Tech Pay Rates And Training Go Hand In Hand

As today's truck shops become more technologically sophisticated, skilled mechanics and technicians are becoming increasingly scarce.

How does a fleet manager attract qualified technicians and retain their current staff? Merely increasing the size of the paychecks is not the entire answer. In addition, mechanics must have a sufficient supply of the latest tools - which can cost as much as $8,000 to $10,000 - and must receive ongoing training to help them perform efficiently and productively.

Competitive Compensation In a union shop, establishing the best overall pay rate is easy - it's determined during contract negotiations. In a non-union environment, however, the process requires detailed analysis and trade-offs. In addition, an adequate shift differential is critical to finding and retaining technicians for the shop's second and third work shifts.

Often, conflicting or undefined philosophies will be a barrier when setting an equitable pay rate for non-union staff. For example, the pay rate program at one large fleet was based on each employee's technical knowledge and experience. New management, however, believed the pay rate should reflect a technician's actual duties rather than his or her potential capabilities. Understandably, confusion has ensued as managers attempt to merge the two ideologies.

To avoid a similar situation, re-member that compensation plans should accomplish several goals. Most important is motivating and rewarding employees for contributing to the maintenance program's overall success. By providing opportunities for promotion and higher earnings, the plan also should prevent high turnover.

Technicians may be paid several ways. Straight hourly pay is the easiest to control personnel punch a clock and earn an agreed-upon overtime rate. However, many be-lieve this approach fails to reward hard-working technicians for their extra ef-forts and to foster a sense of teamwork. It also limits technicians' earning power and can encourage clock-watching.

Another method is an hourly rate plus incentives. Flat-rate pay has several advantages, including motivating technicians to work as quickly and efficiently as possible. This arrangement works well in fleet maintenance facilities that perform and bill for third-party work. Tack-ing incentives onto flat pay rates will provide even good employees with an added "push." Incentives also can help increase productivity and recognize individual or team efforts.

Sample Technician Rates A recent survey of repair shop managers revealed that nearly three out of four respondents offer paid training, and 57 percent provide pay increases for achieving Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. Average salaries (see table) vary based on a technician's experience.

At one fleet, managers said they believe their pay rate is competitive, if not higher. Because the fleet has union and non-union labor, rates vary by location but generally run $15 to $15.50 a hour for Class 1 mechanics, $13.50 to $14.50 a hour for Class 2 mechanics and $10 to $11 a hour for those in Class 3. It also pays an extra 25 cents a hour for those working a second shift. Class 3 personnel generally rise to Classes 2 and 1 by passing five or more ASE technician tests and an in-house, hands-on test. Another fleet is unionized in approximately 80 percent of its shops. Again, this company's pay rates vary by location but range from $17 to $17.50 a hour for a journeyman mechanic with an average 20-cents-per-hour shift differential. This employer adds 29 percent of the hourly wage for benefits.

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin trucking firm pays $9.50 a hour for entry-level mechanics, whom it hires from the local vocational school. Its lead mechanic or foreman receives a $26,000 annual starting salary and now earns $32,000. He averages 40 hours a week and works flex hours when needed.

In Michigan, another fleet manager uses a four-level pay scale based on the skills of his 22-person, non-union labor force. The plan involves setting targets and requirements, as well as personal reviews. The maintenance manager evaluates each mechanic to determine a pay level. The levels and hourly rates are: Level D - Trainee: $7; Level C - Apprentice: $8 to $10; Level B - Journeyman: $10 to $12; and Level A - Master Mechanic: $13 to $14, plus benefits.

Incite With Incentives Many fleet managers use perks and awards to encourage personnel to improve and remain. For example, shop workers can participate in fleet safety programs to win money, plaques and other rewards.

Under one plan's six-month-long incentive program, each mechanic's record must be free of:

* accidents or illnesses recordable by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA);

* preventable accidents while driving company vehicles;

*on-the-job traffic violations from federal, state or local authorities;

* citations for non-compliance with Department of Transportation regulations; and

* unauthorized absenteeism.

Each mechanic also must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) during designated times and areas. PPE includes head and hearing protection, safety glasses, goggles, face shields, safety shoes, aprons, gloves, respirators, dust masks, seat belts and other safety apparel. Any incident will disqualify the mechanic for that incentive period.

Individual awards for mechanics who qualify include a $50 U.S. savings bond for safe working behavior during a six-month period; an additional $100 bond for one year of safety; an additional $500 bond for five years of safety; and an additional $1,000 bond for 10 safe years.

Each year, this company also presents an Annual Maintenance Facil-ity Safety Award to the facility with the lowest incident rate for the previous year. Each mechanic who has worked a minimum of six months at that facility receives a $200 bond.

Meanwhile, one leasing company has established four levels for technician advancement. In a two-pronged progressive process, technicians attend classes, take certi-fication tests and are judged by their immediate superior on how well they apply the knowledge to their job.

The rewards for advancement are substantial. For example, Level 4 rates can be as much as 75 percent higher than entry rates in Level 1. Whenever technicians pass a certain stage, they receive a uniform patch and a certificate, which is then mounted on the wall. The company also strongly emphasizes external industry certification for specific skill levels.

Technicians are hired from several sources, including technical and maintenance shops. In many cases, technicians showing potential have been hired with little formal training.

Although night-time employees receive a higher pay rate, the company uses its educational programs as a guide when determining overall employee compensation. Tying education to compensation helps eliminate arguments over an individual's net worth and encourages and compensates for longevity.

Invest In Training No matter which pay program fleet managers choose, they still must budget for training. Opinions vary on the type, amount and most cost-effective training methods necessary. Still, all mechanics must be trained on technological advancements and federal, state and local Environ-mental Protection Agency and OSHA regulation compliance.

Despite this clear justification, some managers still are reluctant to establish a defined training program. In fact, some maintenance managers fear that, once they invest in training, a mechanic will leave for a job with a better shift or higher wages.

Another problem is finding technicians qualified for further training, which gets worse as mechanics' average ages increase. One manager also partially attributes this problem to trade schools that lag behind the latest advancements. For example, although most fleets have closed re-build shops due to improved product durability, better preventive maintenance/servicing and extended warranty policies, many trade schools still teach overhaul and major repair techniques rather than maintenance and minor repair procedures.

Finally, adding to a manager's worries is the high cost of tools necessary for a well-trained technician. These concerns all mean that managers must keep trainability and commitment in mind during the hiring process.

Because most refuse/recovery fleets include several types of vehicles and service equipment, mechanics must be trained in multiple areas. Each mechanic's specific needs will differ; some require substantial overall training, while others need light training in specific areas.

Some managers concentrate on areas where a mechanic is already adept. For example, if one technician is particularly good at brake work, targeted training would enhance those skills.

At one vocational fleet, training focuses on the individual mechanic; general training sessions include the entire shop. Each quarter, the company evaluates the need for mechanic training based on input from mechanics, drivers and driver trainers. The type of training necessary often is determined by changes in manufacturers' components or legislative proposals.

In addition, the company blends hands-on training with ASE testing. Mechanics each receive Mechanics' Classification and Testing Procedures, which establishes the minimum qualification standards for each classification of vehicle maintenance mechanic. Duties required for each class and ASE testing procedures also are explained. If the mechanic passes the test, the company pays the fees.

Reevaluate And Improve As the times change, so do the focus of training programs. For example, many fleets currently are training technicians on CFC recovery and recycling procedures in preparation for certification to service air conditioning systems.

Many fleets also are evaluating their "re-training" programs. One company, for example, has no re-qualification program and depends, instead, upon local training programs for new equipment. Updating this system is important because the fleet relies heavily on night-shift maintenance. The mechanics' familiarity with the equipment is a key factor in maintaining a high-quality maintenance record.

Fleets across the country also are examining their hiring processes. A formal evaluation helps determine the training new technicians and mechanics will need.

One way to prioritize necessary training is to review and benchmark maintenance costs and repair frequency to determine if the fleet's work force is as proficient as the average fleet's. Ranking the costs and frequency of repair for each component or system is key to this comparison.

In the long run, taking the time to evaluate mechanics' needs and future potential will help de-termine the appropriate compensation and training program for each fleet. As most managers will attest, the investment is well worth the time and money.

Although many waste fleets may be too small to invest in extensive training materials and equipment, they still can learn from larger fleets' programs.

At Southern California Edison, for example, mechanics receive training through a series of "modules" concentrating on key areas of vehicle maintenance and repair. The total hours of training reflect a 50/50 split between classroom study and hands-on work.

The modules cover three levels: serviceman (basic skills), mechanics and field training. Constant updating eliminates obsolete information and incorporates new technological developments. If a class changes significantly, it is re-offered to all mechanics. Classes necessary for certification are re-offered per ASE, state and other requirements.

Videos, overheads, handouts, manuals and actual test/diagnostic equipment are used whenever possible. A training trailer with fully functional mounted engines is used for field and in-house diesel classes. Other training materials include "cutaways" of engines, transmissions, brake drums, clutches and pump valves, as well as operational boards for hydraulic pumps, valves, cylinders, filter systems, ignition systems and air brake systems.

According to the company, this extensive training program offers substantial benefits, including in-creased productivity, improved employee safety, long-term savings, consistent and uniform repairs, in-creased equipment reliability and improved service quality. Training is conducted on the clock and a mechanic's time is charged to overhead.

Meanwhile, Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO) has established a training program that has increased quality and reportedly saved the company approximately $1.2 million in long-term costs. The fleet provides training on basic electrical and electrical systems, charging and starting batteries, preventative maintenance, hand tools, hydraulics, diesel engines, welding, suspension and steering. On average, the mechanics receive 50 to 55 hours of training yearly.

Technicians devote approximately 60 percent of their hours to learning theory in the classroom. The other 40 percent is hands-on training to gain experience in actual repair applications and trouble-shooting.

Because each NIPSCO mechanic handles approximately 31 pieces of equipment, the training procedures must cover a wide array of vehicle and equipment types. Students may learn from diesel engines on test stands, brake boards, electrical training boards, an operational cutaway truck chassis and cutaway components featuring valves, hydraulics, etc.

Developing the training program was a group effort, with input from mechanics and management alike. This approach not only enables employees to perform their jobs more efficiently, but also enhances their pride in their jobs and fosters team spirit throughout the organization, according to the fleet manager.

Today's shortage of technicians has perhaps the most important impact on wage rates. While the problem's severity varies by region and state, the shortage is a reality.

One fleet manager reported that he has been trying - unsuccessfully - to fill journeymen mechanic positions in Ohio and Michigan for the last eight months. Because his company offers attractive benefits and working conditions, he speculates that the problem may stem from the pay scale or the hours (evenings and weekends). However, an area survey has revealed that the company's pay is equal to or higher than those at the companies surveyed.

A possible explanation may be the recent difficulties experienced by secondary training programs across the country. For example, education and training of Ohio's next generation of heavy-duty truck technicians has suffered a major setback. In 1994, the Northwest Career Center in Columbus, Ohio, closed its diesel technician program due to a lack of students. When the number of students fell below the state minimum, funding was eliminated.

As a result, the Columbus school system is left with no vocational/ technical training programs for technicians. Meanwhile, instructors across the state have voiced concerns about their own programs' fates. Currently, several secondary school diesel tech programs are in jeopardy of losing their funding due to diminished enrollment. The Ohio Truck Maintenance Council board plans to aid public school systems in providing technical training for young adults.

Essentially, no training programs means no future employees for fleet managers. Thus, concerned managers should learn the condition of their local diesel vo-tech programs and seek ways to assist them.