Money. It all comes back to money. If the wages your pay your automotive service techs aren't competitive, then you're asking for staff defection. Fleet managers will all tell you pretty much the same story, and advise you to make whatever adjustments are necessary to assure your wages and benefits will stand a current test of market comparisons.

Undeniably, the wage scale for service people isn't a glamorous issue, but it has great potential impact. How? Ask yourself this: As a fleet manager, how will you adequately staff your operation with skilled and motivated technicians when the pool of available talent (already critically short) will shrink further over the coming years?

The technician shortage is both real and current. The difficulty in finding available talent in our industry is echoed universally by fleet managers who have recently attempted to recruit additional or replacement mechanics. While our robust economy enjoys the benefits of "full" employment, the result is that most good mechanics are already working and those entering the field are few and generally less skilled than veterans.

In a recent survey of fleet managers both public and private, each respondent volunteered a story about staff shortages and the increased difficulty in recruiting quality technicians. In one response from the private sector, a fleet manager (who requested anonymity) for a large national truckload carrier said that despite his best efforts, none of the company's chain of nationwide shops was fully staffed. Salary is one of the reasons.

On the opposite side of the fence, another case in point comes from Doug Weichman, director of fleet management for Palm Beach County, FL. His auto service technicians are paid within the government pay schedule of $12.07-18.04. But some people have left for other mechanic jobs (within the county) where the pay tops out at nearly $27. What keeps many of those auto techs from leaving the county entirely is the attractive benefit package, paid holidays, health insurance, pension, safety equipment/tool allowance, and wage incentive plans.

But Weichman said, even those benefits are insufficient lures when it comes to attracting younger mechanics, who only focus on the hourly wage. Consequently, he is working on a merit raise proposal.

Weichman said, "Despite all those benefits, I'm still competing with the local International truck dealer, which is paying $22 an hour. Some of the dealerships even have signs outside saying they're hiring mechanics - and I can't remember the last time I saw that."


Here's the Root of the Problem

The nature of the automotive technician workforce is changing. Currently, the average age of a skilled technician today is more than 40. Normal attrition, retirement, promotion, and career changes are shrinking the existing pool of mature, well-trained technicians, because young people aren't choosing auto service as an attractive career alternative.

"After all," said Weichman, "who among us says, 'I want my child to grow up and be a mechanic?' We all want them to grow up to be better than ourselves, but unfortunately there's a lot of cars out there that need to be fixed, and pretty soon those mechanics will be making as much as professional people."

Meanwhile, jobs go begging and the automotive industry loses 60,000 technicians annually, through attrition alone. And as the mature technicians leave, only 40,000 new people enter the automotive/heavy equipment repair field as graduates from high school and college training programs.

The shortfall of 20,000 job vacancies is partly caused by the fleet industry continuing to suffer from the outdated stereotype of the dirty, under-paid mechanic with more brawn than brains - causing young people to look elsewhere for careers.

In reality, automotive service offers a more lucrative career path than ever before. The integration of computer technology into automobiles, trucks, and heavy equipment has created a demand for highly refined skills - and bright people who can cope with that new technology, quickly diagnosing and repairing problems.

For instance, today's technicians must have a working knowledge not only of traditional mechanic principles, but more importantly of the sophisticated electronic diagnostic procedures and computer systems that have become standard equipment.


Finding Techs is Getting Harder

Even if the now-chronic shortage of auto service technicians remained static, the situation would be bad enough. But there are other ongoing dynamics, which make it even worse. First, the automotive industry estimates - conservatively - that the national vehicle population increases by 2 million every year while the pool of repair technicians is falling at the rate of 5 percent per year. Second, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the current, total openings nationwide in the automotive repair field amount to 60-80,000.

And those jobs are split among public, private, and quasi-government agencies. But interestingly, while a number of public sector fleet managers have not lost auto techs to private dealerships, they have experienced two other phenomena:

  • The applicant pool is getting smaller, and those few who apply for government auto service tech positions are often under-qualified with poor work ethics.
  • Mechanics will jump ship, going from the fleet department to higher paying positions in the fire department, for example.

One such case is from George Kassise, who oversees fleet operations for the City of San Antonio, TX, and whose department promotes from the bottom up. Consequently, a mechanic who applies for an opening with 20 years experience must start out at the trainee level. Few mechanics with bonafide experience want to start over again in life as a trainee, and so such jobs are shunned in favor of more lucrative offers on the private side.

However, Kassise, who oversees a fleet of about 2,800 vehicles, said mechanics who stay with his department, stay happy.

Just the same, Kassie admits, "Finding qualified people is a little more difficult these days, but you don't see any of our mechanics jumping ship, either. We pay top rates, plus there's great benefits. So I can definitely say we've had no one leave for a job at a dealership."

There 's a similar report from Windell Mitchell, current vice president of the National Association of Fleet Administrators and fleet manager for the King County (Seattle, WA, area) Department of Transportation. His auto service technicians earn from $41,000 to $44,000 (heavy-duty equipment) maintaining a fleet of 2,500.

Mitchell said, "Most of our techs are coming to us from dealerships and they all say this is the best job they've ever had [because of benefits]."

Where Have All the Techs Gone?

The allure of the private sector has proven irresistible to younger auto service techs who often won't even consider a public sector job, because benefits and pension don't mean anything to them. They are healthy and see retirement as so far in the distant future that neither benefit is a consideration in job selection.

Kassise said, "Now they want to know what's [dollars] in it for me?"

And the private sector is offering lucrative answers to such questions. Dealerships, for example, have been quick to recognize and respond to the shortage of mechanics by escalating wages, offering signing bonus incentives, commission, and tangible benefit allowances to "pirate" skilled technicians away from other employers. Combined, the private sector's higher wages and commissions can push salaries for auto service techs into the $60-80,000 a year range, particularly in the North and West regions, where salaries are higher, according to Mitchell.

A recent study published by Towers Perrin for Technicians Unlimited backed up what many have long suspected. The study found that 77 percent of truck dealers hire their technicians from other dealerships, and the trend isn't limited to just dealerships.

Computer-savvy techs with diagnostic skills know they can increase their earnings by moving from employer to employer at will. The long-term benefit payoffs of pensions and other security plans mean little if a job change means an immediate increase of $1.00 or more per hour, or a signing bonus of $1,000-plus or a higher commission guarantee.

These young, auto techs - according to fleet managers - use salary as the sole yardstick for choosing a job.

"I agree with Mr. Mitchell. I do think there is some salary disparity [between public and private], but it's more of a regional problem," said Mike Grossett, fleet manager for the City of Topeka, K.S. (Grossett has 14 mechanics with experience of 2-19 years and says his workforce is stable.)

Applicant Pool Is Shrinking

While cutthroat tactics in hiring away top people are being used in the private sector, there has been a subtle, spin-off effect in the public sector: a noticeable reduction in the applicant pool.

Mitchell said, "We don't have a problem retaining people. But recently, I ran a two-week ad for a machinist/mechanic - which is our description for auto service technicians - and there were no takers.

Then I ran it again [later] and got about 10 responses, but only two were qualified. So I can only conclude there's a shortage of qualified people, and the applicant pool is drying up."

Weichman said Palm Beach County has had similar difficulties with few applicants for jobs. "And the really good ones can just about name their own price," Weichman said.

Those are typical stories from public sector fleet managers, many of whom say help wanted ads easily drew 50 applicants in the early '90s. But no more.

How Some Fleets Cope

If your shop becomes unable to maintain adequate staff to perform routine functions, your overall mission will require alteration to accommodate a smaller staff. Already in this position, many shops outsource preventive maintenance and other basic functions, because they no longer have the staff to perform this work. Some firms have closed regional shops and consolidated the maintenance activities in central locations or simply closed their shops altogether and contracted their maintenance to outside service providers.

The tight labor market is unlikely to change in the near future, and will be a fact of life for maintenance managers for several years.

Bob Stanton is director of fleet management for Polk County, FL.