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.”
Times have changed a lot since Lentsch started in fleet almost 40 years ago, and they’re only going to keep changing. It used to be that a fleet manager started as a mechanic and worked his or her way up. Today, however, with educational programs specifically aimed at the career and companies increasingly expecting relevant certifications and training, there can be additional emphasis on the “professional” side of being a fleet professional. That can mean higher-level presentations to management, greater participation with regard to company objectives and an elevated need to manage “up,” as well as manage down.
In addition, Lentsch noted that it is essential for a fleet manager to have the ability to use basic technology tools like Microsoft Office to create PowerPoint presentations and incorporate formulas into Excel spreadsheets.
“Excel is one that I see a lot of folks struggling with,” he said.
Paul Lauria, longtime fleet management consultant and president of Mercury Associates (https://mercury-assoc.com), took that a step further. The utility industry as a whole, he said, remains behind the curve when it comes to the application of data analysis to decision-making, forecasting and planning as it relates to managing a fleet.
Microsoft Excel is a very powerful and often-used tool, he said, “but the future is going to be about the Internet of Things and the integration of data from a wide array of sources – from your work order management system, your fuel management system, from National Weather Service, from a workforce management system, from a financial management system – to create much more of a real-time view of what’s going on with the fleet. That’s something that, I think, most utility fleet managers are not prepared for.”
Lauria sees three challenges bearing down on fleet managers that he often terms, collectively, as “the perfect storm”: ongoing advances in automotive technology, like the electrification of vehicles; advances in information technology, such as the Internet of Things; and the present and coming loss of institutional knowledge as the current aging workforce retires.
“Most utility companies today are highly dependent on the practical experience of fleet professionals, who, in many cases, worked their way up through the ranks,” Lauria said. “These are folks that often have strong qualitative skills. They don’t have good Microsoft Excel spreadsheet skills, but they have a very strong, intuitive grasp of what it takes to keep vehicles and equipment in service. They’ve built up relationships with business unit representatives, with suppliers, with mechanics, with operators, over decades. And much of that knowledge is in the process of being lost. These professionals are being replaced by a new generation of professionals who are more comfortable working with numbers, who are not afraid of being more transparent, more accountable and more objective in the measurement of performance. But they don’t have the practical experience of having turned a wrench or worked on a shop floor. For the next 10 to 15 years, in my opinion, industry after industry after industry is going to have to navigate this change that’s underway. … We’re seeing a lot of storm clouds gathering in a lot of the organizations that we’re working with. And it’s that human resources component that’s getting the least attention.”
About the Author: Fiona Soltes is a longtime freelance writer based just outside Nashville, Tennessee. Her clients have represented a variety of sectors, including fleet, engineering, technology, logistics, business services, retail, disaster preparedness and material handling. Prior to her freelance career, Soltes worked as a staff writer at newspapers in Tennessee and Texas.
At the same time individual fleet professionals are ensuring they have the skills needed for a successful future, organizations may need to take steps to guarantee they’re ready, too. Paul Lauria, president of fleet management consulting firm Mercury Associates, said that includes several components.
First, although it may not be as much of an issue in utility fleets as elsewhere, a robust replacement program should be in place. This can help reduce demands for corrective maintenance and repairs, move toward more predictive repair and preventive maintenance, and reduce pressure on in-house maintenance and repair programs.
Next, fleet management practices must be institutionalized. All too often, Lauria said, knowledge about what needs to be done and the way it should be handled resides solely in the fleet professional’s head. The development of formal policies and procedures, awareness of key performance indicators and the process for benchmarking those KPIs should be considered. In addition to helping prevent the loss of institutional knowledge – especially after the retirement of a longtime fleet professional – the gathering of this information can help uncover and address any weak links in the chain, Lauria said.
And lastly, organizations must think about the employee skills that will be needed to complement technology in the days to come. The addition of new technology solutions such as telematics doesn’t lead to better decision-making on its own, Lauria said. Rather, software is simply an enabler; employees must be able to use it effectively. “At Mercury, we see organizations that have invested millions of dollars in information technology, but their decisions are not much more data-driven than they were 30 years ago,” he said. “They’re using the systems, essentially, as very expensive electronic filing cabinets.”