Ask a public fleet manager in any part of the country what their top three challenges are, and staffing will likely make the list. In a time where fleet managers are struggling to recruit skilled staff, many seek to retain those they already have.
Recognizing the importance of a committed workforce, fleet managers are taking proactive measures to retain their talented staff members.
With mounting retirements, competition from private sector opportunities, and changing workforce expectations, public fleet agencies are being forced to reassess their strategies to attract and retain personnel.
Three seasoned fleet managers tell Government Fleet it’s a matter of leaning into employees’ strengths, offering training opportunities, and redefining the organizational structure of traditional fleet management.
Leaning into Your Team’s Strengths
It’s no secret that there seems to be a shortage of qualified technicians to maintain public fleet vehicles.
In Washington, D.C., the Department of Public Works’ Fleet Management Administration employs just under 150 people. There are currently around 10 full-time positions that are not staffed. People who work with vehicle technology are hard to staff, Fleet Administrator Tim Fitzgerald explained.
He encourages fleet managers to lean into their employees’ strengths. Walk alongside them and watch them step into roles where they can learn and grow.
“You have to almost look at the individual’s talent levels and their ability to grasp many things,” Fitzgerald said.
For fleet managers with a large staff, it may seem difficult to find ways to get to know an individual employee’ strengths. Fitzgerald recommends creating micro-communities within your workforce.
“I like to put little communities together and I like to listen in, not necessarily be in the center,” he explained. “I almost want to be anonymous, so people can speak freely. So you can see how engaging they are, how collaborative they can be, how they can adapt the theory of how things should go versus what's real.”
Encouraging Pride for Your Team’s Workplace
“People want to be part of something that's successful…I promoted the leadership of being prideful of where you work. In order to be able to do that, you have to promote your success. If you don't tell people how good you are, if you don't show people how good you are, they're not going to know,” Curtis said.
Curtis is intentional about promoting the benefits of working in fleet.
“I'm a big proponent of…invoking that camaraderie and that team concept, and letting people know, ‘hey, this is something that you want to be a part of.’ We don't walk around with our head down, we walk around with our head up,” he said.
Recognizing Good Work on Your Team
Cedric Roberts, CAFS, director of equipment management for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, recommends recognizing employees when they do well.
“Sometimes it’s just words of appreciation. ‘Thanks. I really appreciate that.’ Not just that once. You may say it say sometime to them later on at end of the week,” he said.
Providing incentives like a half day can also boost morale, Roberts explained.
“Little intangibles. In government, there are no bonuses or anything like that. So you have to figure out ways to reward people. One of those rewards is, ‘go home for the rest of the day.’”
In Cobb County, Curtis created an Impact Award. Every quarter, he and his supervisors vote on a specific individual that has gone above and beyond in their role.
“Just by the look on their face when they're called out in front of the group, when they are recognized in front of their peers, it does something,” Curtis said.
He knows not everyone on his team wants that kind of public recognition. That’s where knowing employees on a personal level is important. In those cases, Curtis pulls the employee aside to recognize them privately for their work.
One way to recognize good work is to promote your staff, even if they don’t believe they’re capable of upward mobility.
“They need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Putting them in those positions that they may not think they're ready for, but you know that they're ready for it. And they will quickly adapt. And they'll thank you later for pushing them out there,” Curtis explained.
Redefining What Fleet Management Looks Like
In the public sector, organizations sometimes practice what Fitzgerald calls the “next man up” promotional system. But just because there is a job opening doesn’t mean the person who has been with an organization the longest is an obvious shoo-in.
“We must redefine some of these organizational structures that we've always had in place,” Fitzgerald said.
“We have to…allow our people to manage their expectations, manage their career lattices. We've got to take the reins off some of them and allow them to grow, because some of them could be working in a space where it's actually creating a position for them. It's restructuring your organization to fit the business model that you have today. So that there's a growing potential and a growing position for people to grow actually into,” he said. he explained.
With new technology dominating the industry, Fitzgerald believes there are opportunities to create new jobs as organizations adopt the technology.
Fitzgerald has several employees on hand who have been with the agency for at least three to four decades. For him, it comes down to a willingness to hear different ideas and mindsets.
“What keeps people in places are great leaders. And great leaders define people who allow folks to invest in folks, but also who allow ideas,” Fitzgerald said.
Establishing an Open-Door Policy in Your Organization
Roberts has also found great leadership to be the key to staff retention.
“It's going to start at the top. I employ an open-door policy,” Roberts explained. “If you desire to come here and talk with me, there's no appointment [necessary], just come on. I encourage my supervisors — especially senior staff — to do the same thing. Know people by first name.”
An open-door policy doesn’t always have to involve conversation surrounding work. Curtis knows that with much of what’s happening in the world, people can bear heavy burdens, and they often need a safe place to decompress.
“We opened up a path that was called ‘courageous conversation,’” Curtis said. “If you want to talk about what's happening in the community, or what's happening with injustice, or what's happening with elections, the door is open to do that.”
Creating space to have hard conversations also allowed Curtis to get to know some of his employees better so he could better provide for their needs. Some of his employees are Muslim, and that knowledge helped Curtis understand they might need to adjust their schedule from time to time to pray or go to their mosque on their lunch break.
Promoting Training and Growth Opportunities
Roberts believes one of the secrets to retaining a good staff is offering training opportunities.
“Training is a big, big, big deal…If you don't do the proper training, what you end up with — for lack of a better word — is a dumbed down technician,” Roberts explained.
From time to time, employees take what they’ve learned in the fleet garage home to do side jobs or care for their own vehicles. If they aren’t trained properly, the lack of education on proper vehicle management can translate to finding shortcuts to vehicle maintenance and repairs. That can spell disaster.
“What he's learning here, he's also applying at home….Training is a big key. Their safety is a big key,” Roberts added.
Roberts uses a web-based training program Ford offers to its fleet customers. In addition to the training all of his technicians receive, they can also use the program for additional training to improve their skills.
Another source Roberts uses is ACDelco’s training program.
When technicians want to take advantage of training opportunities, Roberts allows them to do so during their shift and pays for the cost of the training.
“I usually just offer to do them during the daytime, and you have a much better response,” he said.
In Cobb County, Curtis encourages employees to get ASE certifications, and the county pays for them.
“What I've noticed is a lot of the young technicians, they're eager to learn new stuff…Cars right now have a high technology built into them. And they want to continue to learn,” Curtis said.
In Birmingham, Roberts pays for the first round of testing for ASE Master Technicians. He offers a 10% pay incentive to technicians who maintain ASE Master Technician status. The increase is also accounted for in pension calculations. That incentive is available for all technicians, supervisors, and superintendents. His administrative team is currently working on incentives for parts and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
Consistency is Key
Bottom line, as a fleet manager, it’s crucial to maintain consistency and reliability within your operation. If you hold employees to different standards and only allow certain staff members to do something, it will show.
Not having a desire to get to know your team can also hurt you.
“If you're not meeting with your team regularly then you're missing out. You’re not going to have that culture that you need,” Curtis said.
His team meets every Monday to start the week off strong. After discussing work responsibilities, Curtis takes the time to chat with his team about their personal lives.
“That just lets them know that you really care about what they did on their own time. It's important to have that work-life balance.”