February 12, 2016 3:59 PM, EST
Retaining Techs a Top Dealer Issue
Rush Truck Centers
This story appears in the Feb. 8 print edition of Equipment & Maintenance Update, a supplement to Transport Topics.

SAN ANTONIO — Finding talented diesel technicians these days requires the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes, while keeping them on the ranch is a challenge worthy of the greatest cowboy, truck dealer executives say.

Even as new truck sales soften, dealers continue to experience a critical shortage of qualified technicians. As a result, dealerships are working harder at keeping a handle on turnover.

Retaining technicians is one of the reasons that many of the 120 Rush Truck Centers shops feature “radiant,” or heated, floors in cold climates and air-conditioned work areas in warm climates, said W.M. “Rusty” Rush, chairman and CEO of Rush Enterprises.

BEST OF FEBRUARY E&MU: More stories, columns

It’s about finding out what the company’s more than 2,400 techs need to do their job and then figuring out how to get it to them, Rush said at a company event here.

“We’ve invested a whole lot more in the last 12 months in training, developing and understanding the technicians,” Rush said. “We’re requiring our service managers and general managers to touch these people more often, making sure that they’re communicating with them constantly.”

Rush calls his company’s techs “the heartbeat of our dealerships.”

Mike Besson, Rush’s managing vice president of service operations, added, “As long you’re taking care of your people, they’re not going to leave you. . . . You’ve got to do something that makes you different. If we don’t do anything different than anybody else, why wrench for us?”

Rush plans to set up a mentor program this year teaming younger, less experienced techs with those who have many years under their belts. The plan calls for evaluating how good a job each of the mentors does, Besson said.

Robert Braswell, technical director of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, said the challenge of recruiting and retaining mechanics is a “two-pronged problem” facing anyone who operates a truck maintenance shop.

“It is an industrywide issue,” Braswell told Transport Topics. “Increasing pay is a possible inducement to stay or switch, but this is not always an option for many operations.”

“Some fleets are reacting to the situation by offering more flexible hours, such as a 12-hour, three-day workweek or a four-day, 10-hour workweek,” Braswell said. “Others are providing tool credits for their techs who are expected to buy their own tools.”

The retention problem is so pronounced that TMC is devoting a special educational session on the subject at its upcoming annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, on Feb. 29-March 3.

TMC said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects there will be a nearly 10% increase in the need for heavy-truck service and diesel engine technicians over the next eight years.

“Smart operations are already implementing programs designed not only to attract new technicians to our industry but also do a better job of training and keeping those technicians once they’ve come onboard,” TMC said in a program for the meeting.

At Kenworth of Louisiana, a dealer in Gray, Louisiana, techs are offered incentive pay, and the owners are investing heavily in training, Vice President Jodie Teuton said.

“Everybody’s trying to get creative,” Teuton told Equipment & Maintenance Update.

Six of the 20 national master techs certified by Kenworth Truck Co. work at KW of Louisiana, which has six dealerships in the state, said Mark Kasserman, the company’s marketing director.

“We work hard to grow from within, especially if there’s an individual 40 [years old], or so, who might have a son who is showing some interest in becoming a technician,” said Scott McCandless, owner of McCandless Truck Centers in Colorado.

When the company recruits young techs, it offers to provide a starter toolbox that can be purchased by the tech with a payback plan.

McCandless said that working on brakes and clutches is a back-breaking job, a fact that’s hard to convey to high school or college students who express interest in being truck technicians.

“I recently gave a talk at the Indiana School of Business to the entrepreneur class because I was the truck dealer of the year for the Association of Truck Dealers,” McCandless said. “They were interested in hearing about the tech shortage, but I asked them how many of them had changed the oil in their own cars. Not one of them raised their hand.”

Other factors are involved in retaining mechanics, McCandless said. His dealers try to hire techs who have family near the job so they don’t leave after being trained to get a position closer to a parent, spouse or other relative.

Since productivity is so critical to a dealer’s bottom line, and to motor carriers that want their trucks back on the road in minimum time, McCandless said his dealers allow techs who are fast workers to be paid on a commission, rather than strictly by hours worked or salary.

McCandless said other truck dealers are not the only places trying to poach experienced techs. Municipal governments are looking for top-notch mechanics for their trucks. “So we make them understand we have one heck of a benefit package that is very competitive, McCandless said.

Chad Remp, operations manager at Wheeling (West Virginia) Truck Center, said his dealership is having to bump up the pay to hire and keep techs due to competition from energy companies.

“We’re having to deal with that more because some companies with the oil and gas industry are moving into our area, which pay rather handsomely,” Remp said.

Wheeling Truck Center also is attempting to keep its people by improving their work environment, he said. “We’ve had the shop floor resurfaced and put in some extensive lighting projects. We’re trying to do our best to make the work environment as comfortable and clean as possible to help keep employees here and keep them happy,” he said.

Like many dealers, Remp said his company is reaching out to high schools to find students who are potential techs and “have a good attitude.”

“We’re willing to take the time to train people,” he said. “It’s difficult to find people who are completely trained and ready to hop into the job. We’re a little more patient and willing to train.”