Do you have a plan to deal with technician brain drain?

Advice on how vehicle maintenance shops can address the challenges from an increasing age profile of technicians.


There are a number of powerful forces impacting the fleet maintenance industry. One is the radical changes occurring to the structure and function of the labor market. A second is the increasing age profile of technicians. Another key influence shaping the technician workplace is a younger generation that is smaller, so fewer workers are entering the workforce. Then there is the effect of the increasing complexity of knowledge and skill needed for vehicle maintenance and repair.

There is much concern about the widespread technician shortage and the inability to fill jobs, as there is a larger number of jobs available than people to fill the positions. There is also anxiety about replacing a lot of highly skilled technicians who are hitting retirement age with much less experienced ones.

It is already very difficult to get young people interested in a career in vehicle maintenance and repair. Many high schools have cut automotive courses.

Years ago, children grew up tinkering with cars. Today’s kids grow up playing computers and video games instead and are drawn to professions in those fields.

What’s more, there are misconceptions about the vehicle maintenance and repair profession and industry. It is not well understood just how much things have changed and gone high tech. Computers, electronics and technology are now as important a repair tool as a set of socket wrenches.

Nor is there the realization that career opportunities go farther than just turning wrenches in a shop, or that in a world of job uncertainty, vehicle repair and maintenance remains a career largely impervious to being outsourced abroad.

Additionally, today’s younger workers are entering the workplace with different sets of values and expectations. That presents new challenges for technician recruiting and retention.

LOSS OF KNOW-HOW

The dramatic changes occurring within the workforce are causing trouble for all organizations, especially for businesses like vehicle repair and maintenance operations that depend on highly trained and experienced professionals, writes David W. DeLong in his book, Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce.

DeLong is a research fellow at the MIT AgeLab. Based within MIT’s School of Engineering’s Engineering Systems Division, the AgeLab was created to invent new ideas and creatively translate technologies into practical solutions that improve people’s health and enable them to live, work and play throughout their lifespan.

A lot of know-how is walking out the door, he notes. Not only are the most experienced technicians leaving, but they are taking with them new types of expertise and knowledge that didn’t exist a generation ago. Senior and master technicians don’t just read troubleshooting data off a computer screen. They use their education and experience to interpret clues and pinpoint the problem.

To emphasize the impact on productivity and losing that know-how, DeLong, in his book, relates an incident on a radar assembly line at Texas Instruments. A technician that made control boards took early retirement and immediately parts coming off the line began failing quality assurance. The reason for this remained mysterious, even after the company brought in a team of engineering consultants to pinpoint the problem.

Finally, with the assembly line down, managers brought back the retired technician. She quickly diagnosed the problem as faculty documentation of an assembly procedure. The veteran technician had always ignored the incorrect instructions because she knew how to produce a control board that worked.

Before the knowledge was recovered, the operation lost more than $200,000 in sales revenue and almost lost its next contract with a major customer, relates DeLong.

What has been described as the looming brain drain (a situation in which large numbers of very skilled people leave) will likely become dire as advances in technology continue to result in more knowledge-intensive work.

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