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You Knew it was Going to Happen

Since the inflation fight in the late ’70s and ’80s that caused an update to the business model used in the construction equipment distribution channel, we have been busy working in our businesses. Through various business cycles we have prevailed, and we are still here. That seems to be the accomplishment of which we are most proud.

During this same period, we flexed our workforce in the service department, we added technicians and we let technicians go. We were slow to hire because the management did not want to have to lay people off. Yet we did hire people and then laid those same people off. 

This staff adjustment came to a peak during the pandemic. Now we are desperately trying to get back to having the same number of technicians working at dealerships as there were in 2019. Guess what? There aren’t any technicians out there who are available. Everyone is working. If you find a technician today who does not have a job, you have to be really careful because that just should not be the case. We are at full employment for technicians in our industry. You had to know this was going to happen eventually.

What I think you don’t know is that we caused this to happen. Yes. You and I caused this to happen. As an industry, we have done some things that we should have thought about a bit more. For instance, in the 1990s most major original equipment manufacturers discontinued their management training programs. Similarly, most industry associations cut back drastically on the training they offered. In some cases, they were going to withdraw altogether. But it is more troublesome than that. 

In the 1970s and before, most larger dealers had regular apprenticeship programs. These programs, for the most part, stopped prior to 1980. We used to operate with helpers. In most cases, a helper was shared between two technicians. That way the experienced technicians could leverage their skills and time by having nontechnical work done by the helper. Guess what? We killed that program as well.

In 2016 The AED Foundation commissioned a study with the College of William & Mary titled “The Equipment Industry Technician Shortage.” It was a meaningful study with a wide range of recommendations and suggestions. It’s not as if we have not known this was happening in the world around us. It has been true for more than five decades. Yes, that’s right, I said five decades. It has been an issue as long as I have worked in this industry. But what have we done? What are we doing about it? I see a lot of hands thrown up in the air.

Don’t you think it’s time to take some action? 
Let’s start with the basics:

1. Start recruiting people in high school. Get to know every guidance counselor in every high school in your trade area. Go visit with them. Share your concerns with them. Go to job fairs at the schools. Be visible in your community. Get involved with your local trade schools and vocational schools. Make components available to them to use in their schools. Make tooling and training materials available to them as well. I went so far as to offer to teach a class or two in each course in every technical school. I wanted to get an idea of who the better students were in each class.  

2. Hire interested students when they are in high school and have them work with you on a part-time basis – evenings and Saturday mornings. Give them the usual starting places. See how they fit in with your team. What are their work habits? Do they use time effectively? Are they personable? This can be a terrific starting point for many young men and women who don’t have any idea about what they want to do for a living or a career.

3. Work with your OEM to get their training offerings to be higher in priority. 

4. Have lesser-skilled mechanics, new hires, or apprentices work on used equipment or component rebuilds under strong supervision. 

5. Create a manpower model to determine where you stand with the number of technicians. What is an acceptable overtime ratio of total hours worked? Remember that you charge 150% (typically) of your straight-time published labor rate for overtime. If you log 27 hours of overtime a week, for all technicians, that is the same as one additional technician being in your employ. 

6. You need to look at your dealership and see what level of overtime is acceptable from a customer service perspective. How long will a customer tolerate waiting for the work on their machine to start? If you have eight technicians with one supervisor, and they each work one hour more a day per week, that is the same as having another full-time technician. Too many people in service management use overtime to pay their technicians more money. That should never be true.

7. What are the demographics of your current technical work force? Over 60 years of age, between 50 and 60 years old, between 40 and 50, etc.? This should provide you with some facts upon which you will be able to act.

These are seven easy things to do. You have the time to do all of them. If you don’t have time, then I suggest you make some. This is not a problem that is going to get better. If all you do is continue to do what you have always done, you will fail. You know what Einstein called that, don’t you? Insanity.       
The time is now.

Ron Slee is the managing director of Learning Without Scars, an internet-based training business (www.learningwithoutscars.com). Learning Without Scars continues the legacy of Quest Learning Centers, which trained over 10,000 people by providing job function assessments and subject-specific classes for parts, service, product support, selling and marketing.

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