weekend.
What’s in your toolbox?
My toolbox weighs 49.5 pounds. I know if there’s a single socket missing. I carry my own tools because I like the feel of them, and I like knowing the darn things are going to work. I’ve got a loop multimeter, an amp clamp, depth gauges, calipers and basic hand tools such as Allen wrenches. I also carry typical tools for basic fabrication: punches, chisels, etc.
When the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] leaves a pouch open on the luggage, you could lose $400 or $500 in one swoop. The TSA isn’t going to pay, so you’re out quite a chuck of change every once in a while. That’s one of the risks.
Do you fly first-class or economy?
It’s definitely not glamorous. I don’t love the travel but I love the autonomy. I stay at the cheaper hotels and I’m booked on the cheapest airlines, so it’s not like I build up a lot of airline miles from a single carrier. I try to get direct flights, but they’re often not the cheapest. It all comes down to what a tech’s time is worth. We’re a cost center and are always trying to reduce costs in any way possible.
How did you get into this brand of field service?
I retired from the military and had no idea what I was going to do. My wife is also ex-military and was working for ConAgra. She said that people would always have to eat, food would always have to be packaged and that I’d always have a paycheck if I went into food processing. So I went back to school for automated machinery systems and a minor in computerized manufacturing.
I was a line mechanic for a year and a half, which involved dealing with the same problems every single day. Same place, same people. It wasn’t something that excited me.
I love the autonomy of field service. I love the ability to go out and do what I need to do, get the job done and have the respect of the people in the company to allow me to do that . It’s all about being able to get the job done quickly, efficiently and with the least amount of supervision possible. In field service, in order to get more responsibility, a raise, more time at home or benefits, you’ve got to change companies. Once you’re good at what you do, people tend to keep you right where you are.