Finding and keeping qualified technicians
Advertisements for service personnel for the Troy, Mich., fleets once resulted in “40 to 60 applicants easily.” Now, motor pool superintendent Sam Lamerato says he is lucky to get 20 outside applicants — and many of those cannot pass the written exams required for the positions.
Lamerato’s situation is not unusual, according to Stan Orr, spokesman for the Equipment Maintenance Council, Stroud, Okla. During 1999 strategic planning, the association (approximately 40 percent of the organization’s members represent municipalities) identified “attracting and keeping qualified technicians” as the No. 1 challenge facing the field.
Across the country, many municipal fleet managers report that the pool of qualified technicians is drying up. Given the current market, that trend does not seem likely to reverse soon. But local governments are attempting to deal with the shortage by investing in training and making technician positions appealing via compensation and facility improvement.
The fleet maintenance work force may be shrinking from both ends of the age spectrum, according to a study conducted by the AED Foundation, the work force development arm of the Associated Equipment Distributors, Oakbrook, Ill., a private organization serving the construction equipment industry. That study found that only 12 to 14 percent of commercial shop technicians in Dallas, New York and Chicago are age 50 or older, suggesting that mechanics are leaving the field long before retirement.
In addition, the study found that 70 to 75 percent of entry-level hires came from the existing work force; only 12 to 14 percent of new hires were recent technical/vocational school graduates, and even fewer had completed junior college. Five percent came from the military, a traditional source of technicians.
The shortage is expected to worsen. According to the AED study, between 1999 and 2005, the projected fleet technician shortage for the construction equipment industry will mean more than 2,500 unfilled jobs in Ohio, as well as in Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and New York.
The trucking industry also is facing serious difficulty finding fleet technicians, according to Jim Mele, editor of Fleet Owner magazine, White Plains, N.Y. “Anyone involved with repairing or maintaining trucks is having problems with technicians,” he says.
The shortage of skilled technicians is compounded by the increasing use of computers in vehicle maintenance. “A laptop is just as important for the toolbox as a screwdriver or a set of pliers,” says Jim Gau, fleet manager for University Park, Texas, and president of the Dallas area chapter of TexITE, the Texas chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, Washington, D.C. Technology is advancing too quickly for some fleet mechanics, who are coping by moving into other fields, according to Lamerato.
But technology is only one problem. With the market for experienced mechanics tight, compensation has become an important issue. While public employees may make more than private workers in entry-level positions, they also typically work for straight hourly wages, while private maintenance personnel may work on flag time.
Flag time pays technicians for the standard amount of time expected for a repair. For example, if the standard time for repairing a transmission is two and a half hours, and an experienced technician can complete the repair in one hour and 45 minutes, in the private sector, the technician may be paid for the longer time while he has moved to the next project.
That method of payment may mean that, in some areas, skilled technicians can make much more in the private sector than they can in the public sector. It also means that cities and counties may have a tough time competing for experienced workers.
Lamerato reports that his technicians are paid roughly the same as workers in other city departments not requiring certifications. Consequently, technicians often transfer to other city departments rather than participate in continuing training that offers no monetary incentive. The city’s motor pool operates on two shifts, which means that it can offer less in overtime than other departments requiring just one shift. That can make compensation less in comparison.
Don Moore, president of the Equipment Maintenance Council, says that the equipment department in Farmers Branch, Texas, began to feel like a training ground about 15 years ago, with employees improving their skills and then leaving for better paying commercial jobs. He and Gau report that salary increases were necessary to retain skilled workers.
A bigger problem, however, can be the image of fleet technicians as unskilled labor doing grunt work. Fleet managers say that improving the public image of the profession is the best long-term solution to the maintenance staff shortage. That begins with educating young people about the benefits of the profession.
Many bright young people do not consider mechanical careers because there is an unfair stigma attached to them, Gau says. High schools often direct students with discipline problems or substandard academic skills into vocational programs, rather than encouraging promising students to consider mechanical careers, according to Don Moore.
Gau notes that, while technical schools do have applicants, many potential students are not able to pass basic skills entry tests. In Texas, students must pass an academic skills test to be eligible for college courses. According to Gau, many potential students cannot pass the exam and must take remedial courses if they choose to attend college.
Supporting local high school vocational programs and introducing lower grades students to the maintenance careers can help change the public perception of the profession, says Paul Hinderaker, director of equipment services for Ames, Iowa. Lamerato says such support is especially important since some high schools are dropping autoshop in favor of computer classes.
In Troy, the fleet maintenance shop has offered an intern program, which can employ up to two high school graduates each summer. Those students learn firsthand about fleet maintenance. They are encouraged to attend community college in the hope that they will return as well-trained employees in the future. Still, the department has had difficulty finding eligible students in recent years.
Associations such as AED encourage their members to participate in recruiting young people to the field. AED promotes activities such as curriculum development, training aids, mentoring, job shadowing and internships.
Training is not a luxury
Still, while internships can help with future recruiting efforts, fleet managers must find qualified technicians to meet current needs. Ironically, Hinderaker’s department found a qualified technician recently by posting high job requirements for their first hiring search in 10 years. His department’s advertisement specified that applicants have ASC certification, master automotive certification and master certification for medium and heavy trucks. The department received 13 applications; half had more than the minimum requirements. That is one answer, although Hinderaker admits that he has not experienced the personnel shortage that other areas report.
Most municipal fleet managers find themselves regularly training employees. Conferences such as the Equipment Maintenance Management Conference by EMC are popular sources of education. Doug Keene, fleet services manager for the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD), says that sending technicians as well as managers to seminars and conferences has made a significant difference in his operation.
In addition to seminars, off-site vendor maintenance classes can provide useful training. However, courses can fill quickly, and popular manufacturing classes can be difficult to get into, according to Hinderaker. Additionally, training budgets can limit fleet managers.
On-site vendor-provided training classes can provide a brief introduction to new equipment. Some fleet managers report adding vendor-provided training into their contracts with manufacturers to help minimize the learning curve for employees, according to Tom Moore, editorial director of trucking publications for Randall Publications in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
An extensive training program pays off, according to Keene, whose garage is home to an EMC 1999 technician of the year. The annual training plan for LVVWD’s technicians includes industry technical schools, community colleges, vendor training and in-house programs. The district also financially supports training and testing for ASC certification, and Keene’s facility has earned the ASC Blue Seal of Excellence for having more than 75 percent of its staff ASC-certified. Its 12 technicians have a total of 155 certifications, and Keene reports almost no turnover.
Training also can provide fleet managers with the ammunition they need to raise salaries. In Farmers Branch, Moore negotiated with city officials to increase fleet maintenance salaries for employees completing ASC certification. That initiative began 10 years ago; since then, the department has earned enough certifications to receive the ASC Blue Seal. No technicians are hired now without a technician Level 3 certificate. The city pays for further ASC training and testing for employees, who must reimburse the city if they fail the exams. Moore believes that the increased salaries and city-sponsored training have helped solve his turnover problems.
Aside from offering training options, public fleet managers can help tip the scales in their favor by offering better conditions and more worker-friendly garages. “It’s easy to lure people away from a rough facility,” Lamerato says.
Hinderaker helped improve the working environment in Ames’ garage by painting the shop and providing technicians with remote control door operators to keep out inclement weather. He also installed sound panels to minimize noise.
Troy’s mechanics chose the color scheme for their 25-year-old garage, which is scrubbed three times a week by the afternoon crew. Additionally, Lamerato emphasizes the importance of adequate lighting, hoisting equipment and a balance of inside/outside work. Fleet managers also can retain employees with effective equipment replacement policies, according to Don Moore. The frustration level in maintenance staff who must continually repair outdated equipment can contribute to employee burnout. A sensible replacement policy can lower employee stress and increase job satisfaction.
Other perks can make a municipal garage attractive. Gau’s facility features a four-day work week to offset salaries, which are lower than those in the commercial market. Moore provides his technicians with business cards to give them a sense of ownership in the garage.
Keene says that, while dealerships may have higher paychecks, municipal fleets can typically offer better hours and facilities, as well as better job security. Consequently, while the shortage of skilled maintenance personnel likely will continue to be a problem for many cities, training and inspiring future employees can help bridge the gap.