Have you been having a difficult time filling technician roles? You’re not alone — finding qualified technicians is an industrywide challenge.
Chris Trull, fleet manager, Engineering & Property Management, City of Charlotte, N.C., for one, can relate. “It’s no secret; it’s hard to find technicians,” he said. “Especially young people just starting out — they are few and far between.”
The solution for the City of Charlotte was to establish an internship program, where students participating in an automotive program at a local community college rotate between eight to 10 weeks of classroom time and six to eight weeks working on vehicles in the city’s shop over the course of three years. So far, the city has hired four of these students as full-time employees. “The internship program helped us create a pipeline for technicians,” Trull said.
Shevonne Morgan-Glover, acting fleet manager for the City of Norfolk, Va., is facing a similar challenge. “With our staff’s average age of service being 17 years, many of our most skilled technicians and supervisors are eligible, or soon will be eligible to retire,” she explained. “Additionally, the industry is extremely competitive and private sector salaries are more lucrative than what we can offer. We needed to explore creative solutions to attract qualified technicians.”
To address these challenges, the city is in the process of establishing an apprenticeship program.
If your fleet faces similar hiring challenges, establishing an apprentice or internship program can help you build your own pipeline. Here’s how.
1. Establish a Strategy
The first step for Morgan-Glover was to research other successful apprenticeship programs, then devise a strategy that made sense for the city’s fleet. “We worked with our Human Resources liaison to fine-tune our program strategy to include curriculum and expected outcomes,” she said. The Norfolk team also met with leaders at the partnering college to review the plans. “You must be intentional,” she said. “Create a project timeline, schedule meetings with relevant staff, and commit the time and resources necessary to formulate a plan of action.”
While partner schools may provide specific learning criteria for students participating in the internship, Jennifer Walls, CAFM, fleet director for the City of Austin, Texas, said fleets should also think through what skills will be useful if students eventually become employees beyond just the technical tasks. “Running an internship program takes commitment to relationship building, patience, and not only focusing on a student’s technical or ‘hard skills,’ ” she said. “You should be prepared to teach the ‘soft skills’ to students, like interviewing, work ethic, etc.”
The City of Austin has succeeded in developing students to be ideal job candidates. Of the more than 20 students who participated in the city’s summer internship program, 13 have become full-time employees.
Fairfax County, Va., began its internship program with high school seniors back in 1999. The program was paused in 2009 and re-established in 2017. Mark Moffatt, director of the Department of Vehicle Services, suggested not getting too overzealous with program goals. “Be realistic in the learning program to ensure everything can be accomplished within the given timeframe,” he recommended.
2. Source Participants
Once you’ve set a strategy, you’ll have to decide who will participate — and from where. Some fleets, like the City of Fort Worth, Texas, source students from area high schools. “High school students are interviewed and selected to work during their summer break at a fleet service center,” said Ben Garcia, interim superintendent of fleet. “This program gives high school students an opportunity to work on vehicles used daily and not [only work on] shop demo equipment.”
Other fleets, like the City of Charlotte, focus on students enrolled in automotive programs at local community colleges. “Our most important step was communicating with the community college and letting them know we were interested in supporting their program and helping students get experience,” Trull said. He recommended starting small, with just one or two students to begin with. “We started with four students and it was a lot at one time. Starting small lets you work out the kinks.”
For Moffatt, involving instructors and other school staff helped boost engagement. “Fairfax County Department of Vehicle Services staff members meet with students enrolled in technical programs and the teachers and career resource specialists who teach and administer the programs to recruit talented and interested high school students,” he said.
3. Determine Your Budget
Once you have a source for participants, you’ll have to decide if they’ll be compensated. “ ‘How much are you willing to pay students?’ That was one of the first questions the community college we work with asked,” Trull said.
The City of Charlotte pays interns $10 per hour, but some programs may decide to offer unpaid internships. The city also offers an apprenticeship program for older professionals looking for a career change or returning from military service. These full-time employees are hired at a wage closer to that of the city’s technicians, with the opportunity to earn more upon hire.
4. Select Mentors
Once participants arrive at your shop, who will guide them? “Fleets will want to pair students with someone who is willing to teach them and will be a good coach and mentor,” Trull said. “We try to rotate our interns between seasoned technicians, which helps them learn different avenues and ways of doing things.”
Moffatt said mentor selection is what ultimately makes a program successful — and that the county’s mentors actually benefit in the process, too. “The mentors must relate to the student, be patient, answer questions, and teach them their trade,” he said. “We learned that many of our technicians enjoy teaching and mentoring and now have a renewed sense of purpose.”
5. Decide What Happens When Participants Complete the Program
Once students or apprentices complete the program, what happens next? Oftentimes apprenticeships are intended to lead to full-time employment. Internships, on the other hand, may not come with a guarantee, but are intended to prepare students to be qualified candidates.
“Our students have to go through the standard interview process and compete with others in the marketplace to be hired by the city,” Trull explained. “The hope is that we’ve taught them what they need to be a competitive candidate and to stand out.”
For the City of Austin, the hope is the city will be able to employ student participants. “Our focus was providing students that were joining the workforce…after high school with paid internships during the summer and the potential for full-time employment with the city upon completion,” Walls said. “If chosen for full-time employment, the former interns can take the opportunity to enter the official fleet career ladder.”
As Morgan-Glover looks forward to the City of Norfolk’s burgeoning program, she is optimistic about the outcomes for both students and the fleet operation. “An apprenticeship program can truly be a win-win for our organization as well as for the community we serve,” she said. “While our ultimate goal is to cultivate recruitment, we are also achieving social responsibility by providing quality knowledge and real-world experience to the next generation of local auto technicians.”