The Search is On for Quality Technicians
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.”
The school, then, has worked with partners in various industries to help students gain appropriate knowledge. Industry contacts work with the school’s faculty and career and employment center on both curriculum and internship opportunities. And White encourages anyone with skilled labor holes to fill to look for a chance to do the same.
“With the skilled labor gap, the partnerships between industry and higher education become more crucial,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to overcome this shortage.”
On His Radar
Collins has this on his radar. He serves on the diesel advisory board of a nearby community college. He’s aiming to host a career day, and to hopefully set up an apprenticeship program. A summer internship already is in place at Fairfax Water, so there is precedent. Along the way, the department also is working with management and human resources to develop current technicians for advancement opportunities, reviewing job descriptions and adjusting as necessary. Current technicians are maintaining notebooks of details that might answer questions for future staff.
One of the challenges for utility fleets, Collins said, is that “you have to be so well-versed in so many areas.” It helps to have someone with a basic skill set – but technicians also must be willing to branch out with less-than-familiar equipment or systems.
“I think you’ve got to find the right fit, from the time they come in the door,” he said. And once they’re in, they may need additional incentive to stay, since the market is so competitive. Benefits at Fairfax Water include health, dental and vision insurance, retirement, federal holidays, annual leave and income stability. There also are in-house training opportunities and a generous education reimbursement plan.
“We’re great for people who want to find a home, a career, and be there for a long time,” Collins said.
Workers are encouraged to take training courses during the day if possible, rather than in their time off at night.
“We start early,” Collins said. “And when they have to go to school at night, after a long day of work, they’re not going to learn then. Coming in the next morning will be tough. We try to make it easy for them.”
“Easy” is not typically the word that comes to mind with recruiting and retaining quality technicians. But Collins, like many, is keeping one eye on today’s staff – and the other watching for tomorrow’s.
“We’ve been discussing this for some time,” he said.
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.
It’s one thing to maintain a small staff of technicians; it’s another to maintain 165 in 42 garage locations.
At Southern California Edison (SCE), the hiring strategy is to recruit high-caliber talent, which has led to “success, stability and less turnover,” said Robert Ruiz, principal manager, fleet operation and maintenance, transportation services.
So, how does that happen, while so many other organizations are facing challenges in recruiting and retaining quality employees?
- SCE seeks out employees who have a good work ethic, in addition to strong diagnostic skills, the ability to work well with others, and a willingness to learn beyond what they already know and to work safely.
- The majority of SCE’s newly hired technicians come from local auto dealerships and independent shops, Ruiz said. “We also try to recruit from local community colleges and trade schools.”
- SCE promotes from within. In addition, compensation includes health benefits, an inclusive work environment and compressed work schedules that candidates find appealing.
- SCE uses job employment websites and social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Glassdoor and LinkedIn to reach candidates, and recently launched the SCE Talent Network at www.edisoncareers.com to help “track and nurture” prospective workers, Ruiz said.
In addition, Ruiz said, SCE offers wages and incentives that often are superior to those offered by other local companies in Southern California. Respect, he said, is one of the foundational values of the company, and it extends to all employees.