Even folks who've never cast a line into the brine know what the expression “fish or cut bait” is all about. And when it comes to recruiting and retaining technicians, it's high time for fleet managers to start chumming the waters but good.
That's because a shortage of qualified technicians is already threatening the ability of individual truck fleets to cost-effectively maintain vehicles, even as those trucks and trailers become more technologically complex with each passing model year.
There's enough technical talent out there — but apparently not enough of it is being drawn to trucking to keep the labor pool properly stocked.
A few telling stats indicates the extent of the gap in technical talent threatening trucking. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 254,820 people were employed as truck, bus and diesel technicians in 1998. But by 2008, the number of such jobs will rise to 279,790.
And trucking's own Technology & Maintenance Council says that within three years, the automotive and trucking industries together will need 600,000 new maintenance personnel.
While it probably will never be like fishing off a sunny pier, there's much individual fleet managers can do to identify likely skilled and/or trainable prospects, land them as staff techs and keep them on onboard for the long haul.
Just as a fleet wouldn't rebuild an engine without a manual or build a shop without a blueprint, building and keeping enough technicians on staff requires a well-thought-out, well-executed plan of action.
Even if a fleet at most times needs only one or two new techs or supervisors, bear in mind it will be still be competing against a host of other employers, both in and out of trucking.
And since no one ever knows for sure when new techs might be needed, the best solution is a strategy that encompasses both short- and long-term tactics for finding and keeping all the shop employees you need.
The strategy should include these key steps:
ASSESSMENT. Determining the number of employees and their required skill sets to get the job done.
RECRUITMENT. Recruiting should be an ongoing process — not something that kicks in just when a job opening crops up.
PROMOTING. Employees you already have are the readiest source to fill many higher slots. And promoting from within is a proven retention-builder at all levels.
CASTING. When jobs can't be filled in-house, be creative about seeking experienced help.
REVIEWING. Periodically, the effectiveness of the program should be examined and the funds for executing it adjusted as need be.
- ASSESS… NOW AND BEYOND
Determining what type and number of workers you need to staff a shop is not a one-time exercise.
As new vehicles are spec'd, quiz OEMs and suppliers, read trade magazines, visit truck shows or attend professional meetings. In other words, do anything to stay abreast of the technology being built into your trucks.
That's the only way to know how many techs of a given skill level you will need. By the same token, tracking the maintenance requirements — and repair stats — of vehicles will indicate how many lesser-skilled or non-technical maintenance personnel will do the trick.
The other option, of course, is to consider outsourcing all or some of the fleet's maintenance and repair work to outside shops. However, this decision must be weighed against the loss of direct management control that may result.
If an outsourcing arrangement does go sour and the fleet pulls the work back in-house, it will have to build up a staff of technicians from scratch.
Future staffing needs should also be assessed — or forecast — as much as possible. For example, knowing that the fleet plans to enter a new service niche that will require more specialized trailers or refrigeration units can be factored into long-range recruitment efforts.
- RECRUIT…TODAY AND ALWAYS
Just like staffing assessment, recruitment itself must be an ongoing process. But rather than thinking of it in the short and long term, regard it as an effort that is conducted both actively and passively.
Active recruitment includes everything from posting job openings on the company bulletin board or web site to placing advertising in various media to seeking out recent applicants for openings that need to be filled immediately.
Passive recruitment may actually take more effort. It means getting your name, or better yet, your face out in front of potential job candidates long before they are ready to come work for you.
In their book Finding & Keeping Great Employees (AMA Publications, 1999), authors Jim Harris and Joan Brannick discuss how companies should “keep their eyes and ears open constantly for good candidates” and when found, hire them — whether there's a specific job opening for them or not.
Not so long ago fleet managers would have derided that approach as a luxury. But it's solid advice in a market that now so overwhelmingly favors the technically skilled.
The actual recruitment methods put into play will depend on how much money can be allocated to the task. In her book Recruiting, Interviewing, Selecting & Orienting New Employees (Amacom, 1998), human-resources expert Diane Arthur cautions that “display ads and search firms can be extremely costly, with no guarantee of attracting a substantial number of candidates.”
On the other hand, Arthur points out that some of the best recruiting methods cost little or nothing to enact. If money is an issue, she recommends using such low-cost methods as in-house job postings, reviewing existing applications in human-resource files, employee referrals and school placement offices.
Schools, vo-techs for the most part, remain the primary source of entry-level talent for the fleet shop.
Indeed, leaving nothing to chance, even major trucking operations have begun to forge close links with vocational-technical schools and colleges rather than just expecting their “name brands” will pull in applicants.
“Each of our ten operating regions has ‘adopted’ a technical school that we keep in very close touch with,” says Chad Johnson, vp-maintenance for Ruan Transportation Management Systems.
“These include the Nashville Auto Diesel College and Wyoming Tech. Along with the local contact, we have our corporate recruiters visit each school.”
According to Johnson, even with that much exposure to Ruan, graduating students still often need to be sold on trucking.
“We will present our story to an entire class of 10 to 100 technicians,” he explains. “Then we'll block out several hours to stay at the school to speak with students individually. That's when we find a lot of them want more information.”
- PROMOTE… GROW YOUR OWN
The best way to find a quality employee is to develop one yourself. Fleets that provide a path for techs to move up in either skill level or management responsibility, or ideally both, will be able to at least focus their recruitment efforts primarily on entry-level candidates.
What's more, running a shop that is more than a place to punch a clock tends to inspire employees not only to stick around for their future but to encourage others with ambition to seek a position there. As the old saw goes, nothing breeds success like success.
In addition to offering good pay and a solid benefits package, fleet maintenance supervisor James Morwood says the Las Vegas Valley Water District fleet helps keep retention high by promoting from within as much as possible.
“Members of the younger generation may not know where they want to go,” Morwood concedes, “but we do like to bring people up through the ranks. We work to give them both the training and the motivation they need to move up the ladder.”
- CAST… A WIDER NET
Fishing the traditional sources — the want ads, the local vo-tech — is no longer enough. Fleets need to consider casting their line into fresh streams.
Perhaps the most lucrative of these, and one that exists nationwide, is the pool of technically skilled people leaving military service. These prospects include both entry-level techs, enlisted personnel coming out after one hitch, and experienced “Top Kicks” and the like retiring after 20 years' service who are often well-suited to jump right into shop management positions.
“We visit up to a half-dozen military career fairs each year,” says Ruan's Johnson. “These are an awesome resource for finding high-quality, highly trained folks.”
According to Johnson, the Army Career & Alumni Program publishes a list of the job fairs, which are held near military bases. He says Ruan's trolling of the military has so far snagged technicians to fill slots ranging from entry level up to regional maintenance manager.
Another non-traditional labor source to raid is any nearby business employing technically skilled workers. Such prospects might be won over by a fleet willing to pay top dollar and to provide any training needed.
- REVIEW… WHAT'S WORKING
No management program will hold up that isn't analyzed and adjusted periodically. The simplest way to do this may be to review the program's effectiveness at the close of each year's employee-review process.
“The industry average for technician turnover is 50%,” says Ruan's Johnson. “We turn a fraction of that. But I measure it monthly to stay on top of it.”
And if the numbers anywhere in Ruan's network of some 200 shops start to creep up, action is taken. “We have retrained managers when necessary to help them better deal with people,” Johnson relates. “It can be a tough transition from technician to service manager,” he adds, “from turning a wrench to working with people.”
Stop problems before they start
Even fleet managers struggling to find techs don't want to hire problem employees. That's why careful selection must always be part and parcel of a successful recruitment and retention program.
Short of stocking the human-resources department with an expert on employee selection, fleets may consider putting to work the pre-employment assessment test created expressly for heavy-duty techs by Scheig Associates (www.scheig.com).
The test, which can be taken online by job seekers, is based on detailed study of techs who have been recognized as “top performers” by their managers and peers. It is not meant to test skills or measure IQ, but to screen for characteristics that Scheig has determined distinguish the best techs from the rest.
“Our system does a very good job of matching applicants to occupations that require and reward their particular behavioral characteristics,” explains Dr. Richard Scheig, PhD, CEO of Scheig Associates.