HR solutions for the technician-mechanic shortage

Dale Crandell
Professional Development Manager
APWA

One of the greatest challenges facing public works and fleet managers is the growing shortage of trained technicians to service public works vehicle and equipment fleets. Labor reports and surveys continue to show that the average age of service technicians is increasing while the number of new people enrolling in vocational-technical schools is decreasing. This pending shortfall in the labor pool, combined with the increasing complexity of newer model vehicles and the diversity of skills needed to service a public works fleet, is challenging agencies to become more creative and aggressive in their recruitment and retention efforts.

From an industry perspective, public sector fleets are major players. According to an APWA survey, the typical city/county public works fleet includes 360 pieces of rolling stock worth approximately $14.8 million. Collectively, this has an estimated nationwide value of $330 billion and constitutes over 3% of the vehicles in operation on U.S. roads and highways. Yet in spite of its size, the public sector is often at a disadvantage when competing against the private sector when it comes to servicing its fleet.

APWA polled public sector fleet managers to determine how they are addressing this growing problem.

Salaries

The obvious solution is to offer more competitive salary and benefits packages. Ken Ryder, City of Lebanon, New Hampshire, has been able to retain mechanics by offering salaries at or above the competition. However, with a booming economy, much of the public sector is not able to keep pace with private sector competitors. Warren Laing reports tough competition in Greensboro, North Carolina from local dealerships that offer higher salaries and signing bonuses. Samuel Lamerato experiences the same problem in Troy, Michigan. “We have mechanics that bounce from dealership to dealership to pick up $1,000 to $2,000 signing bonus every six months or so,” says Lamerato.

The common concern among public sector fleet managers is that salary scales are not updated frequently enough to keep pace with the economy or they are based on labor reports and surveys that don’t reflect actual local conditions. There is also concern that the civil service procedures-common to public agencies-actually limit a fleet manager’s ability to negotiate or offer creative compensation packages. Still, some agencies have been able to use money as a hiring incentive. According to Mark Jerome, Grapevine, Texas offers a $500 bonus for new hires and a $250 incentive for referrals.

Other agencies, like Two Rivers, Wisconsin, offer longevity bonuses as a retention incentive. According to Mike Lewis, an employee can receive an extra paycheck of 3% to 5% of their base salary as certain milestone anniversaries are reached.

Flat rate pay

One of the most progressive ideas has come from agencies such as Greenville, South Carolina and Macon, Georgia that have converted to flat rate pay for technicians. Common among private sector shops, flat rate pay is a system where technicians are paid based on how long a particular job should take to complete, not on how long it actually takes to complete the job. As an example, if the industry standard says a brake replacement job should take four hours, the technician is paid for four hours of work, regardless of whether the technician takes three hours or five hours to complete. According to Mike Horne, who has been using flat rates in Greenville for seven years, the biggest obstacle to flat rates are union collective bargaining agreements.

Work schedule

Unable to compete by offering higher salaries, many agencies are looking at non-monetary solutions. Agencies like Sylvania, Ohio have switched from the traditional 8 to 5, Monday through Friday workweek by offering employees a ten-hour, four-day alternative schedule. Others like Troy, Michigan, that operate with multiple shifts, provide their second shift technicians with an extra vacation/personal day. “It helps cut down on absenteeism by giving the afternoon shop mechanics an extra day off for personal business or to go watch a son’s baseball game,” said Lamerato.

Tools and equipment

Typical within the vehicle-equipment industry is a requirement for service technicians to provide their own hand tools and even some equipment. Public agencies have found they can gain an advantage over a private sector competitor by providing the tools or offering a special tools allowance.

Vacation-Sick buy-backs

Many public agencies report offering to buy back unused vacation and sick leave as a retention incentive and method of improving shop productivity. The limits of the offer vary from agency to agency, but according to Lamerato, “When you can put an extra check equal to 12 days of work just for not taking any sick time, you’ve provided a real incentive.”

Training

Technician training is as important as technician retention. Agencies like Chapel Hill, North Carolina are addressing both problems. “I have made a standing offer to our mechanics to pay for their off-duty job-related training and to allow them work time to take ASE refresher courses and to take the ASE tests,” said Bill Terry. “We believe that this policy sends the message that we care about the personal and career development of our mechanics.”

For more information on this pending crisis, attend the “Recruiting and Retaining Technicians-A Fleet Management Crisis” educational session at this year’s International Public Works Congress & Exposition in Louisville, September 10-13. Or post your agency’s unique solution to APWA’s new Operations infoNOW Community, available on the APWA web site at www.apwa.net.