“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.”
— Harvey S. Firestone (1868-1938)

Leaders in the field of truck fleet maintenance today practice what old Harvey preached decades ago by providing a discernible career path that both entry-level and experienced mechanics and technicians can follow within their organizations to increase their earnings, improve their professional qualifications and enhance their job satisfaction.

A good technician (and most fleets now use that title far more often than “mechanic”) does not grow on trees, nor can he or she be found under the nearest shade tree anymore.

Nope, good techs are hard to find. And they are hard to grow, too. The demographics are daunting to digest for anyone concerned with keeping a maintenance shop properly and fully staffed with techs of all grade levels — from apprentice to journeyman to master mechanic/technician.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, annual demand for technicians will rise to 101,184 persons nationwide by 2012. Meanwhile, the 78-million strong Baby Boomers have begun retiring and Generation X right behind them numbers just 45 million.

What's worse, far fewer of the Gen Xers — not to mention the members of Generation Y (aka Echo Boomers) coming up next — have shown anywhere near as much interest in pursuing careers in vehicle maintenance as their elders. And trucking must compete for those who are interested in automotive repair operations and other technically oriented career positions.

All this makes attracting young techs to the truck maintenance field all the more critical, while not lessening one bit the need to keep experienced techs from even considering jumping ship.

Designing a career path within a maintenance operation that prospective and current techs can travel at their own pace, though, can greatly alleviate both concerns for fleet owners.

Although these programs may go by different names and vary in content, the career path concept is being embraced by leading truck maintenance experts. Here, executives with a major truckload carrier, a national leasing system, a large and varied government fleet, and a truck dealer chain disclose the key aspects of programs they have put in place to help find, retain and develop — even to the point of joining their management ranks — highly qualified technicians in their truck maintenance operations.

CON-WAY TRUCKLOAD: PROACTIVE AND HANDS ON

We look at the opportunity for eachAual [tech] to follow a career path with us,” says Bruce Stockton, vp-maintenance & asset management for Joplin, MO-based Con-way Truckload. “For us, offering a career path starts at the trade schools [vo-techs] we visit regularly as well as through the job fairs we host at our main shop on campus here in Joplin.”

Stockton says being proactive as an employer of techs is crucial. “For example, we know there are high school students with good work ethics and interest in working on equipment who do not attend vo-techs and our job fairs help us reach them. But we also work closely with local high-school and college-level vo-techs, including serving on their [curriculum] committees and giving an annual presentation on careers with Con-way Truckload.

“We also bring vo-tech classes through our shops several times a year,” he continues. “The students can see what kind of jobs we have, and they can get the whole shop experience. In addition, I have developed relationships with many of the instructors. I give them my business cards and I tell them to hand them out to students who show promise and a good attitude and to tell them that the card is a ticket to an interview with me. And if they don't get a card, it means they have to work harder to impress that instructor. We can't treat any applicant any differently than another, of course, so the cards are meant to be a motivator and a reminder of our operation.”

Entry-level techs start out working in the carrier's inspection and wash facility and they are not required to own any tools. “They start to learn about trucks through the DOT inspection process,” points out Stockton. “From there, they can graduate into our tractor, trailer or body shop as an apprentice.”

To show just how serious Con-way is about connecting with its technical workforce on a two-way street, the carrier outfits each apprentice tech with a toolbox and set of basic tools via an interest-free loan. “We set aside 50 cents an hour from their pay so they can pay it off in 18 months.” He says besides enabling them to get started in their field with no cash outlay, once the deductions are concluded, the techs end up feeling like they got a raise.

“The thing is,” says Stockton, “all the techs we have here have come up through the ranks with us and they tend to stay with us. The 47 techs at work in our tractor shop have an average tenure of ten years.”

Stockton says that once an apprentice finds his or her “element,” that is to say, gravitates toward tractor, trailer or body work, he or she can start to work up the ladder from Technician Associate to Technician to Technician Senior. The next step up would be to Team Leader, who is charged with supervising the work of a group of techs.

MOVING UP

It typically takes a tech about a year to move up from one Con-way technician level to the next, and progress is determined both by hands-on performance and a written test.

Further career growth is entirely possible. “One [maintenance] director and five managers who report to me have come up through this program since it was launched 15 to 20 years ago,” advises Stockton. He notes that there are internal training development classes developed by the fleet's parent, Con-way Inc., open to techs that “help them move up the ladder” into management slots.

“We always promote from within as a priority,” he adds, “and we have not had to recruit any experienced techs from outside. We have not experienced the trouble other fleets have had attracting techs. Developing with us and moving up has been part of the culture here for years.

“Besides growing our own techs — and again, we start at the local vo-techs — we also pay an excellent wage,” he continues. “And ten years ago, we started offering productivity incentives, too. Quality of work remains at the forefront, but the incentive program pays if they can beat the clock in terms of completing specific job steps. The incentives can reach 120% of base pay and we feel they have helped us on the retention side.”

Stockton notes that the carrier also provides techs with a positive, predictable work-life balance while keeping its shops open 24/7. “Techs work [40 hours] over four days and then have three consecutive days — always the same days — off so they can more easily schedule their own lives. We also try to be flexible and move schedules as need be.”

PALM BEACH COUNTY: BUILDING WITH INTERNS

Four years ago, Douglas Weichman, director of the fleet management division of Florida's Palm Beach County (PBC), launched a technician internship program in concert with the County school system (the county and school district are contiguous).

Based in West Palm Beach, Weichman's division is charged with specifying, maintaining and fueling some 4,300 vehicles as well as the fueling of another 2,200 units. There are some 3,400 on-road heavy trucks, 2,400 light- and medium-duty utility trucks, and everything from SUVs and pickups, to airport service vehicles, to ATVs and, yes, swamp buggies.

It's a vast and various motor pool cared for by a staff of some 70 maintenance experts who match up with a dozen job descriptions ranging from tech to environmental specialist.

Still, PBC must always be on the lookout for new entry-level technicians, Weichman points out, as there are plenty of other opportunities that technically oriented youths living on Florida's Gold Coast can pursue.

To help steer more potential entry-level techs toward PBC, Weichman worked to establish a formal internship program with the Palm Beach County School Board that he says seeks to “bring us new techs each year to help stop the bleeding” as older techs reach retirement.

PLENTY OF VALUE

“The idea is to recruit four seniors each semester from Palm Beach County's high-school level vo-tech schools as interns,” he explains. Weichman says the program offers plenty of value to young adults planning to stay put in Palm Beach County, a pricey place in which to launch any career. “We draw students in who are still living at home and not planning to head off to college,” he points out. “On the other hand, once these techs become PBC employees, they can take advantage of a tuition-reimbursement program if they like.

“They can also get on a supervisory track here or view it as a steppingstone to being a tech elsewhere,” he continues. “If they remain a tech here, they enjoy steady increases — the range runs from $16 an hour to start up to the current maximum of $30. And they receive benefits from the County that private repair shops just don't offer.”

Weichman points out that the program also helps the industry in general. “Everyone says they won't hire a tech unless he has six months of experience,” he relates. “Those we don't hire after [vo-tech] graduation will have that distinction of hands-on experience” and can help fill tech ranks elsewhere.

“It took six months to get the program up and running. We determined the candidates had to be juniors or seniors and at least age 17. They are drawn from the two major vo-techs in the County school system, which educates 250,000 students all told.

“They attend school in the morning and work in one of our shops from 1 to 5 p.m., for which they are paid $10 an hour with no benefits,” explains Weichman. “We roll them through so they can see what we do with the hope that when they graduate, they will apply for an entry-level slot here. If they start interning with us in the spring semester, they can [per state labor laws] stay on as interns over the summer as well. They can legally work for 1,020 hours per year as an intern, so that means they can work full-time for the summer. As interns, the students receive credit equal to three classes toward vo-tech graduation and their PBC supervisors fill out progress reports for their teachers.

“We started out with a presentation at the county vo-techs, but now information about the program travels by word of mouth,” continues Weichman. “We interview and screen the applicants and assign them to either our main shop or to a specialized shop.

“If the intern performs well and a full-time position opens up, they can apply with us,” he adds. “We've found some who turned out very well; others were too immature. About 16 have come through the intern program so far, and we have hired two as entry-level techs. Right now, though, we are in a hiring freeze thanks to the recession forcing County cutbacks. But the key thing is the program remains in place for when the economy bounces back.”

THREE TIERS

Once an intern or other entry-level applicant does join PBC, he or she is introduced to a three-tiered career path that can lead to a management position.

The first step is dubbed Tech 1, the next Tech 2, and the top rating is a SuperTech/Equipment Analyst, which Weichman explains is the springboard toward management as it involves helping to direct the work of others.

There's also something in it for the more senior techs who are asked to mentor the interns. “During the four-hour stretch they are working with the interns, they receive a 6% bump up in their wage. And we try to pick the techs with the most mentoring capabilities to work with the interns.”

Weichman points out that over the last 15 or so years, PBC has done more promoting from within and strived to offer a path to techs interested in career advancement. “Of our six shop managers,” he notes, “five have been promoted from within and the sixth is someone who worked with me formerly elsewhere.”

PBC has also formalized its tech career path by creating the position of Equipment Analyst (popularly called a “Super Tech”). These analysts aid supervisors either by providing administrative assistance or by serving as the “point guy on the shop floor” who receives training and other information and brings it to others.

Each time a tech rises in standing from Tech 1 to Tech 2 to Equipment Analyst, he receives a 10% pay hike. “They are also receiving excellent County benefits and will become vested after six years,” notes Weichman.

But why stop there? PBC, in fact, does not. “The next step up from analyst is to Shop Manager,” states Weichman, “or to becoming one of our Support Specialists, who assist me in specific areas, such as ordering fuel, writing specs and managing parts. These positions command higher pay and they are all filled by techs who started on our shop floor.”

PENSKE TRUCK LEASING: FOSTERING A CAREER ENVIRONMENT

As Bob Douglas, vp-field maintenance, Northeast Region for Penske Truck Leasing, sees it, the “best way to avoid a technician shortage is to make sure that as you grow your business, that you have programs in place both to hold onto your existing techs and to attract new ones where you need them.

“Really, for us, it's a recruiting effort,” he continues. “But we do not start off from a need at any given time or place, but rather we see it as a constant 365-day-a-year effort.”

The effort is built on relationships. “We work with vo-tech schools at the national level, such as UTI, but also with local and regional tech schools as well as community colleges in specific markets,” Douglas explains. “We develop relationships with these sources and that involves myself and my [vp] counterparts, our human resources staff and our local branch managers.”

According to Douglas, while the need to recruit techs has not changed, other aspects of hiring maintenance staff have. “We do see that major truck components are more reliable than just ten years ago. That means we see more of a need for techs with PM skills, especially in the electronic diagnostics arena, including driver-comfort features.” And since that skill set is typical of automotive repair, it is “giving us an opportunity to interact with schools that graduate automotive techs.”

Regardless of how they first reach Penske's door, techs receive training based on their level of experience, mechanical aptitude, and the pace at which they learn.

CLEAR PATH

“There are different ways to deliver training,” Douglas continues. “A big initiative launched at Penske is to provide a career path to techs by way of a training program we have devised and had certified by ASE [National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence) as a CASE [Continuing Automotive Service Education ] program.”

Every tech in the program is assigned a mentor as Penske is seeking continuous progress, notes Douglas. “The shop career path is outlined, documented and certified by ASE. Someone starting at entry level will start taking instructor-led and Internet-based training and, as scores are met, they will eventually arrive at journeyman status.

“We received the ASE certification for the entire program — and we are the first fleet to do so — about 14 months ago,” says Douglas. “We first went and got buy-in from our techs, as the program is strictly voluntary. It's now been rolled out nationally at Penske shops and is aimed at newly hired as well as existing techs. In our organization,” he adds, “even for those not seeking certification, the training does not stop. We seek to provide a minimum of 40 hours of targeted training per tech per year.”

Douglas says that level of in-house training “ensures our techs can stay on top of the newest vehicles.” No doubt that is a crucial strategy for a lessor determined to provide top-notch service.

But it can also be seen as a positive retention factor and a career builder: What tech would not appreciate working where he is brought up to speed on the latest developments in their chosen field while on the job?

Or, as Douglas puts it, “In all, we do keep in mind the philosophy of our founder [Roger Penske] to attract and develop the best human capital possible.”

The upshot is that Penske “does not have a lot of turnover of techs. We promote from within and we provide the right facilities, tools, training and advancement opportunities to make working here a career destination for techs.”

RUSH TRUCK CENTERS: INVEST TO RETAIN

The best way to retain techs is to invest in their future,” says Mike Besson, vp-service operations for Rush Truck Centers, which provides all makes & models maintenance and repair services for medium- and heavy-duty trucks via its 40 shop-equipped locations.

“The first part of that investment is in the training provided for them — that is what lays out the career path they can follow,” he continues. “The second part is making sure they have the latest and greatest diagnostic tools to do their job.”

Besson points out that Rush has established in its operation a five-tier “ladder” system techs can move up, starting from a Level 1 apprentice right up to a Level 5 journeyman. “To reach each level requires meeting different tooling and certification requirements [as outlined by Rush], especially between Levels 3 and 5.”

SPECIALISTS SOUGHT

He explains that while it is “nice to have and of more value in medium-duty service work,” ASE certification is not required by Rush. “We are looking more for techs gaining knowledge on how to diagnose and repair specific components and being certified as such by those suppliers.”

Once a Rush tech reaches Level 4 certification, he is asked to choose a specialty — such as one engine family or a major component — and Rush pays for the supplier training. “There are some guys who are jacks of all trades, good at everything, but the reality is that is the exception. Typically, after a certain point, a tech follows a career path by specializing in a given component and we encourage that.”

Once the tech reaches Level 5, he or she can become a Mentor at Rush. Under this special program, a Level 5 will be assigned to take a Level 1 or 2 tech under their wing and mentor them as they transition from their vo-tech days to the working world. “We pay them an incentive for bringing along the junior techs,” Besson advises. “It may amount to $1 or $2 more per hour when their charges' work is good.”

He points out, too, that some senior techs aspire to become Foremen. In that role, the tech will deal with other techs face-to-face and oversee about ten of them, giving them a taste of what management tasks require.

When it's all boiled down, says Besson, the key is “to hire new grads, start them at entry level, and then mentor them as they build their career with you.”