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Shop culture’s impact on hiring and retention

May 22, 2024
Too few technicians, or too many not staying long enough? A focus on tools, training, and value-rich culture can shock those labor numbers back to life.

As of 2024, the technician shortage is still a pressing concern for the commercial vehicle repair industry—and shops struggling to staff bays are not alone. In the next three years, TechForce Foundation estimates that 795,000 new auto, diesel, collision, and aviation technicians are needed to support their industries.

While that’s lower than the organization’s previous estimate, this number represents a big problem due to another prevalent issue: tech retention.

“Our experience is that for every 10 technicians we hire, probably only one works out,” said Michael Schwarz, owner of Iron Buffalo Truck and Trailer Repair, in a webinar hosted by Fleet Maintenance-affiliated FleetOwner. He defined “working out” as staying with the company for more than six months.

To combat the issue of recruitment and retainment, Schwarz, along with Jay Goninen, co-founder and president of WrenchWay, and Stacy Conner, president and founder of Equipment Experts Inc., focused their discussion on how shop management can better attract and retain technicians. They all agreed that shops should focus on providing the right resources and training—along with instilling a strong culture—to find technicians that fit their organization.

“When that scan tool is not up to date, or maybe you haven’t got your hoists inspected, or you’re doing something that is putting [technicians] in an unsafe environment, that really reflects negatively on you as a shop and could be one of those factors that drives technicians away from you,” Goninen explained.

Backed up by feedback

Goninen referenced WrenchWay’s 2023 Voice of Technician Survey to discuss what shops should offer in their technician job offerings. In particular, he emphasized that diesel technicians are most interested in paid vacation, paid training, and proper equipment. According to the survey, 96% of responding diesel technicians ranked paid vacation as an important factor when looking for a job, 92% paid training, and 99% proper equipment.

While shops may feel that paid vacation and proper tools are too obvious to be solutions to the technician shortage, Goninen emphasized brushing up on basic elements such as safety and tools can make a huge difference in a technician’s experience with a shop.

Additionally, the co-founder said that shops need to be sure that their tool insurance is up to date and clearly communicated to their employees. Especially given that WrenchWay estimated technicians can spend as much as $60,000 on tools throughout their career.

And, of course, offering competitive pay can make or break a shop’s recruitment strategy, Goninen noted. WrenchWay’s survey found that 43% of responding technicians wanted hourly pay, and 41% wanted hourly pay with a production bonus.

“What I think this tells you is if you can mix that [flat rate] with some level of stability that comes with an hourly or hourly with productivity bonus, that you can really drive happiness among technicians,” Goninen concluded.

Training the technicians you need

But keeping a technician with competitive pay is only effective if you can find a qualified applicant in the first place, or in the case of Iron Buffalo, you can make your qualified applicants instead.

Schwarz discussed how Iron Buffalo partnered with a local high school that allowed students to train at a brand-new vocational training facility. The shop provided uniforms and helped inform the curriculum, and then could select the students with the most promise and interest as interns upon graduation.

Read more: How to keep techs engaged with training and initiatives

“We created a curriculum—these interns spend a year or two with us—and then we can convert them into full-time employees,” Schwarz said.

And to grow their internal training program, Iron Buffalo also hired a director of training to refine their curriculum and monitor their employees as they moved through the process.

“We now have a career path for someone with high school experience to get them from an apprentice all the way to an A-level tech in the industry,” Schwarz explained. “And we demonstrate to our technicians what that path looks like, the amount of time it’s going to take, and the level of dedication that it takes.”

To keep their interns and new technicians accountable, Iron Buffalo uses twice-annual reviews. Using benchmarks established by their director of training, who assesses each technician and meets with them regularly on their training goals, the shop grades employees on their aptitude, attitude, and willingness to embrace the curriculum. Their success then correlates to the raise they can earn during each of these cycles.

With this program, Schwarz claimed that they can take an apprentice tech and make them a top-producing employee in seven years—as long as they’re committed and willing to work, he noted.

Culture breeds commitment

While both Goninen and Schwarz emphasized the importance of shop culture in retaining technicians, Equipment Experts’ Conner discussed how her company leverages their culture throughout an employee’s working life.

Conner said that Equipment Experts focuses on six main values in their shop: safety, integrity, communication, accountability, alignment, and results. Once the shop committed to establishing and communicating these values, Conner claimed that since the shop focused more on culture and retained more employees who bought in to that culture, actual sales per tech increased 60%.

In particular, she stated that these values are used both during interviews and employee reviews, providing clarity for both the company and the technicians. During hiring, the shop’s values are front and center even more so than an applicant’s technical skills.

“Our hiring strategy has every one of our cultural values as a part of the questions that we go through,” Conner explained. “When we ask a question, such as ‘How do you display integrity?’ if they can’t come up with an answer in the initial interview, no matter their skill set, they don’t get to come on board.”

During the review process, technicians can engage in an open dialogue with the company on where improvements are needed and why. And if a technician isn’t performing to the same level as their coworkers, this is discussed during reviews, too, including the tools an employee needs to meet their personal goals.

“We talk about their personal, professional, and financial goals,” Conner said. “We will talk to them about what they want to do and where they want to go. It’s an open forum for them to communicate any issues or obstacles or problems that they have, and then they receive coaching from their leadership.”

This personalized guidance also allows Conner to offer individualized rewards when a technician is doing well. As an example, if she knows that an employee is renovating their home alongside putting in extra hours at the shop, she can send them a gift card to Home Depot, “and they know that I care enough about what they are personally doing that I want to see them thrive,” Conner explained.

This kind of culture has helped support Equipment Experts’ hiring practices, too, she noted, with the company relying not just on job boards and ads but on employee referrals to bring in new talent.

“We’ve got several pairs of wives and husbands that work here, and we had two sets of brothers and several partners that work together,” Conner explained. “They liked the environment so much they brought people on.”

With this focus on technician needs, training, and culture clarity, shop and fleet managers can use these tactics to keep their techs on the floor instead of out the door.

About the Author

Alex Keenan

Alex Keenan is an Associate Editor for Fleet Maintenance magazine. She has written on a variety of topics for the past several years and recently joined the transportation industry, reviewing content covering technician challenges and breaking industry news. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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