At a Glance
Some educational paths that may help lead to or prepare for a career in fleet management include:
- English composition.
- Risk management.
It generally isn’t found in any university course catalogues. Texts on the subject are few and far between. The industry is, realistically, niche, and it isn’t likely that a young professional knows anyone holding the title. But, somehow, in some way, a youth gets exposed to fleet management, is intrigued, and decides to pursue a career as a fleet manager.
How does he or she go about this? What kinds of skills do fleet managers need and where can they get them? It isn’t as difficult or arcane as one might think; fleet managers need specific skills and knowledge that can be obtained in any number of ways. Here are some ideas for the nascent fleet manager candidate:
How Did You Get Into Fleet?
You’ll get a broad array of answers if you ask a fleet manager, “how did you get into the business?” These replies can include, “I saw the job posted, applied, and got it,” “I was in purchasing, and when the fleet manager left, I pursued the opportunity to replace her,” and “I’ve been in the fleet department for a few years, and got promoted when the fleet manager retired.”
These, and other similar responses, state that it was simply coincidental that the fleet manager got the job. But, one answer you’ll seldom, if ever, get is, “I’ve wanted to be a fleet manager since I was a kid, studied it in school, and looked for an opening after graduation.”
Fleet management isn’t a college major; although a few schools, such as Ferris State University, offer a minor in fleet management, and others, such as Ranken Technical College, offer college credits for NAFA’s certified automotive fleet manager (CAFM) program.
The profession can be exciting, rewarding, never boring, and a springboard to more senior responsibilities in a corporate setting. Young professionals should be encouraged to learn about it and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. But, how can this be done? What would a recent college graduate, for example, need to do to qualify for the job?
The Academic Basics
Unlike law, medicine, or accounting, fleet management isn’t a very specific discipline. Fleet managers have a number of responsibilities, not all of them vehicle related, and the profession requires a wide range of skills, knowledge, and experience; a “fleet management” major or academic track isn’t practical.
That said, however, there are course offerings at most colleges that can help students interested in fleet management to prepare for a career:
- English composition: Written communication skills are a critical element of success in fleet management. Fleet managers communicate across a broad spectrum within, and outside of, the company. From drivers, to managers, to senior executives; from suppliers, to auditors, even law enforcement, the job requires the ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and persuasively.
- Accounting: How fleet costs are allocated — both expenses and capital expenditures — is also important. Understanding the impact of fleet vehicle costs on the company’s financial statements helps to clarify for management what is happening in the fleet department.
- Finance: Learning the basics behind the lease vs. buy decision, how money flows in a corporate environment, interest rates, and taxes are all part of the job.
- Risk management: One of the two overall missions of the fleet manager is safety. Fleet managers need to know how to understand and mitigate risk, and recognize risk factors both before hiring as well as during fleet service.
- Law: Certainly, a law degree isn’t necessary; however, basic law courses can help fleet managers understand the impact of local, state, and federal legislation on a fleet operation. Also, human resource and labor laws often come into play, vis-a-vis establishing and enforcing policy.
- Civics/government: Understanding how government works — how it makes decisions, how funds are acquired and allocated, and how it differs from the private sector is important not only for government fleet management, but for commercial fleet managers as well.
- Systems/computers: It isn’t necessary to be a programmer; however, learning the basics of IT systems is crucial, as fleet managers depend upon automated reporting and processes to do the job. Knowing how to use basic office programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint is almost a given in any business environment.
Keep in mind these skills can be acquired at the academic level; there are only a few fleet management-specific courses offered at a few universities. They are, however, important in the overall conduct of the job. A good case can be made that fleet managers interact on a regular basis with a more eclectic range of company disciplines than just about any other (save for human resources/benefits). Understanding the basics of each of these disciplines, and being able to communicate clearly and concisely with each one, is a must for any successful fleet manager.
Law schools teach their students the basics of the law: torts, precedents, and contracts. Graduates, however, aren’t ready to practice law. Before they can, they need to learn about “lawyering,” i.e., learning how to be a lawyer.
Many professions are very much the same, and fleet management is no different. The academic skills covered above provide a good foundation for success in fleet management; however, one could easily say that the same is true for just about any non-technical job. So, where does the young graduate next go to begin to obtain the job-specific skills and knowledge a fleet manager will need? And, more important, what are those job-specific skills and knowledge?
A good starting point would be vehicle technology. Fleet managers don’t necessarily need to be able to overhaul brakes, replace a cylinder head, or do a wheel alignment, but they do need to understand the overall processes of doing so.
For example, knowing what exactly a brake overhaul accomplishes requires a general understanding of the automotive hydraulic brake system. The same is true for all of the major systems in a vehicle — fuel, exhaust, suspension, wheels, tires, etc. As the saying goes, the conductor doesn’t need to know how to play the instruments to lead the orchestra.
Getting a good introduction to vehicle technology is relatively easy, but may be met with some resistance. That is, asking a recent graduate of a top tier university, with a degree in finance, for example, to sign up for a local community college’s adult education class about auto mechanics might seem almost laughable. What is laughable, though, is believing the graduate can manage a fleet without precisely the kind of overview such a course can provide.
The Auto Business
Another area good fleet managers must understand is the automobile business. In the formative years of the fleet profession, it was common for the fleet manager to come out of the car business, usually having worked at some point in a dealership. This kind of experience is often lacking today, and any student or graduate interested in a career in fleet management should know at the very least the basics:
- Pricing: How vehicles are priced is critical to negotiating fleet lease contracts, or purchase deals if the fleet is owned. Learning the basic terminology — Monroney label, dealer invoice, factory invoice, holdback, floor plan, advertising, fleet incentives, etc. — are all components of how auto manufacturers price vehicles to the fleet marketplace.
- Distribution: Vehicles are one of the last large ticket items that are still sold through networks of dedicated dealers. Years ago, the same held true for electronics (televisions, large appliances), but now these can be purchased at “warehouse” stores, which sell all different brands from a single location. The overall distribution and manufacturing process, from order, to production, to shipment, to delivery should be a part of any fleet manager’s knowledge base.
- Remarketing: The single largest expense any fleet will incur is depreciation. There are a number of resale channels through which cars and trucks are remarketed, including retail, wholesale, auction, “whole-tail,” and to employees. Knowing which of these markets are best at any particular time or for any particular vehicle is one of the major keys to successful fleet management.
- Maintenance/repair: This is not from the technical side, but from a business perspective. How national accounts are used in a maintenance management program, billing, pricing, when to send drivers to the dealer are all important in managing this second largest variable expense.
There are a number of large, fleet-minded dealers across the country that might be willing to provide an introduction into pricing, distribution, even used vehicles. Some of the information is available online, with a simple search. Attending a local auction when a fleet sale is in progress can show how lessors and manufacturers represent and sell their out-of-service vehicles. Lessor and fleet service company websites can provide an overview of the business aspects of maintaining and repairing fleet vehicles.
There are some skills that can only be obtained via hands-on experience. Relating the above information and training to the actual management of a fleet of company vehicles is a natural next step in a career.
As with many other careers, whether it is law, the trades, teaching, or in business, gaining such experience is best done via some type of apprenticeship. Taking an entry-level position in a large fleet, though such positions are less available today than they were in the past, is a good start. Clerical and administrative jobs in a fleet department will expose the graduate to the day-to-day activities that the previously mentioned education and training has prepared them for.
Learning how to communicate with drivers, the process of placing orders and tracking inventory, license/title/tax, and other daily tasks will help immensely.
Another route to a career in fleet is through the “other side of the desk,” or with fleet management companies, those companies that service and manage fleets. These would include lessors, maintenance providers, accident management companies, fleet fuel card providers, safety training suppliers, and other similar players in the industry.
Many of them have internships, and most all have entry-level positions that can introduce new hires to the industry.