Keeping techs on board

Keeping techs on board

Jeff Johnson says a clean shop, variety of assignments, and safety emphasis limit technician turnover at Hall’s Fast Motor Freight

Jeff Johnson says a clean shop, variety of assignments, and safety emphasis limit technician turnover at Hall’s Fast Motor Freight

Name: Jeff Johnson

Company: Hall’s Fast Motor Freight

Title: Director of Maintenance

Other Positions Held: Technician, vehicle maintenance supervisor

Industry Experience: 24 years

Professional Activities: Member of TMC and the New Jersey Motor Truck Association

If your transportation business operates from the heart of the populous Northeast corridor, you’d think maintaining quality employees would be your biggest challenge because of all the related employment opportunities nearby. But that’s not the case at Hall’s Fast Motor Freight, headquartered in South Plainfield, N.J.

Hall’s operates 75 Class 7 and 8 trucks, 125 trailers and 250 forklifts that serve the maintenance shop and six area warehouses. Ten technicians keep everything running.

“Our technician turnover is very low and we have virtually zero percent driver turnover,” says Jeff Johnson, director of maintenance. Hall’s TL and LTL business delivers to 48 states and Canada, but specializes in service to New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia piers and airports. The company runs frozen, refrigerated and dry trailers; straight trucks; and dry and refrigerated vans.

Johnson attributes the low technician turnover to competitive wages and benefits; a clean and updated maintenance facility; the company’s pro-employee, friendly atmosphere; and its emphasis on safety.

“Having a very clean shop with updated equipment makes a huge difference in retaining technicians,” he says. “We supply the expensive diagnostic tools and technicians supply their own hand tools. We also promote a friendly atmosphere and safety-first approach. I know it’s tough being a technician, because I used to be one.”

Johnson started with Hall’s as a technician in 1982 and was promoted to vehicle maintenance supervisor in 1989 and to his current job in 1991.

“We have guys working here who have been with the company for 22 and 18 years, and many of them have more than 15 years,” he says. “Our least-tenured technician has been working here for 1.5 years.”

When Johnson does need to hire a technician, he relies on networking.

“Lots of employees come here from word-of-mouth, which is the best way to get people,” he says. “We also bring in young kids from Lincoln Technical Institute. I know people there and we will put out the word when we are looking for somebody.”

He’s been impressed with the quality of applicants who come from the institute. “They have a good, solid background,” Johnson says. “We bring them in young, hire them and train them the best we can.”

Local training is available at the institute, from a local Caterpillar dealer, and through the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. Hall’s also takes advantage of training offered by Thermo King in Minnesota.

“We run all Cat engines and also are exclusive with Thermo King for our reefers,” Johnson says. “It’s a big advantage to be with one supplier that’s close by, appreciates your business and takes care of you. They give us all the diagnostic tools and support we need to get our people trained. Parts inventory also is a lot easier with fewer suppliers.”

But that doesn’t mean he has his head stuck in the sand.

“We keep our doors and options open and talk to everybody, including suppliers we are not buying from like Cummins and Detroit Diesel,” he says. “It’s important to know what’s being offered. Some vendors say they have great new things, so if I said no to checking them out I’d always wonder what I’m missing. It’s better to take 15 minutes with them and look at what they have to show you.”

Managing people

Johnson assigns daily duties based on the needs of the company and the technicians’ skills and experience.

“Everybody has their own niche,” he says. “Some technicians are very good at PMs and others excel at electrical problems or brakes and clutches. I try to mix it up to help them learn more and be more diverse in their skills. It also breaks up the monotony of working on the same thing all the time.”

Since there are only 10 technicians, a cross-trained work force is important to cover the variety of assignments that need to be done. Hall’s operates three shifts for technicians to support 24-hour maintenance, trucking and warehousing operations. Overtime work often is available, but is optional for employees. One of Johnson’s biggest challenges in the small shop is keeping all jobs staffed appropriately 24/7.

Small shops also offer limited opportunities for a technician to advance, because they offer few management positions. But this has not been a problem at Hall’s.

In fact, several of the company’s supervisors started as mechanics.

“When technicians leave the company, it’s usually because they are moving out of the area or because young guys decide that this isn’t what they want to be doing,” Johnson says. “They are not leaving for career advancement.”

Hall’s recycles all of its metals, oil, antifreeze, batteries and tires, according to Johnson. The company also uses an underground oil and grease separator tank to catch any residue from its truck wash.

“All the runoff from our automatic truck wash goes into the tank before it goes into the sewer,” he says.

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