Maintaining and monitoring the mechanical aspects of a fleet is no small feat. The people who keep government vehicles up and running have an intimate knowledge of what needs to be done to ensure fleets are running smoothly. As with many parts of this industry, this area of expertise has evolved. New vehicles, new tech, and new diagnostics tools have pushed the role of the technician into the future.
When Rodney Rickman first began his career as a military technician, the vehicles he was working on only had one computer. Now, as a mechanical and maintenance manager for the Franklin County Commissioners Fleet in Columbus, Ohio, fleet with more than 25 years in the industry, he is overseeing vehicles with up to 48 computers.
“I was in the first Ford class in the state of Ohio to be certified for EVs, and from 2005 to right now, there’s no comparison,” Rickman says. “We didn’t even have plug-in EVs back then. Now we have plug-in cars, electric cars, propane cars, we have hydrogen cars. We never even thought about stuff like that back then.”
A large part of staying on top of these vehicle changes has been ensuring that technicians have up-to-date training, with some receiving special certifications. For example, Rickman is not only a Ford Senior Master Certified Technician, but he is also Master Certified in Hybrid technology as well.
Technicians for the county are also enrolled in a Ford training program.
“Once they get to a certain spot, then they take a test and get certified in that area,” says Franklin County Fleet Operations Superintendent Trent Carr, who has been in the industry for over 30 years.
Growing up with a grandfather and father who were both mechanics, Carr worked his way through the automotive industry. For him, the amount of time it takes to repair a vehicle these days can become compounded by the diagnosis steps that have to take place. And the added frustration of waiting on manufacturers to get caught up on vehicle production hasn’t alleviated that crunch time.
“Now’s the time that you can work on the infrastructure and get that going and then when the cars do come out, then they’re ready to roll but it doesn’t look that way right now,” Carr says.
Fleet managers are not oblivious to the challenges and changes faced by technicians. Dan Berlenbach, fleet services manager for the city of Long Beach, California, has seen the requirements to be a fleet technician change, especially due to technology.
“The technical skills have changed, they’re more complex,” Berlenbach notes. “We need people that are comfortable doing diagnostics and using the computer programs and software that are in it for that. And, you know, we need proficiency with different software programs.”
In a field where change is inevitable, having someone in the technician’s role who is willing to learn is vital, according to Rickman. And with those vehicle changes, there will also be changes in the training for those roles.
Berlenbach sees the role of technicians in a current state of transition where technology is affecting what the people in those roles do. Purely hands-on skill is blending with a need to easily understand the technical computer-based aspects of vehicle maintenance.
Berlenbach thinks that what will be even more challenging is when more medium- and heavy-duty trucks transition to electric. The challenge would be electrical components on top of the various attachments and hydraulics systems such as those on refuse trucks.
However, because of the changes that are happening, and will continue to happen, there will always be more to learn. Carr notes technicians are taking on extra classes and that the reality is there may always be more classwork to do.
With the potential of needing to keep learning in the field, Carr says technicians need to go into this career with an open mind and know they may never know everything.
“You know that you’re always going to be learning something,” Carr says. “Technology is changing and technicians have got to grow with it and be willing to learn and adapt and not be afraid to change.”
Asked about one of the biggest changes to the fleet industry, Carr points to EVs.
“I would have said 25 years ago, 30 years ago, flying cars sounded more realistic than electric cars,” Carr says. “If you would have thought about technology, you would think that it would be more realistic to put a car in the air with no roadways and no street signs, and everything else with technology, than to put electric cars that drive themselves.”
Maintaining Technicians During a Shortage
Technician shortages have not helped in the evolving world of vehicle repair and maintenance. A 2020 study by the TechForce Foundation found that the demand for technicians nearly doubled between 2020 and 2021, jumping from 136,503 in 2020 to 258,000 in 2021. The report also showed that the U.S. will be short around 642,000 auto, diesel, and collision techs by 2024, if current trends continue.
But the need for technicians seems to go back even further.
“There have been technician shortages for 10 years-plus,” Berlenbach says. “We’ve been dealing with changes in society and how people grow up…there are less people that are aspiring to be technicians.”
Right now, the Long Beach fleet is at an all-time high for outsourced work. Berlenbach says that usually the city sends out close to 15% of their work, but now it’s closer to 20%. With Long Beach being a full-service city, including refuse collection and in-house street sweeping, city departments are encouraged to do as much in-house work as possible.
Long Beach is also down eight technicians, which has only forced the city to send out more work. Add on top of that supply chain issues and vendors facing the same problems, and cities like Long Beach all but have their hands tied when it comes to work that can be done in-house. And sending out work usually means delays.
“It’s not as efficient, generally, to send something out,” Berlenbach says. “You have to get it to the vendor, it takes more follow up and, in the business climate today, the vendors are overloaded and backlogged.”
Franklin County Fleet Management is also working to provide technicians with a rewards program for progression, such as advancements in technology and mechanics. Carr believes that this would be a beneficial step toward encouraging learning among technicians, especially as fleets can only look forward to more shifts in the industry.
“Technology changes every day,” Carr adds. “In 10 years, we went from just a plain hybrid car, to a plug-in hybrid car, to an all-electric car — we’ve made drastic changes.”
When it comes to finding the right people to fill technical roles, the process is, in a single word, deliberate. In Long Beach, not only is Human Resources involved, but the Civil Service Department is involved as well. Some interviews have even been the result of a one-year application process.
Bringing in technicians has also changed. Berlenbach says that while in the past, HR might be the only department to attend job fairs, now his fleet department staff also go, sometimes taking a new Ford Lightning or another recently purchased vehicle as an attention grabber.
Moreover, if there’s a solution for bringing in more techs, it may be in educating younger generations. Municipalities, including Long Beach and Franklin County, are working to bring in a new workforce through internships and apprenticeship programs. In this year’s budget, the Long Beach fleet department was approved for two paid technician intern positions, which is essentially a part-time position equaling 20 hours per week.
Students at automotive schools, such as the Universal Technical Institute, Cerritos College, and Long Beach City College, are among prime candidates to participate in the program. Another program run by Long Beach before the pandemic will be starting up again. With a focus on disadvantaged youth in the area, the program aims to provide basic automotive classes through the Job Corps. Through a Clean Cities grant, Long Beach is also working with the Municipal Equipment Maintenance Association (MEMA) to train staff to work on EVs.
“It’s intended to pay for internships, where the interns will learn to work on EVs, and the skills needed for EVs,” Berlenbach says.
Carr hopes younger people realize the job of a technician isn’t just a “grease monkey,” but something more where they can develop skills integrated with technology. His sentiment is that younger people looking for a career should see this field as a building block of the future. In his words, “what you can design today will help you tomorrow.”
Work-From-Home and Flying Cars
As for the future of the technician, those in fleet believe that role may look even more different than what it’s evolved into now.
Looking ahead, Rickman believes that within a couple of years, technicians will be able to fix a vehicle from home. Things like updates or vehicle problems could simply be a call or text away.
“I would be able to send an update straight to your vehicle and the car’s fixed,” Rickman says. “That’s when it will become really interesting.”
While the possibility of being a work-from-home mechanic sounds enticing, there will most likely always be (at least until flying cars are the norm) regular maintenance issues that require a technician to work on tires and engines and perform routine body work.
Carr sees fleets having three levels of technicians, with one being able to do maintenance from outside a shop while the other two levels consist of an entry-level mechanic, and a “middle-of-the-road” person who has the skill to cover all the ground. But Carr even sees that middle position eventually going away.
“That middle-of-the-road is going to elevate and age and they’re going to eventually tap out and you’re going to have that big gap between the Rodneys and oil change techs.”
Berlenbach believes the technicians of the future will be digital natives who won’t face the same learning curve with software programs.
“It’s going to be second nature,” Berlenbach says.
With the expectation of change ahead, there also comes apprehension.
“I have technicians that have asked me ‘am I still going to have a job?’” Berlenbach says regarding the switch to EVs. “And my answer is yes, but it’s going to be different.”
For Berlenbach, something that will be vital to the job, no matter how much the industry changes, will be someone with an inquisitive mind who wants to learn. It’s the satisfaction of fixing something that’s broken.
“I think that still carries through and will always carry through,” Berlenbach says “It’ll just get done in a different way.”