The demographics of public sector fleet operations are skewing increasingly to an aging workforce. A key reason is the large number of baby boomers eligible to retire now and into the next decade. Studies have documented the implications to various industries of these large-scale retirements, but there has been little discussion about the ramifications to public sector fleet management.

Not only will there be a “retirement tsunami” in fleet, but there will be an even more crippling “brain drain” of lost institutional and legacy knowledge. This knowledge is only learned from years of experience on the job. The loss of the institutional knowledge accumulated by these long-time fleet managers, techs, and support staff is one of the greatest challenges facing the industry.

“Our technical and management workforce is aging faster than new blood is entering our industry. Having a management succession plan is key to future success, and I’m not seeing that issue being recognized or addressed widely,” said Bob Stanton, director, fleet management for Hillsborough County, Fla.

Support Staff Retirements

Invariably, there is a tendency to focus on the impending retirements of fleet managers and technicians, but it is also important to discuss the implications of retiring support staff, who play a critical role in running efficient fleet operations.

Below is one example of the impact of the retirement of key support staff, which, undoubtedly, will be repeated numerous times in the coming years.

“We recently had a 31-year support staff employee retire. I never realized how difficult it would be to replace this person. We always talk about the technician shortage, but we take the value of support staff for granted. These people make the technicians and the organization as a whole look good,” said J.D. Schulte, CAFM, CPFP, fleet manager for the City of Moline, Ill. “Running fuel reports, posting invoices to work orders, scheduling travel vehicles, arranging recall appointments – it all has to be done, but sometimes we forget the heavy-burdened, hard-working folks behind the scenes who make it happen. After recruiting and interviewing for a replacement, I realize how fortunate I was to have what I had and how hard it is going to be to fill those shoes. We can eventually put the skill sets back in the position, but the institutional knowledge that comes with 31 years on the job is gone.”

Many fleet managers report that more than half of their staff is in the twilight of their careers. There is one caveat, however. The uncertainty of the national economy has pushed retirement plans further out for many techs and support staff. Although this may slow the pace of retirements, it doesn’t change the inevitability that the industry is not well prepared to have an orderly transition to this forthcoming wave of retirements due to ongoing hiring freezes.

Diverse Skill Sets Needed

There is a litany of reasons for the technician shortage. There is a small pool of qualified technician from which to recruit, since few schools steer mechanically inclined students to the field. Techs start at low entry-level wages and are easily swayed to higher-paying private sector jobs, such as new-car dealers. Also, municipalities in high cost-of-living areas or remote locations find it difficult to attract qualified techs.  

Most municipalities have a large and diverse fleet of equipment – operating everything from transit buses to refuse trucks to fire apparatus and lawn mowers. As a result, it is extremely difficult to find competent technicians with such a diverse skill set. Compounding this “talent shortage” is that fleet maintenance is growing more complex with the introduction of new technologies in day-to-day fleet operations, such as advanced diagnostics, on-board computers, and a growing inventory of hybrid vehicles. New hires often lack the well-rounded technical experience to repair technologically advanced vehicles.

Next-Gen Fleet Managers

With the rapid changes in technology, regulations, and environmental mandates, managing a fleet operation is not for just anyone. The best advocates of making a career in fleet management are fleet managers themselves. Fleet managers have an obligation to assist the industry in promoting the opportunities, benefits, and personal satisfaction of a fleet management career. However, fleet managers don’t do a good enough job of promoting the profession to outsiders.

Therefore, we have to ask ourselves: Who will be the next fleet leaders? Ultimately, the next generation of fleet leaders will arise from the millennial generation. Many of today’s fleet managers already have experience in managing this demographic group. As any of these fleet managers will tell you, there is a generational divide as to how job responsibilities are viewed by millennials. Job expectations vary by age group, especially between those older-than-45 and the 30-and-younger employee segment. Management needs to balance the expectations of younger generation employees who expect quick promotions and frequent movement, as opposed to what makes an organization attractive to mature workers — stability. Today’s fleet leaders must find ways to lead a team whose individual members may not share the same philosophy about work ethic, technology, and benefits, and to get them to understand the importance of fulfilling the “fleet mission.”

Let me know what you think.

Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted in the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.