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Management

David Cullen

How to Retain Technicians in a Tight Labor Market

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Exactly when we can state with certainty that America has emerged from the coronavirus pandemic is yet unknown. But much of the country is opening again, albeit cautiously.

Businesses are taking stock of what they must do to get back up to speed. In some cases, that means looking to hire new workers to replace those who were laid off at the peak of the pandemic or who left jobs voluntarily for their health or to care for family members stricken with the virus.

As utility fleet managers know, well before the pandemic roared into the U.S., there was a technician shortage already impacting every type of truck operation, from bucket trucks to highway rigs. A good tech is hard to find, and once they’re on board, keeping them there is a constant responsibility for managers.

So, what can you do now to keep more techs happily employed – working for you, that is? The answer is that, if fleet managers pay attention to the individual concerns and attitudes of all techs in their shops and respond to any issues that arise, it’s highly likely the fleet department will not have retention issues.

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Sandy Smith

Will Your Fleet Need to Rightsize in a Post-Pandemic World?

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When the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, the impact on utility fleets was swift. Even though utility work continued as an essential service, fleets had to adapt. Social distancing meant crews could no longer pile into one vehicle safely. Many light-duty vehicles were parked as some employees switched to home bases.

Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) was not immune to these changes. “As much as we could, we took the vehicles that were not being utilized as much because their owner or assignee had started to telecommute, and we assigned them to crews so they didn’t have to have multiples in the vehicle often,” said Matt Gilliland, director of operations support for the publicly owned utility that covers at least part of 86 Nebraska counties. This shift was in addition to regular vehicle cleanings, deep cleaning whenever a vehicle was serviced and sending cleaning equipment stockpiles throughout the state for use.

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Grace Suizo

Fleet 2030: The Top Trends Utility Fleets Should Watch This Decade

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What do utility fleet managers need to keep an eye on over the next decade? What emerging trends will have the greatest impact on fleet operations? And what do fleet professionals need to have on their radar so they don’t fall behind the curve or get blindsided?

UFP recently spoke with George Survant, a former longtime fleet manager who currently serves as a consultant for Fleet Mace Consulting, and Charlie Guthro, vice president of business intelligence and analytics for fleet management company ARI (www.arifleet.com), to get their answers to these questions and insight on what the future has in store for utility fleets.

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Sean M. Lyden

Leadership Strategies: Negotiating as if Your Career Depends on It

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What’s a common trait among highly effective fleet professionals?

They’re skilled negotiators.

They get the best terms when purchasing vehicles, equipment and service. They persuade senior management to protect – and increase – their annual fleet budgets. And they gain top priority from OEMs to quickly address and solve critical equipment issues.

So, as you look for ways to advance in your fleet career, what can you do to take your negotiation game to the next level?

Consider reading “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It” by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss.

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Sandy Smith

Do Tire Chains Make Sense for Your Utility Fleet Vehicles?

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It wasn’t so long ago that, when the calendar began its march toward winter, fleets dug out tire chains and issued them to each vehicle. When inclement weather eventually arrived, it was up to the operator to install the chains.

In recent years, however, things have changed, both in terms of options for traction devices and improvements in tires themselves. That has Dale Collins, fleet services supervisor for Virginia-based Fairfax Water, rethinking his approach to the utility’s on-road fleet of 320 assets.

“Let’s say we experience a blizzard,” Collins said during a recent interview with UFP. “[Tire chains] work well for what they’re doing. But around here, like a lot of the mid-Atlantic, heavy snowfall lasts around 24 to 36 hours. You want to use your chains. But then, you’re using a chain on the semi-clear road, which causes damage to the roadway, wears out the chain itself and is an uncomfortable ride.”

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Sean M. Lyden

Smart Hiring Tips for Fleet Professionals

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You’re looking to hire a mechanic, shop supervisor or data analyst. You’ve sorted through the applications and resumes, creating a shortlist of candidates who look great on paper.

Now, it’s time for the interviews to assess who would be the best choice for the job.

But when candidates operate as their own public relations agent, selective about what they share – and don’t share – to put themselves in the best light, how do you get to the truth about whether they really have “the goods” for the job?

Enter Robin Dreeke, the former head of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program.

Dreeke spent over three decades developing high-trust relationships with informants, including many unsavory characters, to gather intelligence to help the FBI and other agencies prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. So, he knows a thing or two about how to read people to quickly determine whether you can trust them – and work with them.

And he writes extensively about his system, which he calls “The Six Signs of Behavior Prediction,” in his latest bestselling book, “Sizing People Up: A Veteran FBI Agent’s User Manual for Behavior Prediction.” 

UFP recently spoke with Dreeke to get his take on how you can apply his behavior prediction model to make better-informed hiring decisions that can take your fleet’s performance – and your career – to the next level.

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Max Chesnes

How is the Coronavirus Pandemic Affecting Fleet Rightsizing?

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Among the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the impact it is having on utility fleet rightsizing efforts across the U.S.

Traditionally, rightsizing is about understanding the values and measurements of the appropriate level of fleet utilization, according to Charles Guthro, vice president of global strategic services for ARI (www.arifleet.com).

The fleet management services company works through exercises with its customers to help shed light on strategies that enhance fleet productivity and maximize opportunities to generate revenue. But, Guthro said, some strategies have changed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Well, COVID-19 has flipped upside down even the best-thought-out plans. Now everyone is looking at it as, ‘How do we strip out cost from the business?’ Obviously, everyone’s revenues are significantly impacted,” he explained.

This, in turn, has put pressure on rightsizing efforts from a cost-reduction vantage point, Guthro added.

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Gary L. Wollenhaupt

Does Your Fleet Need a Data Analyst?

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When Nebraska Public Power District added telematics capabilities to 200 of its work trucks, a few surprises lurked in the early reports.

The data showed the work trucks spent much more time idling than anecdotal evidence from drivers and fleet managers had suggested, according to Matt Gilliland, director of operations for the largest public utility in Nebraska, which serves 91 counties in the state.

That's the kind of insight that utility fleet managers hope to see from adding telematics to their fleet. A vehicle equipped with a telematics device can record and transmit a wide array of information, from engine fault codes to idle time to driver behaviors – like speeding and hard braking – as well as vehicle location.

However, utilities may not have staff with the right skill set to manage and analyze all the data flooding in. Will utilities have to hire new staff to fill those roles, or can the work be tackled in-house? Keep in mind, experts say a continuously connected vehicle generates about 20 GB of data every hour.

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Sean M. Lyden

Leadership Strategies: Creating the Connections that Produce High-Performing Teams

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If you’re like many utility fleet leaders right now, you’re bracing for a significant brain drain in your organization as experienced technicians and other key people in the fleet department get ready to retire in the next few years, with fewer younger workers in the pipeline to take their place.

So, how can you get a leg up when competing for top talent to eventually replace your veteran workers? And how can you create a culture that makes the fleet department – and the company as a whole – a more attractive place for employees to work, learn and grow?

Become a Connector manager.

That’s the big idea from the book “The Connector Manager: Why Some Leaders Build Exceptional Talent – and Others Don’t,” based on a study of about 10,000 managers and employees by the research and advisory firm Gartner Inc.

UFP recently spoke with Sari Wilde, the book’s co-author and managing vice president at Gartner, where she advises executives at hundreds of Fortune 500 companies on their leadership and talent management practices.

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Fiona Soltes

Improving Ergonomics through Better Truck Specs

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Small adjustments can sometimes make a big impact. For those who work with utility trucks, details like properly placed steps, strategically placed handles, appropriately grippy surfaces and convenient storage can mean the difference between safety and injury. A careful eye toward work truck specs, then, can aid in ergonomics – and result in a happier, healthier workforce.

Chris Jolly, director of operations, fleet services, for Duke Energy Carolinas West Region, said that at one point, some of the utility’s trucks didn’t have appropriate storage locations for orange safety cones, and other storage locations weren’t working due to company-mandated changes in cone sizes. So, cones often were picked up and thrown in the bed of a truck. Workers who did this job after job, day after day, could have been exposed to stress injuries in the shoulder and back. But now all of the trucks have cone storage capabilities on or near the front bumpers, and the next generation of trucks will include further improvements.

Jolly also reported that as of late September, his entire region – including nine garage locations – has been injury-free for five years. That kind of accomplishment takes a decided focus on the company safety culture, and proper truck and equipment specs play a role as well.

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Sean M. Lyden

Recruiting for Fleet in a Tight Labor Market

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Ask utility fleet professionals about their biggest challenge, and many will say that it’s recruiting – and keeping – good, young mechanics.

That's because you have to compete with OEMs, local truck centers and other types of fleets for access to a shrinking pool of highly skilled mechanics.

So, how do you gain an edge in attracting top talent in a tight labor market?

Tell the best story.

That’s the advice from Paul Smith (http://leadwithastory.com), the bestselling author of several books on business storytelling, including his latest, “The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.” The 10th story deals specifically with recruiting.

UFP recently caught up with Smith to get his take on how fleet managers can use stories to attract the best technicians. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

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Grace Suizo

Is Now the Time to Rightsize Your Fleet?

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The task of cutting fleet costs while remaining productive and providing quality service to customers can be challenging. Over time, rightsizing has become a go-to strategy to accomplish just such a task. To gain greater insight on the topic, UFP recently spoke with three fleet professionals about their take on rightsizing and the strategies that have worked for their organizations.

Dan Remmert, senior manager of fleet services for Ameren Illinois, said that rightsizing usually is driven by a need to reduce costs, but it’s important that fleet managers know exactly what they’re trying to achieve before they begin.

“Having the right number of vehicles or equipment is one aspect,” he said. “A second main driver is having the right type or size of vehicles. Before you start on a rightsizing effort, understand what you are trying to fix.”

A fleet also will want to consider what their business will look like in both the short and long term, advised Ed Powell, assistant manager of business intelligence and analytics for fleet management provider ARI (www.arifleet.com). For example, will more units be needed, or will shifts in your operating dynamic present opportunities to streamline your fleet?

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Fiona Soltes

The Fleet Manager of the Future

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Being a utility fleet manager today can be tough. How much tougher will it be tomorrow?

With the constant advancement of technology, the increasing need for communications savvy and leadership acumen, ever-decreasing budgets, and an aging workforce being replaced by a younger cohort lacking institutional knowledge and experience, it’s a nail-biter of a time.

So, how does a utility fleet manager prepare for the future?

Gary Lentsch, CAFM, fleet manager for the Eugene Water & Electric Board in Eugene, Oregon, said that people skills are huge, especially when it comes to the ability to “hold yourself accountable and focus on the things that matter most to the operation.”

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Sean M. Lyden

To Lease or Not to Lease

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The conventional wisdom for most utility companies is to purchase their fleet assets outright.

And there are some advantages to that approach: potentially lower vehicle acquisition costs, no debt added to the balance sheet, and greater control over resale timing and pricing.

But as utilities see their profit margins getting squeezed, their fleet departments are becoming bigger targets for budget cuts.

So, when you’re under mounting pressure to do more with the same money as last year – or even less – how do you manage? How can you work within tighter financial constraints without sacrificing your fleet’s performance and reliability?

One option is leasing at least a portion of your fleet. But how do you decide which assets to lease? When does leasing make financial sense? And when doesn’t it?

UFP recently spoke with Charlie Guthro, vice president of global strategic services at ARI (www.arifleet.com), a fleet management company that works with several utility companies in North America, to get his perspective. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

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Sandy Smith

Utility Fleet Ergonomics: A Continuing Challenge

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Workplace ergonomics have been on employers’ radar for 20 years, but even now, ergonomic-related injuries remain a costly expense – one that’s growing due to an aging workforce, current worker shortages and inexperienced industry newcomers.

“As the age composition of the workforce changes, that does affect industry,” said Eric Bauman, principal technical leader and program manager for the Occupational Health and Safety Program at the Electric Power Research Institute (www.epri.com). “Now that early Baby Boomers have retired and the middle Boomers are retiring, the industry has been hiring new workers who tend to be less experienced. We’ve seen an increase in injuries in this younger age group.”

The primary causes of employee accidents haven’t changed much in the past two decades. “It’s the slips, the falls, the trips,” said Mark Stumne, director of truck and upfit at Element Fleet Management (www.elementfleet.com).

Bauman agreed. “Sprains and strains showed up in the first year or two in our industry injury database as the largest single category of injuries,” he said. “It’s continued since 1999. Sprains and strains are something we can do something about, and this industry has supported ergonomic research since then.”

Despite the seeming intractability of these types of injuries, there are myriad products available in today’s marketplace designed to help alleviate them. Where is a fleet to start?

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Fiona Soltes

The Search is On for Quality Technicians

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Dale Collins, CAFM, fleet services supervisor for Fairfax Water in Virginia, faces an increasingly disturbing and familiar scenario in the next handful of years: Five of the eight people working in his two repair facilities will retire.

The good news is that his organization is “pretty attuned” to the so-called Silver Tsunami of aging baby boomers; a quarter of the organization will retire within the same time frame.

“So, we’ve been challenged to create some kind of succession plan,” Collins said, “to figure out the best way to approach this, so we can capture and transfer our institutional knowledge and technical expertise. Then have a good recruitment plan and hire top-notch technicians.”

Ask anyone in literally any industry today, and the story is the same: There simply aren’t enough willing and able workers to handle the roles currently filled by the older set. It’s particularly tough in skilled labor; there can be misconceptions about salaries, opportunities and advancement possibilities. There also can be lack of awareness about the need to attract and train students long before they graduate high school. Due to the dearth of candidates, companies are having to take on employees at ground level – and bump up salaries and benefits.

“There’s been a complete shift,” said Lucas A. White, interim associate dean at Madison Area Technical College School of Applied Science, Engineering & Technology. “Organizations are desperate and can’t be as selective now. The industry has had to increase wages, knowing that they aren’t going to find somebody for $10 to $12 an hour. The students know they can get that in fast food, without a skill.”

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Fiona Soltes

Collaboration is Key When Rightsizing Your Fleet

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For organizations contemplating a fleet rightsizing effort that won’t anger end users, here’s some advice: use solid data, convey information clearly and seek understanding.

“At the end of the day, it’s ultimately about communication,” said Charlie Guthro, vice president of global strategic services for fleet management company ARI (www.arifleet.com). Prior to a rightsizing initiative, operators won’t necessarily be saying that the fleet has extraneous equipment, while others in the company may be focused on budget. But when fleet professionals get to know their internal customers and their needs, Guthro said, greater collaboration is possible.

“When you rightsize a fleet, it gives organizations more opportunity to hold on to their most critical resource: their people,” he said. “You have to approach it from, ‘We’re not here to do things to you, but for you, and we want you to be involved.’”

That’s easy enough to say, but it can be challenging to deliver, especially with new management – those who want to make a definitive mark through changes without perhaps fully surveying the landscape or considering long-term impact. This can affect productivity and diminish employee buy-in.

Imagine, for example, a utility fleet that cuts back on lesser-used equipment, believing it will be available as needed from external rental providers.

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Fiona Soltes

Flat Fees for Fleet Asset Flexibility?

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As drivers and fleet professionals explore the possibilities and realities of vehicle subscription models, they’re in good company. Fleet management organizations also are kicking the tires of the concept – including how it might eventually apply to utility fleets.

Under the subscription model, subscribers have access to vehicles on demand, often with insurance and maintenance included, and can switch out vehicle models, too.

Eric Schell, product manager for driver tools at Element Fleet Management (www.elementfleet.com), and Jayme Schnedeker, Element’s director of fleet products, said they are in discovery phase with the idea and looking to Element’s experience with car sharing for cues.

“For companies like us, as well as for manufacturers, the question is, where do we fit into all of this?” Schnedeker said. “How can we provide services for our core customers that make financial sense for them?” The subscription model provides flexibility in areas where there hasn’t traditionally been any, he added, and with individual consumers increasingly using services such as Uber and Lyft, those expectations of convenience are being transferred to work life.

Traditional fleet pools and micro car-sharing markets give fleets a taste of multiple drivers using one vehicle fractionally, Schell said. Even so, he believes, adoption of the subscription model in a broader sense would require “a fairly significant cultural change of how our customers are looking to do business today.”

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Sean M. Lyden

Is Cash Still King?

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The potential for lower acquisition costs, greater control over resale pricing, no debt added to the balance sheet – these are a few advantages of purchasing vehicles outright, which traditionally has been the prominent fleet acquisition strategy for many utility companies.

But according to Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Associates (www.mercury-assoc.com), a fleet management consulting firm based in Rockville, Maryland, there’s also a big downside to cash: It can lead to “suboptimal decision-making” that undermines your fleet’s performance, especially in an era of low interest rates. Lauria contends that paying for equipment over time – whether with a loan or lease – or as needed with short-term rentals creates a more flexible structure where fleet departments can improve the age, condition and performance of their vehicles at a significantly lower total cost of ownership.

“Any organization that wants to optimize the total cost of ownership of its fleet has to figure out the right balance of capital and operating expenditures,” Lauria said. “A lot of organizations don’t do this; they underspend on fleet replacement costs, with the result that they overspend on fleet operating costs.”  

So, why has the utility industry traditionally resisted financing equipment purchases? In what ways does cash purchase impact fleet decision-making? And how can fleets strike a more optimal balance between capital and operating expenditures? During UFP’s recent conversation with Lauria, who has advised hundreds of government and utility fleets since 1985, we dug deeper into these questions. Here are edited highlights.

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Sandy Smith

The Driver Safety Challenge in an Era of Advanced Driver-Assist Systems

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When he’s off the clock, John Doyle, senior health and safety adviser at Florida Power & Light, drives a Ford Explorer as his personal vehicle. The SUV is equipped with a backup camera that audibly alerts him when he gets too close to an object.

When Doyle sometimes drives his wife’s car – which has a backup camera but no audible alerts – he still finds himself “waiting for the backup camera to tell me to slow down.”

Doyle’s experience provides a good example of an issue utility fleet drivers across the country are facing these days. They may have all sorts of tools and options on their personal vehicles that aren’t available on their work vehicles, which can potentially lead to a habit of relying on the tools and options – even when they’re not there. 

“People are gravitating towards using the technology to support the way they drive,” said Art Liggio, president and CEO of driver training company Driving Dynamics (www.drivingdynamics.com). “We see people come into our training programs who are looking at the backup camera monitor instead of the mirrors. If the monitor hesitates, they freeze. They don’t know what to do.”

Recent statistics back up the idea that the wealth of technology and safety features in today’s newer vehicles isn’t lowering accident rates. In 2016, 37,461 people died on U.S. highways, while 2015 saw the biggest jump in accident deaths in 50 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (www.nhtsa.gov).

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