The commercial vehicle repair sector, particularly independent shops, have long struggled to recruit and retain technicians. The good news is that because these shops are truly independent, they are not beholden to the oppressive bleak labor statistics plaguing shops. They can blaze their own trails to talented technicians, ones who will want to stay longer than a couple months, as long they maintain a strong company culture and partner with educational institutions. This was the advice provided on a recent webinar by Fullbay, a shop-management software provider, titled How to Hire and Retain Techs in Economic Uncertainty.
Fullbay's COO Chris O’Brien was joined by Jay Goninen, co-founder and president of WrenchWay, a company that promotes technical careers and connects prospective techs with schools.
To begin Fullbay’s discussion on why this may be, the company polled the event’s attendees and found almost unanimous agreement that commercial repair has a public perception problem.
“But what we haven’t addressed is we’ve really turned our back to [the shortage] for a few decades now,” Goninen said. “What we need is a little bit more of people working together and being able to see that this isn’t just a one-shop issue.”
Indeed, changing the face of the commercial vehicle industry is not a one-person job, nor are the benefits of changing the industry’s recruiting and retention efforts at large limited to any one shop. To assuage the technician shortage, shops must update their recruitment strategies, invest in educational programs, and support the techs they currently have.
Updating recruitment practices
According to Fullbay, the vast majority of technicians in the labor market (75%) aren’t actively looking for another position. However, that doesn’t mean they’re unavailable to hire, either.
“There's an opportunity there,” stated Goninen. “They're not looking for a job, but they'd be willing to listen should something come across to them. So, being able to build a brand where it shows you having fun [is critical].”
Although it may seem frivolous to say shops need to showcase their company culture when looking for new hires, it is a necessary step to changing technician recruitment in an environment where employees must be earned.
“I think one of the major issues we've got is being able to take a step back and look at how we compare to other industries and other shops, and really, truly being able to see why we are unique as a shop, what's different about us,” explained Goninen. “And it can't be free uniforms. It can't be that we're a family-based business. It can't be those almost redundant things that every single other business is saying in a job ad on their websites. You've got to know why you're different to that prospective employee.”
This element of individuality is part of the effort to change the overall perception of technical jobs. As O’Brien described, technical work used to be thought of as a backup role, the last resort if a student didn’t go to college, and not one that parents might approve of.
See also: Changing the way we hire technicians
“But the reality is that these are highly skilled, technical jobs,” O’Brien said. In a role where complex diagnostics are ever-more important to the shop, the outdated notion of technicians as simple ‘grease-monkeys’ needs to be amended. This can be done through shops honing their unique culture.
Luckily, developing a shop’s company culture and displaying it to prospective employees has never been easier.
“I mean, this is the digital era,” O’Brien insisted. “If you're not on social [media], you're not taking advantage. This is how we're connecting.”
Reaching potential clients and employees online is certainly something Goninen believes shops need to improve upon. But doing so cannot only be an effort made when a position needs to be filled.
“You should use a rule of thumb of ten-to-one,” Goninen instructed. “Make 10 different types of posts to your hiring post in relation to driving the brand of your shop to technicians. You need to really think of it as growing an audience, growing a pipeline of people that know who you are and think that you're a pretty cool place to work because that's how you're going to change the perception of who you are.”
Investing in education
There’s more that shops can do to change their public portrayal than just harnessing social media and online job boards. Concrete action for those in the community, and especially for local technical and vocational institutes, can also have a direct impact on recruitment.
“We, as an industry, need to get better at building these programs and helping these schools out,” Goninen said. “Otherwise, we're at risk of losing them altogether.”
Once again, aiding the first line of recruitment for young technicians can’t be a task that rises to the surface when shops need to fill a position. It needs to be a constant practice for shops to offer to help recruit students from high schools, get training aids to secondary programs, and provide speakers to up-and-coming tech classes.
“Get truly involved with that school, build relationships,” Goninen elaborated. “So you actually know the people that are in those schools, both at the high school and post-secondary level, because that's going to help you become a favorite of that school.”
Once shops find themselves the darlings of their local tech institute, they’re likely to find graduates to be steered their way before other shops come calling, helping both their recruitment and ensuring a steady stream of students from that school.
Supporting current technicians
Even with various strategies to support schools and hire new technicians, shops must still surmount the damning statistic that 42% of techs leave the field after two years. And doing so may mean changing long-held practices within shops themselves.
“What we're seeing is when we do get [technicians] in the door, they go through their training, they go through a tech school, they come in and work in our shops, and they leave,” Goninen said. “And it's because we don't have good mentorship programs.”
The labor shortage puts a novel amount of pressure on both new and old techs in the shop, which may lead to short tempers and even shorter tenures. For newer technicians fresh from their programs, the expectations thrust upon them without mentorship and support from the shop can lead to their departure.
O’Brien discussed how he met a shop owner in Mexico who was training a 19-year-old girl on bodywork. Even when she made mistakes, the owner was always patient and complimentary, providing her with positive reinforcement, because he knew that he would have the tech he needs at the end of four to six months.
Even for more experienced techs, a little appreciation and support gives them the impetus to stay in a shop they might otherwise have left.
“A lot of these guys just want to know that they did a great job,” O’Brien explained. “Even if it was just doing the eight hours that was normal, a ‘thank-you’ or a high five for putting in a normal 40 goes a long way.”
Of course, it never hurts to provide more than a kind word to keep a technician on the shop floor. O’Brien and Goninen both agreed that compensation and a clean working environment also had their place in employee retention. Such attention to each employee and the shop they spend their days in shows respect and valuation. And treating technicians with dignity as developing individuals is one of the premier ways to keep a tech on the floor.
“Don't underestimate the pathway for advancement and growth,” Goninen warned. “Be able to communicate that, to understand what the goals and aspirations of the people on your team are, and help them get there.”