Technician recruiting and retention continues to be one of the biggest challenges in the fleet industry. Beyond the ongoing technician shortage, public-sector fleet managers often can’t pay a competitive wage to out-recruit private sector hiring managers.
At the recent Government Fleet Expo and Conference (GFX) in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Gordon, deputy director of fleet management at DeKalb County, Georgia, shared what he’s learned about hiring over his 35‐year fleet career, which includes 21 years of government fleet experience. In his roundtable discussion, he covered how to recruit technicians, develop a recruiting team and an apprenticeship program, and train and retain technicians so that other fleets may do the same.
1. Sell Fleet Internally
The DeKalb County fleet has more than 3,600 vehicles that collectively travel 30 million miles per year. To service those vehicles, the fleet employs 152 positions with 142 filled, so Gordon is more than familiar with turnover and hiring. His first question to fleet managers looking to recruit technicians is “Do you know how to sell fleet?”
Gordon said the first step in a successful recruiting program is to sell the importance of the fleet and the technicians that keep it operating internally. He suggests giving a pitch to HR, management (like the Board of Commissioners or the City Council), and Finance, as they can become recruiting advocates. For instance, HR can play a significant role in helping to find recruits and explain benefits. Finance may be able to help you offer a higher wage. And management may approve a budget that allows you to do the same.
2. Sell Fleet to Recruits
The next step is developing a recruiting sales pitch.
“I had to become a salesman. And that’s hard. Most of us don’t have experience with selling, but you have some really good stuff to sell, especially if you’re going to buy tools,” Gordon said.
For many fleets, dealers are the competition, so Gordon advises comparing the benefits as part of the pitch. Gordon will even find out what benefit packages the competition offers and use that information to sell to recruits. Periodically, Dekalb County will also do a salary survey to see where it stands against the competition.
3. Create Sales Collateral
Another way fleet recruiters can act like a salesperson is to give recruits sales collateral that reinforces the pitch.
“We did a little brochure,” Gordon said. “If you’re going out to career events or tech schools to recruit people, you need to have a bi‐fold flyer because Freightliner will have one, Peterbilt will have one, everybody’s got them.”
Gordon said the most effective advertisement was hanging a 25’ x 6’ banner from a tire shop that could be seen from the highway.
“I got more calls off of that banner than anything else I’ve ever done,” he said. “You have to get them in. When they make that initial phone call it goes to my HR person and the sales pitch starts then.”
4. Set Up a Recruitment Team
Gordon acknowledges that not every fleet manager will be able to recruit in person or have all of the answers to the questions commonly asked at job fairs and other recruiting events.
“If you don’t have time to sell fleet to recruits, recruit an HR person,” Gordon advised. “If you’re really busy on your job, it’s going to be hard for you to do a lot of these things. But if you have an HR person that can get out and sell fleet, you need to get that.”
Gordon’s own recruiting team includes a trainer, an HR rep, and ex-military hires. “I don’t know what a single guy pays for insurance, so it’s nice to have somebody that can talk about that,” Gordon said. “Job fairs and career events are going on in your community all the time, and you can’t do it all.”
5. Contact Workforce Development and the Department of Labor
Contacting your city or county Workforce Development Department as well as getting a listing with the Department of Labor can assist with advertising open positions.
“Your city or county should have a Workforce Development Department. It’s their job to go out and try to help people get jobs. So tie in with them. Sometimes they have budgets that can advertise for you if you don’t have money to advertise,” Gordon said. “It’s a good thing to be involved with the Department of Labor, too. A few years ago, I was dying trying to get mechanics and we started checking around. Our HR department didn’t even have us listed with the Department of labor or know we were looking for technicians. Granted, when most people come to town, they know where to look for a job. But military people don’t always know, so they look at the Department of Labor’s listings.”
6. Recruit from the Military
In addition to job fairs and other events, Gordon advises seeking recruits at military bases.
“All military bases, when people are getting out, have a career day for them. So you set up your table and hand out brochures,” he said. “Military people are typically really good people. They know how to follow orders.”
7. Serve on a Tech School Advisory Committee
Serving on a technical school advisory committee is another way to make inroads with potential hires.
Gordon explained that as a committee member he has been able to help set the curriculum at the school — and doing so helps students learn the skills Gordon is looking for.
“Instructors have a book and certain things they’re supposed to teach,” Gordon said, “But if you’re on an Advisory Board Committee, you can tell that instructor this is what I’m looking for.
This is what I want. If you’re on an Advisory Board Committee, they’ll let you know when an amateur career day is so you can talk to students.”
Gordon said instructors are likely to let committee members give a presentation to their class, which is another way to sell the fleet.
8. Start an Apprenticeship Program
An apprenticeship program is another way fleets can prime the funnel with recruits. Training young people still in school for a fleet career is especially helpful to replace technicians who plan to retire in the next few years.
Gordon’s HR department requires two years of experience to work in a shop. Gordon suggested an apprenticeship program funded by the County. So, he reached out to a nearby technical school to gauge their interest. In September 2018, the Dekalb County Fleet Management Apprenticeship Program was launched in partnership with an elected official, Commissioner of District 5 and Georgia Piedmont Technical College. The County initially funded two paid positions but has continuously expanded its commitment, approving eight fully funded apprenticeships in 2021.
Students in the program work the day shift 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday, and go to school at night. In the shops they undergo up to two years (depending on prior experience) of rigorous training, including six months of cross-training in all shops before focusing on specialized training in one shop — Body, Automotive, Fire Rescue, Heavy Trucks or Heavy Equipment. Each student who completes the full two-year program has work experience that (1) fulfills minimum requirements and (2) provides solid preparation for competing against other applicants for advanced Technician positions (Regular/Permanent status) in DeKalb County.
In return, the technical school asks some fairly simple favors. “The tech school may want you to check off certain items related to the curriculum to show what students have learned. They’ll want to know you’ve trained them in certain areas,” Gordon said. “But the tech school wants it just as bad as you do, because it’s a huge recruitment tool for them. My program requires you to be enrolled in a tech school, and they obviously want more kids enrolled. So it works.”
9. Offer Flexible Schedules and Vacation Time
When you can’t compete on pay, Gordon says vacation time and flexible work schedules can make up the difference.
“Having a four-day work schedule is my number one recruitment tool, whether it’s a younger or older person. Especially if they’ve been working six to seven days a week, 70 or 80 hours a week,” Gordon said. “If you think you can’t do it, I promise you, you can have two guys off on Monday, half off on Friday, whatever it takes, but for me, that’s the biggest recruitment tool that I do have because I can’t pay them the money. None of us can pay what the dealers are paying.”
Vacation time can be a selling point, too, especially for experienced technicians. If an organization only offers limited time off to new hires, that won’t be appealing to a technician with 25 years of experience. At DeKalb County, technicians get three weeks a year and sick time, too.
10. Provide In House Training
DeKalb County has a dedicated trainer for fleet positions. Gordon said having a position focused on training helps provide continuous learning, which is important in a field that is always changing.
“If I’m going to have young people come on board, I’ve got to train them. What we do changes every year, so you have to provide continuous, ongoing learning. And if you don’t, you’re going to fail,” Gordon said. “If you can’t afford to have a dedicated trainer, you surely can pair them with top techs to teach them. I’ve had senior techs who don’t want to share the knowledge, but I tell them, ‘Look, stuff is getting hard for you. If I put you with a young person, you’ll help them, but they’ll also help you. They can do some of that heavy stuff.’”
Gordon also starts Tech Is on the basics: changing oil and greasing trucks and cars. The shop performs 5,000 to 7,000 oil changes a year, so new technicians get a robust, hands-on training on the essentials. While focusing new technicians on PMs is a good training opportunity, Gordon said management inspections are a must to make sure they’re doing the job properly.
11. Write Training into the Specs
Vendors can be another source of in-house training. For every vehicle he buys, Gordon writes an in-house, vendor-sponsored training into the specifications.
“When we get a new piece of equipment, especially heavy equipment, we write in that they have to come do an eight-hour class for 10 people or whatever. I include all of that verbiage,”
Gordon explained. “I’ve got hundreds of hours banked up with my dealers to come out and do training. So I might have them do a basic electrical class. Or I might have them do a refrigeration class. Or AC — whatever I need. You owe it to me, so come and do it. So don’t tell me you can’t afford training, because you can.”
12. Listen to Employees
Gordon says new employees often come in with great ideas; he asks them to share them once they’ve had some experience.
“I do an orientation and I say, ‘Don’t come in here tomorrow and start telling people that they don’t know what they’re doing — you won’t get much buy-in. But after you get a little tenure here, we want to hear from you.’ Because guess what? Some of our old stuff needs to be changed. And they’re the ones with the ideas,” he said.
Listening to these ideas and providing positive reinforcement can improve technicians’ satisfaction with their jobs, which in turn helps improve retention.
Just as compensation is a concern during the recruiting process, so too does it play a role in retention.
For instance, technicians in the apprenticeship program are hired at $15 an hour. Gordon says if you don’t increase that pay when they join the staff, you’re going to lose them.
“When I hire them on regular, we have to pay them more money, because now they have two years of experience, and they may go somewhere else and get a job. So, you have to fight for them. And that’s hard. But if you don’t, they aren’t going to stay.”
Robert Gordon, Deputy Director of Fleet Management, DeKalb County, Georgia