Fuel + Technician Shortage = The Big Squeeze

November 2007, Government Fleet - Feature

by Mike Antich - Also by this author

The two greatest challenges facing public sector fl eet managers are the high cost of fuel and the increasingly severe shortage of technicians.

The first of these challenges involves lowering operating costs, which have spiked as a result of the high cost of fuel. The volatility of fuel pricing makes it difficult to predict when prices will surge. Unexpected rising fuel prices severely impact a fleet’sbudget. If insuffi cient dollars are allocated, other budget lineitems are impacted in meeting the funding shortfall.

In addition to increasing fuel costs, the price of replacementtires and parts are also increasing — typically with no offsettingbudgetary increase. Tire costs continue to rise due to the cost of raw materials and the trend to larger tire sizes.

Reducing fuel consumption is a primary focus for fleet managerstoday. Strategies to lower fuel spend include rotating out fuel-inefficient units and replacing them with more fuel-efficient models, which are also environmentally friendly. With high fuel prices, fleet managers are looking to “right-size” the fleet. This involves dispelling the “bigger is better” paradigm embraced by many user departments. The dilemma is finding the right vehicle, with a higher mpg than the preceeding model, that can meet the job demands. This involves working with user departments to develop specifi cations for new fuel-efficient vehicles and equipment.

Budget oversight requires increased scrutiny and evaluation of existing inventory equipment usage and utilization, as well as vehicle replacement requests and additions to the fleet. Fleet managers are seeking to increase fl eet utilization to achieve the best lifecycle cost. This goal involves curtailing user department requests to acquire vehicles or equipment “just in case we need it.” Fleet managers must constantly counter what user departmentsmisinterpret as their equipment needs. This also involves dispellingthe common user department misconception that “if it’s sitting, itisn’t costing us anything.” Fleet managers are always defending lifecycle costs at budget time to fight the “just one more year” battle. It seems as if there is never enough money to replace vehicles. Fleet managers must always fight for what they get. Part of the problem is educating political decision-makers, who often do not understand the complexities of sound fleet management.

Fleets must continue to provide cost-competitive maintenance services in the face of changing fleet needs and vehicles. However, the cost to operate vehicles continues to increase. High inflationary cost for fuel, labor hours, sublet repairs, and acquisition are impacting fleets, which in turn, pass these costs on to user departments. Fleet managers struggle with managing expenses to keep internal rates as low as possible.

Ongoing Technician Shortage
The second challenge squeezing fleet managers is the dearthof qualified technicians entering the mechanical maintenancefield. The technician shortage promises to become more severe in future years. A generational shift is occurring as a large percentageof technicians will retire within the next decade. The demographics of public sector technicians are skewed toward middle-age and older. The rate of retirements at many fleet operations makes the technician shortage a pressing issue. Fleets are finding it difficult to locatereplacements for vacant or soon-to-be vacated positions.

Finding well-qualified technicians is extremely difficult unless one is “stolen” from another public sector fleet. The root cause of this shortage is that fewer high school graduates are following this career path. If this trend continues, current demand for this skillset will exceed the supply available in the labor pool. There has been a variety of initiatives to attract younger technicians to work for public sector fleet operations. For instance, some fleets have implemented apprenticeship and internship programs with localtechnical schools.

Public sector organizations need to reevaluate their compensation, retirement, and incentive packages to retain or recruit skilled technicians. Public sector fl eets, because of budget constraints, often cannot compete with dealerships. Private sector shops typically compensate technicians at a higher rate.

Good mechanics, especially diesel mechanics, are proving hard to find. In addition, fleets with large numbers of alternative-fuel vehicles struggle to retain a trained workforce to maintain thesevehicles. Another challenge is keeping technicians current with changes in vehicle technology, especially for large trucks, specialty equipment, hybrid vehicle technology, 2007 diesel emission controls,and tire pressure monitoring systems. Staffing restrictions at short-handed fleets don’t allow enough training time for specialty training because it interrupts shop workflow.

No Near-Term Relief
Unfortunately, near-term relief is not on the horizon. Ongoing high fuel prices appear to be the new reality for fleets. The automotive technician shortage will not abate until society changes its perception of the profession. Unfortunately, the “grease monkey” stereotype continues to persist. Yet the technicians of today must be highly skilled and trained to work on the increased complexity in today’s vehicles and the diversity of equipment maintained by public sector fleets. The value of a skilled technican has never been higher.

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