Government fleets across the country are facing a growing need for quality technicians, particularly as new technologies and alternative fuels are integrated. However, as the need grows, the availability of such technicians is limited. Fewer enter the field than before, and those who do become technicians are often led by competitive salaries with which budget-tight municipalities can’t compete — rather than by benefits, an area in which municipalities thrive.
New technologies often make hiring the right technician more difficult. Vehicles today require more knowledge of alternative fuels and special diagnostic equipment. With tightening budgets, how can you attract qualified technicians to meet the various needs of your fleet?
Fleet Manager Darryl Syler has been with Dublin for three years. He noted the city has been fortunate to have a low turnover rate, in addition to having several quality employees. “We have six Automotive Service Excellence-certified technicians and have only had one move on to a new place,” he said.
During its hiring process to replace that technician, Dublin focused on the skills and certifications prospective applicants held. All job applicants must have ASE certification, with the city giving special attention to any emergency vehicle and alternative fuel certifications.
Dublin operates 57 compressed natural gas pickup trucks and a CNG station, in addition to servicing a fleet of emergency vehicles that includes Washington Township Fire Department vehicles.
“We look through our HR department,” said Syler, adding the city has a set of questions that helps sort through applicants. Then, managers look at dispositions, personalities and ability to handle customer service. “We want to see how well they can cope with someone coming in with a car or truck.”
Once the pool is narrowed down, they try to have existing technicians meet and get a feel for them. “We are a tight-knit group,” he explained. “The guys can generally pick up where one has left off.”
With a low turnover rate, Dublin concentrates on training, focusing on the fleet’s needs and what would be beneficial to operations. “We are an ASE Blue Seal Shop. Five of our technicians are alternative fuel certified and one is emergency vehicle certified,” Syler said. “Each year we look at our needs and build money into our training fund.”
Additional training has included sending a technician to the Harley-Davidson school to learn skills that would provide better service, and to maintain the Dublin Division of Police’s fleet of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Five technicians have been sent to school to become certified welders and learn to fabricate. That particular skill has come in handy with the city’s snowplows.
“I think (training) is very important,” Syler said. “The people above me also understand the importance of training toward fleet operations.
“We have talked about sending guys to the Government Expo,” he said, but noted the downside of sending a large group is the cost. “They don’t generally announce the location until after my operations budget is decided.”
Training is spread across the division, with Syler and his operations supervisor also receiving further training when it can be afforded. Syler is currently working on his Certified Field Service Manager certification.
The days of a mechanic who could tune a carburetor are gone for good, according to Syler. “Computer skills are vital,” he said.
“There are some barriers. A lot of major companies don’t want to share their technology to keep business at dealerships.”
Syler noted for many cities, finding qualified applicants can be challenging. “There is a greater demand than supply,” he said. “We’re fortunate. Our workers have excellent benefits, and all of our technicians are members of the Steel Workers Union so they get good salaries.”
Fleet Maintenance Manager Rod Johnson is the only technician for Kewanee, Ill.’s fleet, and he can see why technicians are in high demand by cities. “It’s not a glamorous job. It doesn’t get the recognition it should be getting, and that’s why you don’t get as many kids.”
That’s also one of the reasons why Kewanee offers an apprentice program to introduce kids to the technician career. Students enrolled at the nearby community college and two school districts
are approached to participate and to get a feel for the career path. In many aspects, it’s very similar to how Johnson fell into the trade.
“Thirty-five years ago (a garage) took a gamble on me,” he said. Johnson started out painting the bathroom and doing other odd tasks around the shop: Since then, he has gone on to become a certified master technician.
Students involved in the apprentice program work during the school year and stay on during the summer, with hours kept below full time. Currently, two students are working for Johnson for the second year. They come in handy, particularly if equipment needs to be taken to Peoria, Ill., roughly 60 miles away. Having them beats having to pull someone else off the job — sometimes creating a backlog of work — to
take the equipment such a distance. It also saves the city money, since student workers are paid less than full-time employees.
“Civil service has seen a big decline,” Johnson said. “There’s been a
big decline in test takers and half are disqualified after background
tests.” With a pool of quality employees that has diminished across
the board, untrained employees can affect the whole operation of a
municipality and create more work for managers and technicians. “Drivers who are not trained result in more wear and tear on the fleet,” he added.
“I try to pay it forward. It gives (students) an idea of the field. It might bring them closer to public service,” he said. During the apprenticeship the students interact with a variety of people all the time, including with police and fire personnel, so they develop
insights into other branches and career paths, too.