Avoid a “Brain Drain”

IN MY MANY TRAVELS over the years supporting the vehicle service industry, I have always been surprised to see a high number of older workers—many with more than 30 years of experience—still directly involved in service and maintenance. I also found that many of them had a great amount of knowledge and wisdom to share in both formal interviews and informal conversations.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics 2005 study, more than 25 percent of the workforce was expected to reach retirement age by 2010. “Gen-Xers” to fill in the gaps are much smaller in number.

Further, the largest portion of the male workforce among automotive service personnel is between ages 40-49, meaning many will retire in the next 10-15 years while many others are preparing to retire sooner. A study by the International Automotive Technician Network showed that 22 percent of technicians expected to be retired or working in another industry within five years. A Motor Age study showed this number at 37 percent.

Sadly though, this industry—like many others—does a poor job of capturing intellectual capital before these older workers retire. In a cross-industry survey of 500 workers conducted by Accenture, nearly half of older workers said their organizations have no formal plans in place to capture their knowledge when they retire. And about one-quarter said they expect to retire without transferring any knowledge at all. A study conducted by Boston-based Novations Group showed that only about one-third of 2,900 HR managers felt “confident” they have enough talent in place to keep their businesses vibrant as their aging baby boomers depart.

On the other side of the equation, many of today’s older technicians do not wish to retire in the traditional manner. Due to rising health care costs, escalating fuel prices and uncertainty about Social Security and some 401k plans, a growing number of retirement-age workers are looking at either “semi-retirement” or continuing full-time work in a less back-breaking field. Smart fleet operators will retain such workers a little longer to pass on their accumulated knowledge and skills.

I mentioned in the last issue that there are numerous opportunities to transition your higher-level and/or most experienced technicians into your fleet’s trainers. Particularly in core skills areas, a growing number of training providers offer courseware and materials for reasonable licensing fees and will provide train-the-trainer services. This is an excellent way to provide a career path option for your top technicians and a means to retain the expertise of workers who might otherwise leave.

Not all technicians have the capacity to become trainers, but for those that do there are courses available in presentation skills and instructional techniques that can compliment technical know-how.

Still, many older workers are set on retiring when it is time and/or taking on the challenge of a new job. In these cases, there are still ways to capture that person’s expertise before they leave:

  • Cross-generational work teams—pairing older workers with newer ones to share and discuss service jobs can go a long way toward improving speed-to-competency among young technicians.
  • Mentoring communities—for larger fleets with many locations, online forums where experienced technicians can interact with less experienced ones is a great way to capture and store knowledge.
  • Use of audio-visual technology—with video-to-computer transfer technology now cheaper and easier to use, set up interviews with older workers several months before they retire and record them.

Dr. Barry Spiker, senior fellow at the Center for Aging and Community, cites a favorite quote from Microsoft founder Bill Gates: “Here is a company, Microsoft, with a market cap around $275 billion,” he says. (Gates) says that if he lost his 15 top software engineers, there would be no Microsoft. Now, divide $275 billion by 15. That is where we get into the true value of an older worker.” 1

Fleet operators need to ask themselves: “What would it cost me to replace the accumulated knowledge of my most experienced technicians if they left tomorrow?”

Then, start planning for that eventuality today.

1 “The Benefits of an Aging Workforce.” By the Sagamore Institute, May 13, 2006.
Other Sources: Aging Workforce News; HR.blr.com; Rich White at www.doityourself.com.

Stephen Howe is employed by United Rentals, the largest equipment rental company in the world, with nearly 700 branches in North America.

Stephen is also a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC), a global, non-profit organization of over 60 member companies dedicated to recognizing training excellence and raising training standards in the automotive, heavy vehicle and related industries.