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

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.

DeLong recommends focusing on the threat of lost knowledge instead of staffing shortages. However, even when managers recognize the problem, most don’t know what to do about it, he points out.

KNOWLEDGE-SAVING INITIATIVES

One organization that has been taking actions to address potential negative effects of the aging workforce is Florida Power & Light Company (FPL), the largest electric utility in Florida. Several years ago it began some initiatives in four key areas:

  • Workforce planning. FPL established a formal workplace planning function to improve the capability to analyze and forecast resource needs.
  • Talent management. It implemented formalized succession planning across the organization, developed a formal talent assessment process and enhanced its performance management process.
  • Knowledge transfer. Efforts were made to formalize knowledge transfer to supplement and enhance existing informal methods.
  • College partnerships. FPL partners with high schools, trade schools and colleges.

EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT AND RETENTION

FPL employs various programs to aid in the development and retention of its highly-skilled employees and to ensure that it has the requisite talent to meet operational goals.

One program is an employee information system that captures key information on career interests, educational background and internal and external experience, among other criteria.

The program includes an annual manager assessment where each employee’s potential is evaluated, competencies are assessed and an overall talent rating is assigned. Employees may be identified as “high potential” for development and succession planning purposes, and as “critical” or “high risk” from a retention standpoint.

The program provides a key mechanism for identifying talent and resource inventory gaps and retention risks, whether from an aging workforce or other reasons, and for developing plans to ensure that training and knowledge transfer plans or retention vehicles are put in place.

Florida Power & Light’s training programs, which include a corporate university, assist with effectively coaching and developing employees and with providing sufficient development opportunities. The leadership curriculum within the university includes formal training in the selection process, performance coaching, driving performance management, managing individual- and team-performance, and overall leadership development.

REWARDS PROGRAMS

A comprehensive total rewards package, including competitive salary and benefits, incentive compensation and development opportunities has enabled FPL to attract, retain and engage employees and has facilitated efforts to mitigate the risks of an aging workforce.

The utility also uses formal retention programs to assist with retaining highly-skilled employees deemed “critical” or “high risk.” These awards are structured to require continued employment for a designated period of time.

Additionally, FPL has an annual process for identifying and retaining key talent. It also performs a comprehensive benchmarking analysis of its pay rates to determine “position to market” for all employees and to maintain a competitive wage and benefits package.

KNOWLEDGE RETENTION

Various means, both formal and informal, are used by FPL to ensure the capture of knowledge from retiring personnel for retrieval when needed. These methods include:

  • Mentoring and coaching.
  • Documentation.
  • Knowledge transfer checklists.
  • Cross-training.
  • Interviewing/surveying.
  • Job rotations.
  • Job shadowing.

FORMAL SUCCESSION PLANNING

There is a formal succession planning program in place at FPL to fill key leadership positions and other positions identified as “critical.” The objectives of the program are to:

  • Identify employees with the potential to assume greater responsibilities of key positions.
  • Make sure there is the creation of development experiences required for success.
  • Engage leaders in supporting the development of potential successors.

An explicit succession planning template is used to identify position requirements, potential candidates and development needs and plans. Formal meetings are held at least annually to complete and/or update the templates and to formulate associated development plans.

Another best practice Florida Power & Light devised is to conduct a study to determine the average age of its employees and when they would be eligible for retirement.

It then began proactively taking the necessary actions to effectively prepare for the eventualities.

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