While there have been many changes to the commercial vehicle maintenance and repair sector, one aspect has remained the same: dwindling technician numbers and shorthanded shops. Individual success have been found from Rush Enterprises improving retention through its technician skills competition, or automotive, collision, and diesel school WyoTech seeing greater enrollment numbers.
But even with the industry helping technicians towards success, the need for hands in the shop remains strong. WrenchWay, a company that connects vehicle technicians with shops—and generally promotes the profession—estimates that 642,000 technicians are needed between 2020 and 2024. Despite this, 41% of technicians leave the industry within their first two years of working.
So, what can individual shops do to retain their technicians while making a strong first impression when hiring new ones?
WrenchWay sought to answer that on a recent webinar called "7 Common Frustrations in the Industry & How to Improve Them."
Mark Wilson, co-founder and CEO of WrenchWay, who hosted the webinar, emphasized that one of the most important things a shop can do is truly prioritize its employees.
“Talk to your technicians,” Wilson said. “[Because] it's not an employer's market right now. And for technicians, that may never be again, unfortunately. Hopefully, we get there. But technicians have the power.”
Recognizing this shift in current maintenance employer-employee dynamics is critical. After all, if a technician isn’t happy in one shop, they know they’re spoiled for choice in other options. So, to retain a shop’s workforce, maintenance managers need to be knowledgeable about what factors may be enough to make an employee leave the shop floor.
With that in mind, here are some of the top frustrations technicians have in the industry and how to address them.
Lack of transparency with open jobs
The first issue that Wilson addressed during his talk was that of vague or inefficient job postings. In particular, postings that don’t specify the exact role needed nor provide a glimpse into the shop’s experience are immediate barriers to a technician’s application. No technician wants to apply for a job only to find themselves saddled with only the lower-paying warranty work, and this lack of pay specificity is a real detriment.
“If you're not posting at least a range of what you're paying, and there are 35 other companies within 20 miles of me that are hiring or maybe more, [I’m] probably going to scroll right by your job posting,” Wilson explained. “So, you at least have to post the range. It can't be such a wide range that you might as well not even [have] posted it at all.”
Especially when every posting on every online job board touts a great culture, training, and a family-run business, elements such as pay and shop individuality are what’s needed to convince a technician to apply to any one shop. This includes actively showing what makes a workplace unique, whether that’s through photos on the shop’s website, a social media post that depicts the lighting and equipment on the floor, or a testimonial from a current employee.
“Most people are going to click onto your website or your social media and see what else they can find out before they'll actually apply,” Wilson said. “So, if they're going there, you need and want to give them information that's going to help get them to apply.”
But when sharing these inside looks at a shop, Wilson emphasized, it’s important to be authentic. This doesn’t need to be a difficult task, however.
“We always say document, don't create,” Wilson explained. “Just get real-world stuff. If you have a company outing, take a few photos. If someone’s celebrating their 20-year anniversary and you brought in cake, have them talk about what they like [about your shop].”
Entry-level pay and tool expectations
Even beyond transparency in pay for open job postings, Wilson described how shops need to pay attention to their entry-level employees as well. While it’s expected that a new technician fresh out of school isn’t making the same as someone who’s been around for 20 years, what a new employee can expect from your shop is key to keeping them.
Anecdotally, Wilson described how a shop can lose a promising technician thanks to an unlivable wage.
“[A shop] had a student who had been there part-time for two years and was making less than if he could be a bagger at Walmart,” Wilson related. “There’s nothing wrong with working at Walmart. But if you're doing this, and if it really is a professional career, you should definitely be making more money than that.”
Sometimes, this means recognizing that what might have been a good entry-level wage in the late '90s is not going to cut it. Nor will assuming that a young technician only needs a job in your shop instead of a career.
“But number two [of key job indicators] for the younger [techs], especially, is ‘Is there a career path? Is that well-defined? Where am I going to be in five years? Where am I going to be at in 10 years?’” Wilson asked.
Ensuring that employees know not just who they’re working for, but what they’re working toward, shows that a shop is invested in its technicians and their success. This holds for tool expectations as well, which can be especially costly for a tech who’s just starting.
This investment can be expressed in several different ways, including providing starter tool kits for new hires or even assisting a student with their educational debt. But while this might make some fleets balk, it’s important not to confuse this aid with giving away money without a return.
“This isn't just charity,” Wilson added. “This is a perfect way to help lock people in, to stay three, four, or five years.”
Unpopular pay structures
While on the subject of technicians as financial investments, Wilson also addressed technician frustration with a traditional, flat-rate pay structure. Citing network research the company produced, Wilson revealed that only 15% of surveyed technicians stated that a flat rate was their ideal pay structure.
“The majority hate it,” Wilson asserted. “And I think they hate parts of it more than I think they hate all of it because traditionally, I think shops have used [flat-rate pay] to take advantage of technicians.”
As an example, Wilson described how it’s typical for a salesperson to be paid solely on commission, but it’s not a technician’s job to bring in new business. Instead, at least some sort of guarantee should be in place. But technician longevity isn’t the only aspect impacted by flat-rate pay.
“Another common example I had on here is about mentoring,” he stated. “There are shops that had poor reputations of not bringing along the next generation. Well, if it was [a] strictly flat rate, a lot of the older guys didn't want to spend time mentoring, because it meant they're not making as much money.”
This verdict is true for continuing technician education as well, where the high cost of attaining National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification can be a barrier. But shops can address this by offering raises per particular certification levels or hours spent mentoring, as long as they fully communicate their payment plans.
The important thing, Wilson stressed, is that shops need to make sure they’re honoring the value a technician provides. One WrenchWay client had a very specific way to do so.
“[The client] went through a roster and asked ‘If this person leaves, what would we pay to replace them?’” Wilson explained. “[For example,] ‘If this person is making $30 an hour right now, but if they left tomorrow and I had to hire someone new, I'd probably pay $40 or $35 because I know I need that person.’ Well, why aren't you paying that person now?”
All talk, no action
Finally, one of the most pervasive technician frustrations can be boiled down to a lack of trust, often on a variety of fronts within a single shop.
“We hear this all the time from shops,” the co-founder said. “‘Yes, this year, [it’s a] new year, 2023, this is the year we're going to do a good job recruiting technicians, we're going to care more about retention, we can't have people leaving.’ And it gets pushed aside and something else comes up. [Shops] don't make it a priority.”
Unfortunately, technicians experience this delay just as frequently. Whether it's promises to pay more for training or to purchase a piece of equipment, excuses can quickly grow stale when techs know their skills are in short supply.
Fighting this laissez-faire attitude can be done at numerous levels, whether that means maintenance managers ensure HR departments focus on technician retention or approach shop owners with the concerns of their techs. Either way, the people on the shop floor need to be as important as any other facet of the industry.
“Stop thinking, stop talking, and start doing,” Wilson asserted. “If you truly make [technician retention] a priority, you’ll start to see results.”