Curt Nodland, a technician with Washington County, Ore., is part of a team of technicians who...

Curt Nodland, a technician with Washington County, Ore., is part of a team of technicians who could soon benefit from a new tiered pay scale that is based on ASE certifications.

Photo by Tom Keyser

Just how bad is the labor shortage in the automotive maintenance and repair segment? Exceptionally, terrifyingly bad, according to the latest figures from TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit that produces reports based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In October, TechForce’s analysts predicted demand for new technicians will average out to 75,900 per year from 2016 to 2026 — more than triple the prior annual projection of 23,720 — including 28,300 diesel mechanics alone. Per year.

At a Glance

Government fleet managers are training and retaining technicians by:

  • Favoring entry-level candidates they can train up
  • Partnering with fleet associations, colleges, and trade schools
  • Laying out clear career paths to keep techs on track.

The demand reflects a growing population, the ongoing exodus of baby boomers from the workforce, and an economy that has refused to meaningfully contract in the nearly 10 years that have passed since the Great Recession. The supply is another story. The American Society for Training and Development predicts that a mere 46 million new workers are poised to replace the 77 million boomers who are expected to retire over the next 20 years.

Polls of public- and private-sector technicians conducted by Government Fleet in 2015 found that 37% of public fleet technicians planned to retire by 2025. A severe, protracted shortage could hit cities and counties particularly hard: More than one-quarter (26%) of private-sector technicians surveyed told GF they were not even aware such government jobs exist.

Considering most public-sector workers enjoy excellent benefits and reliable hours and pay, government fleet managers should have a competitive advantage over auto dealers, shop owners, and oil change franchisees. Fleets just need to get the word out, properly onboard and train new hires, and offer the type of career development and advancement opportunities that will keep them on the team for the long haul.

Attitude Over Aptitude

It was a little less than a year ago that Erik Metzger, CAFS, started restaffing his shop. As the fleet manager for Conroe, Texas, a fast-growing city located 40 miles north of Houston, Metzger lost four of six technicians in the two-month period that preceded Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall on August 25, 2017.

Considering the circumstances, Metzger couldn’t have been blamed for limiting his search to experienced, Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-­certified Master Technicians to get the fleet on its feet as quickly as possible. Instead, taking into account his recent experience and the unlikelihood of finding seasoned pros easily, he took the opportunity to make a change. He decided to start recruiting from the entry-­level ranks, hire the techs who fit the fleet’s culture, and train them up.

“When senior technicians come into the facility, they have their own way of doing things,” Metzger said. “I sat down with the staff foreman and said, ‘Look, we can’t keep hiring these awesome technicians that come in with this holier-­than-thou attitude. This time, I’m going to hire for attitude over aptitude.’ ”

All four of the entry-level mechanics they hired are still on the payroll. Most came in with two or three ASE certifications — it takes eight to earn ASE’s Master Technician designation — and are effectively racing toward a promotion. “Whoever can show us the drive and get those certifications first will move up,” Metzger said.

“There is a kind of worldview in local government that says you have to hire people who are already trained. That’s true for an engineer or a CPA. We try to hire technicians at the entry level and bring them up,” said Gary McLean,  CPFP, CPM, fleet manager for the City of Lakeland, Fla. He considers training part of the job description and includes the cost of ASE certifications in his budget.

Like Metzger, McLean prefers to avoid the baggage that mechanics who have worked in dealerships and other private-­sector jobs can bring to a fleet shop.

“At a light-duty dealership, they’re battling each other for flat rate. Techs undermine other techs, and there’s no reason for that here,” he said. “Everybody’s working toward the same goal.”

The Road Best Traveled

In Boston, Bill Coughlin is a big believer in career development as a retention tool. Every technician the city employs knows his or her place on the career ladder (and accompanying pay scale), instituted a year before Coughlin was promoted from foreman to fleet director in 2015. Ongoing education is paid for, and technicians are encouraged to take advantage of a training room equipped with a library and computers.

“If you tell me you have a test on Thursday, by 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning, I’ll go down and see how well you feel about taking it and offer you on-the-clock study time,” Coughlin said, adding that cities and counties that fail to budget time and resources to professional development should reconsider their priorities. “I have a fund. I can buy tools, equipment, or education. I’ll pay for education and figure out the tools later.”

Tom Keyser, CFFS, CFFA, is working on new ways to incentivize career development for the eight technicians he employs as fleet manager for Washington County in Northwest Oregon. A plan to create a pay scale similar to Boston’s ran up against a countywide policy against extra pay for certifications. Plan B is a tier of classifications that would top out at the Master Technician level.

“It’s the only way I can see to get and keep my guys trained. Once you’re in with the county, you’re in, and it’s hard to fire somebody,” Keyser said. “Without an incentive, how do you motivate people?”

Training Partners

Lakeland’s McLean has built a diverse roster of training partners to help keep his technicians up to speed. He takes full advantage of programs offered by everyone from his local NAPA store to the Florida Association of Governmental Fleet Administrators (FLAGFA), which covers the majority of the fee charged to technicians who attend FLAGFA-hosted, vehicle manufacturer-provided courses; the city subsidizes part of the remaining cost for its technicians.

McLean also works with and recruits from technical colleges throughout Florida. Boston’s Coughlin has a mechanical and auto-body internship program with Madison Park Vocational High School. In Washington County, Keyser sits on the board at Portland Community College (PCC), where students can earn technical certificates while they earn their degrees.

“I’m an educated man. I understand the importance of college. But there is also value in having skills and certifications,” Keyser said, noting that part of the value of PCC’s program is getting the word out about opportunities in government. “Maybe that will help entice young technicians.”

Good Techs Are Hard to Find

In 2015, Government Fleet conducted a survey of 263 public- and private-sector vehicle service technicians (“The Struggle to Find Good Technicians,” June 2015). A solid majority (83%) of public fleet techs said they would recommend their job to a family member or friend, and 44% said they would “probably not” leave their job for slightly better pay and comparable benefits.'

Other key findings include:

  • 45% of public fleet technicians listed technical training as a way to improve their job, second only to “more compensation.”
  • 39% of public fleet techs are not ASE-certified.
  • 37% of public fleet techs plan to retire by 2025.
  • 26% of private-sector techs were not aware government agencies are hiring.

Technician Shortage by the Numbers

75,900 Projected annual new-entrant demand for automotive service professionals from 2016 to 2026
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

9% Projected increase in demand for diesel service technicians and mechanics from 2016 to 2026
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

31,000,000 Projected shortfall as 46 million new U.S. workers replace 77 million retirees from 2018 to 2038
Source: American Society for Training and Development

Related: The Struggle to Find Good Technicians

About the author
Tariq Kamal

Tariq Kamal

Contributing Editor

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