Cost and inventory are among the factors in deciding whether a fleet should own its tools or provide an allowance for technicians to purchase their own.
 - Photo: Getty Images

Cost and inventory are among the factors in deciding whether a fleet should own its tools or provide an allowance for technicians to purchase their own.

Photo: Getty Images

Gary Lentsch, CAFM, believes in the benefits of providing agency-­owned tools to technicians rather than requiring technicians to supply their own tools. Although his organization supports both practices, Lentsch said providing tools increases its ability to recruit more technicians

Lentsch, who oversees the fleet operation for Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) in Oregon, has seen some great mechanics, including some from the military, turned away because they did not own an adequate set of tools.

But Snohomish County Fleet Services in the State of Washington provides a tool allowance to help its technicians buy their own tools, and Director/County Fleet Manager Roy Scalf believes that is a benefit toward recruitment. He has seen technicians invest $30,000 to $40,000 in tools and toolboxes, with some investing as much as $50,000 to $60,000. 

“It’s a huge investment,” Scalf said. “You can see the logic in compensating them for the use of the tools, as well as keeping [the tools] up to date.”

Recruitment is a main issue for government fleets considering whether to provide agency-owned tools for technicians to use or provide an allowance for them to buy their own tools. The cases of Lentsch and Scalf show that providing agency-owned tools and requiring mechanics to purchase their own tools can both be seen as positives in the area of recruitment. But the agency-owned vs. technician-owned debate involves additional positives on each side.

Agency-Owned Benefit: Tracking Inventory

Lentsch has worked for public and private fleets in his career, and getting mechanics or technicians to provide an accurate inventory of what is in their toolboxes has always been a challenge. 

“Having a complete inventory list is really a big deal if your shop would ever be broken into or is damaged by an event such as a fire,” Lentsch said. The inventory list technicians provide, in Lentsch’s opinion, is only good for the day the fleet manager receives it.

“That socket set that was there on Monday may not be there the following Monday, just because it’s their tools and they have the right to use their tools for their own personal use,” he said. 

Having to pay technicians to produce the inventory list on agency time is a negative mark against technician-­owned tools, said Lentsch, who added that his organization allows technicians to bring in their own tools if the techs provide a complete tool inventory list, although they must put together that initial list on their own time. 

“Everywhere I’ve worked, getting that inventory list — an accurate list — has always been a struggle, and the time to do it has always been on our time. When it’s done on our time, it takes away from productivity,” Lentsch said. With agency-owned tools, he noted, inventory is streamlined because technicians’ toolboxes are mostly the same, although the agency allows technicians some leeway to customize their toolboxes. 

Tech-Owned Benefit: Cost Savings

Scalf sees cost savings from providing an allowance instead of his agency investing $30,000 to $50,000 for each technician’s tools. One reason for that is the technicians take better care of the tools when they own them. The tools get lost less frequently, because one person is responsible for them. When technicians own their own tools, they are more likely to keep them locked up when they are not at their workstation. 

“My belief is that compensating them for those tools is probably still less expensive than if we were to continually keep up a supply of tools for technicians,” Scalf said, noting that each technician at his organization receives a $60-per-month tool allowance. “Making that large investment every time a new employee comes on board is a lot different investment than what’s negotiated in the contract as a tool allowance.”

Craig Davis agrees with Scalf on the cost issue. Davis, who is transportation manager for Midwest City, Okla., said his agency pays $1,200 per year, or $46.15 per paycheck 26 times per year, as a tool allowance. “And they’re not required to do anything with that,” he said. “For lack of a better term, it’s kind of a pacifier. We thought it was a good thing to do.” 

The city would not be able to afford $40,000 or more for a tool set for each technician. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to do it here in a little city like we’ve got,” he said. 

He added that although the city does not require technicians to use their tool allowance for tools, it encourages them to do so and also encourages them to purchase insurance for their tools, because the city does not insure employee property.

Tool Trucks: Possible Negative for Tech-Owned

Tool trucks are an important part of the agency-owned vs. technician-owned tool debate. Scalf allows mechanics to visit tool trucks that arrive on-site at the shop during work hours, with tool truck personnel servicing the mechanics’ existing tools or selling them new ones. How much time do the tool trucks take away from a shop’s productivity?

“Not very much,” Scalf said, noting that tool trucks for companies such as Snap-On, Matco, and Mac stop by the shop once a week or every two weeks. Tool truck drivers spend about five to 10 minutes with each technician, or a bit longer if a tool purchase is involved. Most of the Snohomish County Fleet Services technicians are veteran mechanics with a full set of tools, so they don’t typically spend much time at the tool trucks. “It’s something that’s easily managed in minimal time,” Scalf said.

Lentsch, however, believes that minimal time adds up when you multiply it by several technicians using the tool trucks’ services. Lentsch, who oversees a fleet of 370 vehicles and pieces of equipment, provided an example showing shop mechanics receiving a $600-per-year tool allowance, and their fully burdened labor rate is $100 per hour. Tool trucks stop by the shop about 50 times per year. If a mechanic spends five minutes per week, multiplied by the 50 stops per year, that is 4.1 hours per year of productivity time, per mechanic, taken from the shop floor. If two to three tool trucks stop by the shop each week, that can mean eight to 12 hours a year, per mechanic. Then if your organization requires the mechanic to provide an inventory list, Lentsch estimates that could take up to 24 hours initially and four to six hours per year thereafter to maintain it. With the simple scenario of a couple of tool trucks stopping by each week and maintaining a tool inventory, the hard and soft dollar cost (per year) for having employee-­provided tools could actually be around $1,800 to $3,200 per mechanic.

Recruitment a Top Consideration

But along with the cost of mechanic time involved with owning their own tools, recruitment is probably the top issue in the debate over whether government fleets should own their tools or require their technicians to own their own. John Vickery, director of fleet services for Anderson County Government in Tennessee, said his fleet organization’s policy of owning its own tools has helped in the area of recruitment.

“We’ve had several young techs fresh out of school who liked how we provided tools,” Vickery said. “They could start work right away without having to try to buy tools. We’ve had several move into management positions. They had that opportunity because they didn’t have to buy tools.”

Anderson County faces a recruiting challenge because of competition with neighboring repair shops and dealerships, so providing tools is a benefit in that area. Vickery has been there — he started as a vehicle technician and had to supply his own tools. That leads to another benefit of agency-owned tools: Less stress on the technician and fleet management.

“I had a humongous tool truck bill,” Vickery said, adding that paying off that debt was a challenge while he was trying to earn a living. Anderson County Government’s policy eases stress on the technicians and Vickery. All of the technicians use the same tools on a standardized list, and the shop foreman performs a monthly check of the toolboxes. The county replaces tools that are worn due to normal wear and tear at no expense to the technician. Most of the time, the tools are under warranty. If obvious neglect is apparent or the technician loses a tool, that tech is responsible for replacing it.

But the agency-owned vs. tech-owned debate will continue. Davis of Midwest City believes the technician-­owned option “seems like a better deal.” 

“Everyone gets to pick the brand they like,” Davis said. “Not everyone likes the same brand. Techs actually like it this way. They like the choice. We’ve got Snap-On lovers, Matco lovers, and guys who won’t have anything but Craftsman tools. They would lose that luxury if they were to get it all supplied for them.”

For more benefits and drawbacks to providing agency-owned tools, read the story below.

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