Trouble Finding Techs? There's No Place Like Home - Workforce
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SECTION: Workforce

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Trouble Finding Techs? There's No Place Like Home

Written By Mary Sedor

Article Date: 10-01-2007
Copyright (C) 2007 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.

Equipment dealers who work with their local technical and high schools have an easier time recruiting, retaining and "growing their own" technicians.

In Greek mythology, the mortal Sisyphus was condemned to an afterlife eternity of ceaseless and fruitless labor – remember the story? In an endless cycle of agony, he was made to roll a heavy boulder up a hill, only to have it plunge down to the starting point where he began the task over again. 

 Is it possible that equipment dealers are feeling his pain after more than a decade of battling crisis-level shortages in the skilled technician workforce? Hard work coupled with the frustration of not seeing the desired results has become one of the construction equipment industry's biggest blights – the seemingly interminable task to locate and retain high caliber technicians is still an ever-present challenge.

To compound matters, U.S. companies will face the loss of millions of workers in the next 10 years – thanks to retiring baby boomers. 

"For us the reality is that in 10 years we're looking at retirements in big numbers with existing staff," said Sharon Cerny, vice president of human resources for Wisconsin Lift Truck in Brookfield, Wis. "If we don't have the next generation in place, we'll be in serious trouble." 

Dealers must find solutions to attract technicians into the workforce and retain in them in their dealerships, and poaching techs from neighboring dealers is not the answer. Where will this innovative strategy come from? The answer might be in your own backyard.

The Tech Next Door
It's not a new story, but it is a true story: equipment dealers who develop relationships with their local technical and high schools fare better in the quest to find technicians. Not only do they eliminate recruitment difficulties, but they are able to "grow their own" technicians in every sense – even into management positions. 

"We have developed a working relationship with over 100 dealers throughout the state of Missouri and beyond," said George Stanek, who chairs the heavy equipment technology, medium/heavy duty truck technology and Caterpillar service technician department at Linn State Technical College. Linn State, in Linn, Mo., is one of The AED Foundation's 19 accredited technical schools, which means it has met rigorous ongoing curriculum and programming standards. 

Stanek says dealers have been involved in a variety of ways, including donating equipment and components, funding scholarships and sponsorships, and aiding recruitment efforts both on and off campus. 

Dealers also help the school by hosting internship programs for the students, which typically involves a school-to-work rotation in which students attend school for eight weeks, followed immediately by eight weeks of intern work at the dealership. 

Another way dealers participate is to actually travel with the school's recruiters out to high schools. Linn State also invites prospective high school students to its "Must See LSTC" program held on a Saturday each fall. A number of dealers come out and help with this program, talking to students and their parents about the benefits of a technician career. 

"It's much more meaningful to the parents to hear it first hand from the dealer," said Stanek. "The dealers that help us have a head's up over their counterparts and can look over the crop of students. Kids remember that they came out to talk to them, and will remember them later on when it's time to find work." 

But the key is for dealers to participate. 

"We need dealers to be aggressive and tell us their needs," said Stanek. "We can establish relationships and get something working between us if they only let us know. We need dealers who can work as a good liaison between us (the school) and the manufacturer in securing the latest information we need to make our program successful." 

Pat Meyer, a second-year Linn State student, recently completed his internship with Sydenstricker Implement, a John Deere dealership in Columbia, Mo. Meyer's family owns a farm and he grew up working on tractors.

Sydenstricker happens to be the dealership that Meyer's family uses to service their tractors. Meyer said their service stuck in his mind when it came time for his internship. The family agreed to demo a combine and when it wouldn't work, the dealership sent out four technicians to get it running – on a Sunday. 

"I was really impressed because they were trying to keep us happy and they gave us good service," he said. "I realized that was a company I would want to work for." 

He says it would really be helpful if dealers did more to help their technical schools – donating equipment, tools and supplies would go a long way in making positive impressions. 

"Dealers need to get the word out that they are looking for more people," said Meyer. "They need to come down and talk to students and sponsor some of the things the school does."

Management in Waiting
Patten Industries, a Cat dealer in Elmhurst, Ill., was able to not only find and retain technicians, but their technicians also serve as "built-in" management potential. Larry O'Neill, a former executive for Patten Industries, worked for Patten for 33 years and was responsible for spearheading the company's school-to-work initiatives. 

"When I took over the service area, I began a five-year forecast – we decided we needed approximately 90 technicians, and we had approximately 60 people approaching an age of 58," said O'Neill. 

The company typically would get its techs from the armed forces and hadn't really done anything about hiring or recruiting for about 15 years, he said.  

"We realized we weren't going to continually get people out of the armed forces and that we needed to ‘grow our own' technicians," said O'Neill. 

In addition to entering a partnership with AED to support Gage Park High School in Chicago, O'Neill worked with Caterpillar to develop a technical curriculum at Illinois Central Community College (ICC) in East Peoria. Plus, Patten worked with the Technology Center of DuPage, a magnet school with a technical program fed by 31 different high schools in the Chicago area. 

As a result of their efforts, Patten saw anywhere from 8 to 18 students heading for the ICC program each year, and for the two or three years prior to O'Neill's exit, he didn't have to do any recruiting. 

"The amount of training and exposure they get in the technician program equates to about 8 to 10 years of training at a Cat dealership," said O'Neill. "We found it was to our advantage to have techs do the bulk of training before they came into the workforce." 

Patten developed a management training program called Flagship. It covers all the soft skills, financial skills and other necessary training needed for employees to move into management positions. Technicians often went through the program, and in fact, one of the first graduates of the program went on to become a service manager. 

"It's a great opportunity," said O'Neill. "You want to have a career path laid out for them. It doesn't only include going into the technician field. Certain individuals want to further their careers and you want to make sure you have the vehicle for it."  

O'Neill believes so strongly in the system that he is in the process of implementing a similar program in his current position as president and CEO of Equipment Depot of Illinois, a material handling dealership.

Recruiting Leads to Recognition
At Stowers Machinery, a Cat dealer in Knoxville, Tenn., 85 percent of its managers were technicians at one time.

They've found that starting recruiting in the high schools has been a tremendous help – so much so that recruiting isn't really a problem any more. 

Raellen Simpson, organizational development coordinator, joined Stowers about two years ago when the company realized its need for technicians demanded a full-time recruiter. Since then, the company
has grown exponentially, adding 150 new employees.

The first thing Simpson did when she started her job was to create a database of all her area high schools. She spent weeks gathering contact and program information on all 112 schools, which are also broken down by county and territory. Each school was sent packets of information about the dealership, replete with flyers, brochures and even company pens. 

"Now it's paid off so much because I have a database and it's easy to send correspondence," she said. 

Simpson has worked hard to build relationships with her area high schools and guidance counselors, so now if a student wants to go to a technical college or right to work, the counselor is more apt to steer them in Stowers' direction. She also goes into the high schools and gives presentations, answers questions and talks to students. In turn, students also tour Stowers' facility. The latest group was 80 strong.

"People don't quite understand what we do," she said. "They think they'll come here and run our equipment but that's not what we do. So a lot of it is just growing an awareness about our company." 

An added benefit Simpson is now discovering is loyalty. When she goes into the high schools and brings hats and pens, students remember.

Western States Equipment, a Cat dealer in Boise, Idaho, also has a similar recruiting program. Angela Robinson, vice president of human resources, says they also have a list of their local area high schools and they visit on a regular basis as well. This is the second year of active recruiting and they are starting to "create a name" for themselves. 

But there have been important lessons for the dealership learned along the way. A surprising side effect of the recruitment program was the realization that marketing to kids has its own special requirements. Robinson said they quickly learned that they needed to tweak their messages to students – traditional "packaging" was not effective with the younger generation. 

"They need messages that are ‘flashy and cool,'" she said. 

Western States worked with one of their local high schools to revise their message to young people. But in the process they also learned that, above all else, there is one key person to whom they must appeal: Mom.
"We focus on key messages, like ‘being a technician is a career you have for life,' and ‘construction is a core part of the U.S.'," she said. "What we've decided is we can't rely on schools to push interest in the field," she said.

What Really Works
O'Neill says it took them about five months and 20 percent of his time to set up the program at Patten. 

One of the intangible benefits of working with technical schools is the knowledge transfer that occurs  between the young and more seasoned technicians. The seasoned veterans can show the students their shortcuts, while the young students teach the experienced vets how to use the computer. 

"It's a win-win situation," said O'Neill. 

Dealers considering branching out to their local schools should keep an open mind and forge ahead. O'Neill advises dealers to: 

  • Support your local schools. Give your time and donate equipment. 
  • Start recruiting in the high schools. Don't oversell it and make sure parents understand the career opportunities. 
  • Ensure instructors are of the highest quality because they will be working with young kids who will more than likely be away from home for the first time. 
  • Create a panel to interview prospective students to determine which students will make the best technicians. 
  • Make sure you fully understand the educational aspects including federal funding and state regulations and that you allow the instructors to fully understand your business.
  • Create a mentor program. Choose individuals to serve as mentors for your incoming technicians. 
  • Lay out a career path for your technicians. 
  • Encourage the transfer of knowledge between your young and veteran technicians.
Roadblocks to Expect
O'Neill advises dealers not to get discouraged as there will always be challenges. 

Before Wisconsin Lift Truck saw benefits to working with their local tech schools, they had to get their employees on board. 

"We had to get our service managers and shop foremen on board with the idea," said Cerny. "They had concerns about having too many apprentices in the shop and supervising them. We had to balance their concerns because they were real concerns." 

Cerny also admits they didn't spend enough time coming up with a program that would ensure the technicians' success without stepping on the other technicians' toes. Consequently, the students became floor sweepers and parts runners instead of true apprentices. 

Their solution was to create an orientation program that can take up to two years. Today, new techs aren't just in the shop – they job-shadow someone in every role of the service department, plus they have benchmarks to achieve and specific items to check off. 

Beware, too, of yet another common roadblock: not maintaining the program. 

"The biggest problem in this industry is that we tend to come in and out rather than staying in," said Robinson. "When times are good we build relationships, and when times are bad we walk away. The effort must be ongoing. You have to be talking to the community because you'll need them now and in a few years."  

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