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Know your people—know what they need to grow and give it to them.

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While the downturn in our economy has had dramatic effects on most facets of American industry, trucking included, it also offers potential opportunities for fleet managers. Just a couple of years ago many maintenance managers were bemoaning the unavailability of qualified technicians to fill vacancies in their shop rosters. Today, with demand down dramatically, many truck maintenance facilities are cutting service hours and even shop positions.

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Of course, this makes available some highly qualified individuals, offering fleets the opportunity to upgrade their maintenance staffs. For operations in a position to take advantage of the situation, the question then becomes how can a maintenance manager put together a program or create an environment that helps retain good people?

The answer is opportunity––opportunity for technicians to grow professionally at a pace they can handle.

Opportunity knocks
The first step is to recognize the value of technicians’ potential productivity when they first join the company. Darry Stuart, president and CEO of DWS Fleet Management Service, said, “The industry too often wants to use time as the only criteria for advancing technicians. For example, if you hire a person at $12 per hour and the top rate for that fleet is $25, it would be years before that person gets to the top rate by getting nothing but a 3% annual increase. When you hire him and you believe he’s likely to be as productive as an $18 per hour man, pay him what he’s worth. The fact is that some people can be as productive in two years as a guy who has been working for 20 years. If a technician goes to a fleet down the street, we blame him when it’s really management’s inability or unwillingness to recognize the employee’s personal worth and adjust pay rates accordingly. We can lose good people.”

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Regarding the perceived technician shortage experienced by the industry a few years ago Stuart said, “I never felt the industry had a shortage of our ‘doctors of iron’ or technicians. I did believe that there was a shortage of managerial experience in taking younger guys and tutoring or coaching them to fill needed positions. Everyone was hunting for the technician that you could put on a vehicle and have him repair it from bumper to tail lights. For the most part, maintenance work on a truck is basic. There are some more technical things, but these require skills that can be taught. The shortage was not in people; it was in how we develop our people.”

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Transport Service Co. offers growth
While some fleets are still waiting for talent to walk through the door, others are providing their people with opportunities to grow the talent they need. Pete Nativo, vice president of maintenance at Oakbrook, Ill.-based Transport Service Co., a liquid bulk carrier, said, “In most cases, when we bring in a new tech we start by familiarizing him with our company policies and procedures. He might have 10 years experience, but we have certain ways we do things. We then try to move them through required levels of certification, for example, brakes and air conditioning. If he doesn’t have a high school diploma or GED and we believe he could keep moving up, we’ll offer to get him into a night school. After each step, he’ll get a wage increase. Some can move up to shift leader or shop foreman.”

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That his people have a high school diploma or GED is important to Nativo. As a liquid bulk hauler, he needs technicians to perform interior tank inspections. To become certified as a hazardous material inspector the technician needs a diploma or GED in addition to three years of experience related to the testing and inspection of cargo tanks.

While Transport Service has suffered in this economy just like other fleets, it’s clear that they value the talent they already have in their shops. Nativo said, “We’re down in business and have had to let some office people go, but we’ve not laid off any technicians or tank washers. Anyone who turns a wrench is still on the payroll.”

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Southeastern draws an ACE
When a technician takes a job at Southeastern Freight Lines he know exactly what he has to do to progress. About five years ago the fleet launched its Associate Continuing Education (ACE) program. It currently consists of 16 modules that include all parts of its vehicles–– brakes, electrical, drivelines, engines, etc.

Technicians who complete all of the modules become ACE-certified and receive both a boost in pay and a special recognition patch to be worn on their uniforms. ACE certification is good for three years. After that time, the modules must be repeated. The company expects that any technician in the highest grade will have passed all modules. It also offers a pay raise to technicians who become ASE Master Heavy Truck technicians.

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David Foster, vice president of maintenance at Southeastern, said, “Typically, the average time to become ACE-certified is a year or a year-and-a-half; however, some people have gone through the program in as little as three months. These people are generally ‘go getters,’ but often might not have all the hands-on experience you might want. We find, however, that they often catch on very quickly. Things seem to come easily to them.”

While the program has been well received by its employees, the company is taking it to the next level and requiring various levels of ACE participation to be considered for across-the-board or annual pay increases. Foster said, “Our goal was not to have anyone left behind, so we gave everyone about a two-year notice that this was coming into effect. We’ve been working hard to get everyone certified.”

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JAFrate offers personalize opportunity
Some folks like the idea of doing new things. Others know they’re good at what they do and like the idea of continuing to do so. Mike Vaughn, maintenance and safety manager at JAFrate, a regional LTL carrier operating 50-plus tractors out of Crystal Lake, Ill., described his trailer technician, Earl Awe, as a person who enjoys being responsible for the care of the fleet’s 100-plus dry freight trailers.

Awe understands that he needs to keep up on new trailer-related technology to continue to do a job of which he can be proud, and he has the opportunity to do so. When new brake products are introduced, Awe has the chance to go to a school and learn about them. When new floor repair products come on the market, Awe has the chance to learn about them. He’s proud of what he does, and Vaughn said that JAFrate greatly appreciates the contribution Awe makes.

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Know your people. Know what they want to do. Know what they’re capable of doing, give them the opportunity to do it and reward them when they do. If you do this, you’ll be rewarded with stable, loyal staff when others may be saying, “I can’t find any good technicians.” 

Editor’s note: DWS Fleet Management Services provides experienced management to fleets on a limited-time basis. A former ASE-certified master technician, Darry Stuart’s extensive fleet management experience includes roles at numerous private, for-hire and leasing operations.  www.darrystuart.com.

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