Fleet managers are struggling. They have vehicles, but not enough people to keep them up and running. They are trying everything from reaching out to industry associations to teaming up with trade schools — and even that isn’t helping as much as they hoped. David Renschler, CPFP, fleet division manager for the City of Fairfield, California, knows full well how hard it is to find talented, willing mechanics right now. Here, he shares what he’s going through, what he’s done to try to solve the problem, and the possible root cause of the issue.
The City of Fairfield’s main shop is at 33% staffing and its public safety shop is at 60% (with 42% overall). While one’s first thought might be to just send the work out, it's unfortunately not that simple.
“Most of our vendors, OEM dealerships, on the medium- and heavy-duty truck side are going through the same issues we are and just taking warranty work. The time to get equipment back is extremely long,” Renschler stated.
The city has two shops. At the main shop, the team handles about 380 pieces of equipment. This includes 320 pieces of Public Works equipment, like light-duty vehicles all the way through construction equipment, along with 60 transit buses. The Public Safety shop takes care of about 300 pieces, including fire trucks, fire staff vehicles, police cars, and mobile command units.
The main shop now only has the time and manpower to conduct California Highway Patrol (CHP) inspections that are required for buses and standard commercial on-road truck maintenance.
“We've had one out of six mechanics on day shift pretty much since Christmas. A second mechanic has been in and out with health problems. Then, on night shift, we normally have three mechanics, and we've had two for the last 10 weeks. One of them has been out on family leave. That's basically three mechanics out of nine. One of those three just came back in January after being out since August for a non-work-related injury,” he explained.
Renschler sends whatever he can out, but the time it takes to get the equipment back is getting out of hand. For example, one of the city’s buses was sent to a dealer for an engine replacement in 2017 and took 27 days; the same style bus was sent to the same dealer for an engine in 2021 and it took 41 weeks to complete.
Thinking outside of the box, he has contracted a mobile repair company to try to help fill in the gaps.
“We contacted them and said whenever you don't have a client, please send someone here. They were able to come a couple of days a week and spend a half a day here. They added a mechanic and another mobile maintenance truck, so we have them here 40 hours a week; the bad side of that is they charge us $150 an hour,” he noted.
In the last three months, the city has a little over 250 deferred work orders for non-safety related repairs. The remaining technicians have been doing as much overtime as they can stand, but Renschler knows that's not sustainable.
A senior mechanic spot has been open for over three and a half years after another mechanic was promoted to supervisor.
“Over that time, we got about 145 applications. We probably did 100 interviews, and gave out 11 written job offers. We actually had one person start, paid to send them to school to get their Class A license, and invested a few months in getting them up to speed on how things are done here. About a month after, I got a call from their previous agency asking for a reference check. The new mechanic’s reason for wanting to go back was we worked at too fast a pace,” he stated.
About a year and a half into that recruitment process, another senior mechanic retired. At that point, there were now two openings.
“We now have a five-year plan of trying to train and mentor folks so we can promote from within,” he said.
About six months ago, the city’s senior fire mechanic decided to move. With one mechanic after another leaving, Renschler has had to get creative.
“Some of our customers have been renting equipment elsewhere. We have a Caterpillar backhoe we got a replacement in for, but with our shortages, we haven't been able to prep it for auction. We've taken that off auction row and put it back in service,” he said.
Barriers to Entry
During his time working for two municipalities, Renschler has noticed mechanics are the only employees required to have $20K to $40K in personal equipment to get their job, and to keep that job once they get it.
As chairman for Northern California’s Municipal Equipment Maintenance Association (MEMA) chapter, he’s put out some surveys over the last few months, and one of them asked “do you provide tools or a tool allowance for your technicians?” The findings showed most cities do not. He believes changing this practice might serve as one incentive to bring more technicians into the public sector.
“In the private sector, it’s common to have your own tools, but considering the pay difference between private and public sector, it makes sense,” he explained.
He also noted the recent changes in the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) have created a snag.
“The percentage of pay to which you are entitled for each year of service used to be 2.7% at 55, and now it’s 2.0% at 62. Employee medical premiums have increased. Staffing levels have gone down, which puts a bigger workload on each employee. It's all taken the allure away from working for the government,” he said.
Many job descriptions haven't been rewritten in many years, which came into play when Renschler tried to pitch an apprenticeship program to officials at City Hall. The city’s job descriptions require multiple years of experience to be hired into different categories, which became an issue when recruiting for the senior equipment mechanic position. He wanted to start a pipeline to train technicians and eventually promote them into senior positions down the road. Unfortunately, he was met with resistance due to potential long-term costs to the agency.
“Ten years ago, we didn't have a problem getting technicians. Having five to seven years’ experience was not a problem. Now it is. We need to be looking at the younger generation and catering to them a little more by providing the tools and training and investing in them to be successful. It’s the only way I even see vehicle maintenance surviving,” he said.
Trade School as a Viable Path
Pam Gutman, a member of the Northern California MEMA board who also works for the California Chancellors Office and represents 14 community colleges across the region that have automotive and diesel programs, recently told the board that some of those schools are canceling classes because of low enrollment.
To put into perspective how alarming the issue is, Renschler used his own children as an example. His youngest is now a senior in high school. All three of his kids went to the same school, and his oldest was able to participate in an auto mechanics class. His middle and youngest no longer have that option, as the class is no longer available.
“The guidance counselors at the high school need to have a more open mind. All three of my kids were told if they didn’t go to college, they'd be a failure in life. If that's really going on in schools across the country, what are the trades in general going to do?” he said.
With a major focus on getting children into advanced placement classes meant to prepare them for college, chances to introduce students to trade school as a viable option are few and far between.
“You don't necessarily need to go to college to be a construction worker, electrician, or a mechanic, but you can still make a good living,” Renschler noted.
Money Isn’t Everything
Rules for the union that covers the mechanics in Renschler’s area, state managers are only allowed to use 13 specific cities/agencies in the area for salary comparison purposes. This, of course, has been limiting. However, when he looked at those agencies, he noticed the City of Fairfield’s pay is competitive with every one of them.
“We're right there in the 80 to 85 percentiles of the highest paid. Nevertheless, we once had someone in the senior mechanic interview hear the salary, get up, and walk out. The pay is obviously a barrier, but I think it's also the fact we don't have the benefits government employees used to have. It used to be ‘if you can get a government job, you're going to be set for life.’ It's not that way anymore,” he stated.
Getting the Word Out
Renschler has sent out his job postings to the Northern and Southern California MEMA chapters, Sacramento Clean Cities, East Bay Clean Cities, Long Beach Clean Cities, the Pacific Southwest and Northern California National Association of Fleet Administrators (NAFA) chapters, and over 10 community colleges. Industry allies have posted on their personal LinkedIn pages for him as well. He and the city have also posted on LinkedIn, tried advertising on Indeed, and even hired a consultant, but so far, to no avail.
If something doesn’t change soon, the public will realize how important technicians truly are.
“We need to be hammering home, at all levels, that technicians are no longer shade- tree mechanics. Technicians need to be highly trained and skilled. Public safety is more than police and fire. If a wheel falls off of a bus going down I-80 at 65 miles an hour, people are going to get hurt or killed. There's going to be a major accident, and we’ll be on national news and not in a good way. I heard from a fire mechanic several years ago about a motto they used to teach at the fire equipment mechanics’ academy: ‘Without us, they walk.’” he said. “Everyone from executive management to elected officials to the general public needs to understand the importance of technicians in their daily life. Our life revolves around mechanical items, and if there aren't people to repair those when they break – and they will break – we’re going to be in trouble.”
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