Keeping the Techs on Top

Service departments these days are slammed with repair orders from cautious consumers repairing equipment for what might be the last year of its life. It’s a demanding time for the service department and dealers are relying heavily on their technicians—when they can find the right ones for the job.

As the industry consolidates and the economy leaves people from all areas looking for work, there are plenty of people out there interested in being a small engine technician. The problem is that there is a shortage of qualified individuals to do the work required of a technician as equipment technology continues to evolve.

Focusing on raising the level of competency in technicians along with their compensation will keep service departments staffed and meeting today’s demands.

Assessing the shortage

Industry members have long noted the shortage of people interested in small engine repair. Now, with the poor economy still playing a role and leaving people without work, individuals looking for gainful employment are giving more thought to turning a wrench. On top of that, there is also the consolidation of dealerships in some territories resulting in technicians already within the industry looking for work.

“There has been a little bit of a downturn in the need for technicians because of the economy,” says Jim Roche, executive director for the Equipment & Engine Training Council (EETC). “Overall, I think the need is going to get even lower. When we first started the EETC in 1997, there was a shortage of 30,000 technicians in the U.S. That has lessened a bit now with the recession because a lot of dealers have closed their doors, but there is still a need for qualified guys.”

The problem is that with new technology, the industry needs more than a “wrench turner”. With service department demands increasing, the industry needs highly skilled small engine technicians.

“With the higher technology we are putting out there, technicians need to know so much more to work on equipment,” says Scott Mack, senior training specialist at Kohler. “We need to know that technicians can do the job. With more complex engines, we need to know they understand what they are doing so we can satisfy our end-user customers as well.”

Encouraging technician certification is now even more of a focus for dealers and manufacturers who don’t want to rely on the know-how of new entrants to the field. While the number of people interested in the profession continues to increase, the number of skilled technicians remains the same—and it’s a small pool to pick from.

“The shortage of qualified technicians is still very much there,” agrees Bruce Radcliff, Briggs & Stratton’s director of customer education. “Although there has been much effort, I don’t think it’s much different today than it was five years ago as far as the number of quality technicians.

Raising competency

As manufacturers push to raise competency in technicians, they have started by making training and certification more easily attainable. Technology has afforded many dealers and technicians the ability to stay up-to-date with testing and certification easily and affordably.

Briggs & Stratton has embraced technology as a means to communicate with and educate technicians. Their website provides online training and competency testing for dealers to gauge their technicians’ abilities. They see that the value is in certification and not necessarily the face time provided by attending update schools.

“Our site is growing every day with a series of competency tests for anyone who wants to be a Briggs & Stratton certified dealer,” explains Radcliff. “The requirement used to be that technicians attend a school. We are moving from them attending with a warm body and a pulse to competency-based. We care less about how they gain the competency and more about if they can prove it.”

Updating tests with the changing industry demands is also important. Briggs & Stratton continuously evaluates test content based on testing scores.

“Each month we add new questions and modify questions that might be a little shaky,” says Radcliff. “We draw a report on the most commonly missed questions, and then look carefully at the question to make sure it’s not worded poorly, or change our training based on what testing shows us is a commonly unknown answer.”

Hosting online teaching and testing can also be a selling point for dealers who fear technicians attending update schools will be approached by other dealers in search of a qualified tech.

“Dealers are sending as few people as possible, and many times they themselves are the ones that are certified,” says Mack. “They fear that their technicians are going to move around from dealer to dealer, and the dealer wants to keep that certification. The problem is that the dealer isn’t always the one working on the machine. Dealers as well as technicians need to see the value in the certification.”

Despite their fears, it is important that dealers understand the importance of keeping their technicians certified and treating them as lifelong learners of the trade. The dealer push for certification is a great help to the industry’s overall efforts.

Attracting and retaining younger technicians

For dealers, attracting the right technicians and keeping them can make or break the service department. What attracts technicians to a dealership is changing as the tech pool ages. Dealers are also getting better at recognizing what it is that technicians are looking for in an employer—and how to provide it.

“Dealers have changed and become professional businessmen who know how to hire the right guy and provide the right benefits and pay,” explains Roche. “The technician’s benefit is that he is going to be working for a more professional boss who is going to know what he needs. Why would a technician go to a dealership? It has to have something he needs.”

Technicians are looking for many of the same things they always have: insurance, a 401K, good pay and all the other things that add to their quality of life. But as the age of technicians changes, so do their needs and desires.

“As we move through the generations, the dealers who are progressive understand what is meaningful to the technician that may not be meaningful to the owner,” says Radcliff. “It could be vacation time, health care or any number of things. Some younger employees would value vacation time more than an additional 25 cents an hour.”

These benefits are a great way to attract techs, but some dealers are having trouble meeting these desires as sales have slowed for most.

“Dealers are stuck right now. It is difficult for the dealer to charge more so he can pay better in the service department because he has competition too,” says Mack. “Until the industry picks up, they can’t charge more and get away with it.”

Being progressive as dealers and flexible about compensation will help dealers greatly in the pursuit of the right tech for their shop. Additionally, technicians also want to be in an environment that provides ongoing education and a culture that encourages input. Having a technician who is more vested in the dealership’s success is to the dealer’s benefit.

“Those technicians who are now coming out of the schools are feeling like they are trained professionals—and they want to be viewed that way,” says Roche. “As that permeates we are seeing dealerships improve as well. Technicians and dealerships are together becoming more professional and efficient in the way they do things.”