The question of whether public-sector fleet managers should have technical experience is often debated, with opinions varying widely.
While many public fleet managers begin their careers on the shop floor, there is a trend of more non-traditional fleet managers entering the industry. These fleet managers have business or management experience, but not wrench-turning experience. These backgrounds come with both advantages and disadvantages, which was discussed in the January article, “Is Technical Experience Necessary for Fleet Managers?”
Many who come up from the shop floor say their experience is necessary for their jobs, but their own transitions from working under a vehicle to in the office also come with its hurdles. From learning management skills to budgets and negotiations, fleet managers with technical backgrounds discuss their transition into management and how the increasing number of non-technical fleet managers entering the industry will change it.
Transitioning to Management
Kelly Kussman, fleet manager for the City of Issaquah, Wash., attended a vocational school and worked on light- and heavy-duty vehicles at various locations before joining the city fleet. In 2007, he became the fleet supervisor after the sudden death of the fleet manager.
Kussman recalls his first year as fleet supervisor, then the highest fleet position, as a “whirlwind.”
“I tried to eat the whole elephant instead of taking bites,” he recalled. He tried to get up to speed as quickly as possible, not taking time off for almost a year.
Having spent years turning a wrench, he had a lot to learn: supervisory skills, Human Resources issues, conducting employee evaluations and coaching, and a lot of new processes. The transition happened in the middle of budget time, and the former technician suddenly had to learn how to use Excel spreadsheets — fast.
“Coming off the floor, it’s not something you typically do. You use Outlook for some occasional e-mails, but you don’t normally get into drafting documents, letters, and spreadsheets, or do analysis and [use] the kind of tools they use in management,” Kussman said.
For Paul Condran, fleet services manager for the City of Culver City, Calif., the biggest shock wasn’t stepping up to management, but moving to the public sector. He had worked at light- and heavy-duty dealerships and repair shops, as well as on limousines, before working at Ferrari, but the Culver City shop at the time was a far cry from the relatively pristine luxury car dealership to which he had become accustomed.
He joined the city has a supervisor at a time when the foreman was already in “retirement mode,” he recalled. He was about to quit, but the Public Works director allowed him to make changes to the shop, including painting, cleaning, adding light, and prohibiting certain practices. He became the fleet foreman a few years after joining, in 1990, a position that evolved to his current manager role.
Fred Chun, CAFM, CPFP, fleet services manager for the City of Tacoma, Wash., said when he first transitioned to management from his heavy-duty technician role, he was more focused on short-term goals. As he’s developed in his job, he has been able to leave others with overseeing the day-to-day responsibilities to focus on more strategic and long-term goals.
For Randy Paschal, moving to management was not such a difficult step. Paschal is the fleet maintenance superintendent of the City of Sanford, N.C., managing three technicians. He previously worked as a heavy-duty technician, mostly on school buses, and was overwhelmed by the variety of equipment the city maintained, from Public Works trucks to fire and police equipment.
Although he had only worked as a technician before moving to the city, Paschal’s transition was smoother, which he attributes to prior experience and a good team.
“I had been a fire chief on the Fire Department in the county for several years, and so I had some management experience,” he explained.
Learning the Essentials
Not coming from the public sector, Condran said one of his biggest challenges was understanding the internal service fund process.
“That was completely new to me,” he recalled. He had a lot of questions: “How does it work? Why do we do things this way? How do you equate revenue with expenditure?”
Another big challenge was in going through the federal vehicle procurement process for purchasing transit buses. He had to work to understand the federal requirements for purchasing and document everything correctly in order to receive grant money.
Kussman had to learn how to interact with and motivate staff members, how to conduct evaluations and coach them. He also had to learn how to step back from day-to-day activities to plan for the future.
To overcome these challenges, they sought to further their education.
“I’m concerned about [purchasing], but more that we’re following the city policy regarding procurement. I spend more time discussing that than, ‘Does this truck need a V-8 engine or V-10?’ ” Chun said.
Kussman and Condran took management classes at community colleges as well as training courses offered by their agencies. They learned about Human Resources issues, about how to coach employees as well as employee rights and responsibilities, and health and disability laws and procedures. They read trade magazines and talked to other fleet managers.
Condran joined the NAFA Fleet Management Association and purchased an internal fund process education folder to understand cost allocation, activity-based costing, and how productivity relates to revenue and expenditures.
Kussman attended an American Public Works Association (APWA) workshop and events and training courses hosted by the Public Fleet Managers Association (PFMA), a group for fleet managers in the Pacific Northwest. He continued to reach out to this group for assistance and learned how to scale his expectations. One lesson he learned was that he had to curb his expectations.
“You’re not going to be able to do the same spreadsheet that I can do because I have staff who are able to work on that,” a fleet manager with a fleet 10 times larger than his said.
Condran and Chun went back to school for their bachelor’s degrees, and Chun earned certifications from the APWA and NAFA.
Perspectives from the Shop Floor
Many fleet managers who have technical experience believe their jobs would be difficult without it.
“I strongly believe that if you’re going to be successful as a fleet manager, you have to have technical knowledge to understand the systems that your people are expected to maintain,” Condran said. “You don’t have to have your hands on it every day, or at all, but you need to understand how it works.”
This can include knowing how to spec equipment, how to determine the right torque, horsepower, and axle weights, he said.
Paschal said the advantage of his technical background is that when he tells technicians how to do something, he is telling them from experience. He also believes he gets more respect than someone without a technical background.
Kussman is uncertain that his experience automatically makes him a better fleet manager. But he believes his technical background is an asset in one specific way: He can coach newer technicians and provide tips for them to improve efficiency.
“Having an idea of what’s going on, I can help them and then understand what their needs may be on equipment and tools,” he said.
Chun, unlike many of his technical-minded peers, believes a financial or management background is just as important as a technical one.
“While I started as a hands-on mechanic, the reason I feel that the non-traditional fleet maintenance folks can also become successful managers today is because the aspects of being a fleet manager have really changed,” he said. He pointed to the Certified Automotive Fleet Manager (CAFM) certification from NAFA as an example — only one of the eight disciples required for the certification covers fleet maintenance; other disciplines include risk, asset, business, financial, and information management.
Chun sees two types of fleet managers in the industry: those who are more hands-on, who have technical experience, and who get into the details of a day-to-day fleet operation. The other type of fleet manager focuses more on the management side, on budgeting, contract management, and union negotiations, for example.
His own job is more similar to the latter type, but he has talked to others who prefer to manage the shop day-to-day and may have a finance person help out with budgeting.
“I’m concerned about [purchasing], but more that we’re following the city policy regarding procurement. I spend more time discussing that than, ‘Does this truck need a V-8 engine or V-10?’ ” he explained.
He believes someone coming from accounting or with business management experience brings numerous strengths to their position. Someone with accounting experience can understand fleet budget data faster. Someone who has previously worked for the agency, perhaps within another department, may understand the purchasing process or agency rules and not get frustrated with how things must be done. And finally, someone without a technical background may be able to more easily explain to non-fleet people of fleet policies because he or she has a better understanding of the outsider’s perspective.
Chun does credit is technical background for his ability to do this job better. But he believes not having a technical background does not make someone a lesser fleet manager.
“I wouldn’t [say] nontraditional fleet managers aren’t qualified to run a fleet just because they’ve never fixed a truck,” he said.
Non-technical fleet managers are "going to be greatly reliant on their supervisory staff to guide them in the technical deficiencies where they lack," Condran said.
The Future of Fleet
Condran sees the end of an era in fleet management as more traditional, technical fleet managers continue to retire in quick succession.
“The industry is in a very precarious position,” he said.
Automotive repair is not as appealing a job as it once was, so it’ll be hard to find good technicians and even harder to find one with the aptitude and ambition to rise to the manager role, he said. This means future fleet managers will more likely be educated in college than on the shop floor.
Paschal has a pessimistic view of this change.
“I think it will be a big disadvantage because the man in the office, the people out in the shop can come in there and tell him anything and he won’t know whether it’s right or wrong,” he said. “He might be spending money that’s not necessary.”
Chun, president of the PFMA, sees a growing number of fleet managers joining the association with no technical experience, which he doesn’t see as a bad thing. After all, he reasons, fleet management is now more than just maintenance management.
While Condran believes technical knowledge is essential to his job, he believes those without the background can be successful fleet managers.
“It not necessarily a bad thing as long as they recognize that weakness and don’t come into the job thinking that they know everything,” he said. “They may have outstanding business acumen to perform budgets, allocation on costs, understanding internal service funds or operating funds … but they’re going to be greatly reliant on their supervisory staff to guide them in the technical deficiencies where they lack.”
The best way to do that, he advised, is to immediately build relationships with shop supervisors, and understand and respect their role.
“They need to start forming that bond with their team,” Condran said. “That’s crucial to their success.”