Technology

Not Your Father's Mechanic

What keeps a public fleet manager on edge? It's not just volatile fuel costs and pressing environmental mandates. There's also the little matter of having a staff of mechanics who are up to speed on the technical expertise the job demands.
by | March 2006
 

What keeps a public fleet manager on edge? It's not just volatile fuel costs and pressing environmental mandates. There's also the little matter of having a staff of mechanics who are up to speed on the technical expertise the job demands.

A government fleet has to have mechanics ready to handle all kinds of repair and maintenance jobs for just about every kind of vehicle. It is rare to find a technician who has worked on all the equipment in a fleet--from police motorcycles, fire trucks and passenger sedans to street sweepers and earth movers out at construction sites. Moreover, given the ever-changing engine technology in the industry, today's technician needs to be as proficient with a computer as with a toolbox.

"Time was, even 25 years ago, that a fellow could stick his head under a hood and figure out what was going on in there," says Joseph H. O'Neill, executive director of the National Conference of State Fleet Administrators. "He could fix most of it with a somewhat basic set of tools and some advice from his friends and maybe his dad."

That's not the situation today. Cars don't break much and, when they run into trouble, they don't respond to some old-fashioned tweaking. "A mechanic needs some fairly complex electronic tools and training to understand what is happening under the hood," O'Neill says, "and high school isn't teaching kids that kind of math."

Fleet managers in Portland, Oregon, took matters into their own hands. Eight years ago, they realized they needed an intensive training program to build their workforce. Combining hands-on training with formal education through local community colleges, the city's training program for vehicle and equipment mechanics helps make technicians comfortable with nearly any problem that may arise at the city shop, says assistant city fleet manager Don Taylor.

Although Portland recently began its first recruitment effort for technicians in three years, it generally has not had to sound the hiring bell. Technicians who come to work at the city fleet tend to stay a long time. "In the time I've been here," says Taylor, who started with Portland as a mechanic 27 years ago, "I can count on one hand the number of technicians who've quit to take a position somewhere else."

Managers of public fleets also have to worry about competition from the private sector. Joseph Hopp, director of fleet operations in Aurora, Illinois, says the private sector always will be able to offer incentives that a public fleet operation can't match. Yet Hopp does not see the competitive threat as a negative. With maintenance operations a favorite target of the privatization crowd, fleet managers are always in search of ways to be more efficient, and that search taps into the technical expertise and knowledge of staff. And that, says Hopp, is all to the good. "If you don't have the risk of outsourced fleet services," he says, "you get lax about your operation."

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