A water main bursts. Power lines get damaged by severe weather. A major gas line leak is detected. Whatever type of utility you work for, your fleet vehicles and equipment need to be ready to roll in an instant to confront any emergency that impacts customers. And that’s what makes having dependable, top-flight mechanics so important. How can utility fleets more effectively prepare and position themselves to compete for the best technicians and keep them on board?
More Jobs, Fewer Candidates
The starting point is to address a key trend that you’re likely experiencing in your own fleet.
As baby boomer mechanics get set to retire, it’s becoming more of a challenge to find young qualified mechanics to fill those spots. And that’s a situation Dale Collins, CAFM, the fleet services supervisor for Fairfax County Water Authority (Fairfax Water) in Fairfax, Va., is experiencing firsthand. Collins manages the utility’s two maintenance facilities staffed by seven full-time mechanics.
“In the next five years, four out of our seven full-time staff are going to be retired,” Collins said. “So, what’s big on our radar right now is trying to put together a succession plan internally and hopefully find some good-quality applicants and backfill some staff members, so we can bring them up to speed before a lot of our retirements set in.”
But the challenge, he said, is that the pool of potential candidates seems to be shrinking. “There's not a lot of focus and emphasis on the trades anymore in the education system. So, a lot of millennials and young people coming up now are missing golden opportunities to get a really good career, with a bright and stable financial future.”
Demand for quality mechanics continues to increase. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment in the automotive repair sector will increase 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, and demand for diesel mechanics will grow by 12 percent during that span.
In light of a looming mechanics shortage, where can you find good young talent?
“Man, that's tough,” said Paul Jefferson, fleet manager for Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E), who oversees a team of 24 mechanics across 10 locations. “We're working with our recruiting department all the time on that issue.”
Jefferson said that the last few candidates came by word-of-mouth referrals. “Somebody here at OG&E knows somebody who knows somebody. We also post job openings on our website, but we typically don't get many candidates out of that.”
Collins said that Fairfax Water’s internship program has been helpful in establishing relationships with young mechanics, who sometimes become full-time staff members. “We usually hire two interns each year for our summer internship program. The interns can kind of road test the work, and we can road test them.”
But to find qualified candidates to choose from, you need to tap every possible talent source.
“I have hired mechanics from everywhere – mechanics from dealerships and independent repair shops, aviation mechanics, parts specialists, and students from community colleges and trade schools,” Collins said.
Another source for finding good mechanics: Craigslist.
“Sometimes you’ve got to try some out-of-the-box stuff,” Jefferson said. “I’ve posted jobs on Craigslist, which was a tip we got from one of our truck dealers we do business with. We tried that with our last position and we’ve hired a couple mechanics from it.”
During the recruiting process, highlight the key selling points as to why a candidate should select your organization.
“We focus on financial stability,” Collins said. “You may not start out with a huge salary, but you can always depend on a steady paycheck and a bright future. And we offer a generous benefits package that includes annual and sick leave, medical, dental and vision insurance, educational reimbursement, continued technical training and a very good retirement plan.”
Keeping Top Mechanics
When you’re bringing new mechanics on board, how can you improve your odds of keeping them for the long haul? Here are three tips.
1. Be willing to adjust.
A major challenge impacting employee retention that Jefferson dealt with was OG&E’s night-shift-only schedule for mechanics. “Since we don't have a lot of spare equipment, those assets need to be used during the day,” he said. “So, we would do most maintenance and repairs at night.”
But the constant night shift schedule did not work well with younger mechanics with young families, which caused many of them to quit.
“We found that the younger generation doesn’t like to work nights,” Jefferson said. “They like to be home at night with the family and kids and are not as tolerant of working night shift all the time.”
The adjustment? “That's when we started really looking at how we can plan repairs and maintenance during the day and start offering a rotating shift,” Jefferson said. “Now we have a day shift that's from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and an evening shift that's from 1 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. [Mechanics] work one shift for two weeks, and then they rotate, which seems to have worked very well for everyone.”
2. Invest time to understand what motivates your mechanics.
When it comes to motivating mechanics and keeping them happy, there's no one answer. “You've just got to take the time to learn what motivates your people. It's not easy,” Jefferson said. “Some people are motivated by money, some are motivated by time off, some are motivated by instant gratification.”
The last example – instant gratification – is particularly relevant when working with millennials. Jefferson said this means that supervisors should not wait until the month-end or year-end performance review to provide feedback; they should do it as close to the moment as possible.
“If a mechanic finds something that wasn't real obvious and does a great job fixing the problem, instead of waiting until the end of the month when you do their performance review, tell them as soon as possible, ‘Hey, you did a great job!’” Jefferson said.
3. Make effective communication a top priority.
“Assume nothing,” Collins advised. “Talk to your staff regularly. Let them know that you appreciate what they do and talk about things that need to be improved. Be sure to highlight the big picture of the business and how important their contribution is to the overall success of the organization. This gives them a greater sense of belonging as a valuable part of your team.”
Any way you look at it, your ability to attract and keep top talent hinges on your leadership. As Collins sums it up, “The best way to recruit and retain great employees is to lead them effectively. So, develop yourself, keep learning and never think that you know everything.”