In May 2003, Government Fleet ran an article I wrote called, “Is There Really a Technician Shortage?” The premise of that article seventeen years ago posited that statistics such as rising salaries, technician retention, and most importantly, increases in the cost of maintenance and repair seem to bely the existence of a shortage, because none of these typical results from a workforce shortage were actually occurring.
Now, in 2020, we are again amid both a shortage and recruiting opportunity like that experienced in 2008. As you know, opportunities require action…but what action will you take?
Yes, if your technical headcount has vacancies, you can certainly claim with a high degree of accuracy a shortage indeed exists. Further, it’s easy to find articles and statistics that argue in your favor.
For government fleets, our depressing reputation for seemingly low wages, slow or even no advancement opportunities, zero training resources or effort, technological shortcomings, and even less enlightened supervision seldom result in our entities being employment destinations of choice.
Seventeen years ago, I predicted our future would include 48-volt charging systems; adaptive lighting; fiber optic communication; smart tires; telematics; electric brake, steering, and stability controls; and multi-plex wiring systems. Here we are today operating vehicles with all the above except 48-volt systems, which are coming. I also predicted a laptop would become as ubiquitous in a technician’s toolbox “as a set of socket wrenches.”
Vehicles clearly have changed, yes. But has your recruiting strategy changed? Could it be that among your staffing challenges, a retention strategy is a yet-unrecognized element?
It’s somewhat disappointing to me in researching the current state of play that the challenges occuring 17 years ago remain largely unchanged today.
■ Wages – While the perception that technicians earn less still prevails, the reality is quite different. Annual salaries for most technicians range from $60,000 to over $100,000. This fact is poorly understood, largely unknown, and chiefly unrecognized or acknowledged within our industry, public and private sector employers alike.
■ Appreciation – The primary reason technicians seek alternative employment is lack of recognition and/or appreciation. A 2018 survey conducted by Randall-Reilly disclosed 56% of technician respondents had changed jobs within the past five years. Chief among the reasons was a lack of appreciation. Many commented that if they were more highly valued, they would have stayed.
■ Poor Supervision – It is too easy to focus on recruiting and maintaining the proper technician headcount while spending less effort assuring front line supervisors lead rather than manage or direct. Those supervisors typically have more time on the job featuring less enlightened leadership styles, especially those in government. Fixing supervisory challenges often requires more effort and even conflict, both easier to avoid than confront. If this rings true in your organization, perhaps closer scrutiny is warranted.
■ Societal Stigma – Yes, the “grease monkey” stigma is still out there, despite the advances made in technology. This stigma has been ours to change, and we have not educated our clients, customers, or students in this flawed perception. Fortunately, it’s not too late.
The points above have been the “bad news” for two decades. You have seen them repeated in countless articles on this topic. What action will you take? Would you agree it’s time to rethink, restate, reimagine, and refocus our recruiting strategy toward changing the paradigm for how fleet technicians are seen and redirect our vision for the future by emphasizing the positives?
Here are the realities for today and the future, providing we choose to see it:
■ Wages – Not only can technicians earn a “living wage,” they can do so in much less time than their collegiate-bound peers. Technicians can usually enter the market with little or no educational debt. High school guidance counselors are our worst enemy; what have you done to counter the argument that favors a four-year degree versus a two-year degree and guaranteed immediate employment at a high wage, plus benefits?
Governments enjoy a clear advantage both in competitive wages and excellent benefit packages for entry-level and skilled positions. Unfortunately, we have done a poor job selling ourselves at the high school and community college levels.
■ Appreciation – This is such an easy situation to solve, especially for governments. In my view, fleet technicians in a government setting are among the most valuable, yet undervalued, employees on the entire staff. Governments have built-in employee evaluation processes that many private sector fleets do not. Staff loyalty, validation, and appreciation start at the top, beginning with the fleet director/manager.
The following recommendations, if not currently part of your strategy, should be considered. Each is either a low-cost or no-cost suggestion that, if implemented, will pay dividends in staff retention and stability, your first line of defense against a technician shortage:
● Assign a technician mentor/ambassador/partner to every technician new hire during the onboarding process on day one. The mentor will assist the new hire’s transition and become a partner in the success of the new hire. Further, the mentor will gain a new sense of self-confidence due to the confidence shown by their selection for this role.
● Have a defined path for advancement in both salary and responsibilities, and explain it clearly during the onboarding process. Reinforce it through periodic meetings with your new hires. This step is simply too easy to pass up. By providing a pathway to success, your new technicians can own their futures by having a stake in their own success.
● Take time to check in with all staff members individually; daily is not too often. Let them know how much you appreciate their skill and hard work regularly and validate their worth and your respect for them by asking questions, listening, and responding to their needs.
● Conducting regularly scheduled formal reviews during the first year with the mentor and new hire together will pay enormous dividends, especially if the manager listens more, and talks less.
● Implement a performance or skills advancement incentive program. ASE incentives are commonly used by governments with great success. A thirst for knowledge was visible in the Randall-Reilly survey; 10% of heavy truck responders reported continuous education/training or access to the latest technologies as their top motivator when searching for a new job — ahead of location, benefits, and even pay.
● If you participate in career fairs or local school technical programs (and you should), ask your new hire(s) to accompany you to events or speaking engagements. Empower your new hire by asking them to speak about why they chose to work for your organization. Your new hire(s) are excellent resources, and students considering a career in our industry are more likely to listen to them than to you.
● Many years ago, my organization produced a recruiting DVD featuring current technicians speaking about the benefits of working there. It became a powerful recruiting tool. YouTube provides a much easier alternative. Asking your technicians for their input in this way is further evidence of how much you value them and how your organization’s culture encourages such candid input.
● Many governments offer a HAS (Health Savings Account). Consider a fleet-only program by offering a TSA (Training Savings Account). It functions as a small, organization-funded contribution toward training for each employee. It can be expanded if the employees are offered a self-contribution option. In addition to encouraging skill advancement, it can be used to fund higher education, promoting further career advancement.
● In addition to the above, consider offering a similar program for tuition reimbursement and debt relief should new hires have outstanding student loans.
● Facilitate in-house commercial driver’s license (CDL) attainment rather than disqualifying new recruits without one. This is especially important for new hires coming into the business for the first time.
● An easily implemented, no cost benefit is offering shift flexibility. Millennials and Generation Z-aged employees value time off greatly. A 10-hour, 4-day work schedule coupled with a 3-day weekend typically features greater productivity and results, and is an attractive recruiting and retention tool that costs you nothing.
● Form a technician interview panel consisting of current technicians. Asking a few of your current technicians to interview potential employees illustrates confidence in your current staff and provides potential new hires a peek into the culture of your organization, both of which have tremendous long-term value.
Your current staff has the potential to be your best and most outspoken cheerleaders. They can become your best advocates, provided they know you value their complex and continuous contribution to your government’s success.
Your best strategy in muting the impact of a technician shortage is to assure your current staff wants to remain because they know they are valued, respected, and fairly compensated.
Seventeen years seems like a long time. Our current opportunity is unlikely to last any longer than 17 months. Seizing this opportunity will pay long-term dividends, but only if you re-structure your recruiting strategy.