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Finders, Keepers

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It ain’t the money, honey. While competitive pay is an important part of recruiting and retaining automotive technicians, intangibles like employer honesty and respect will keep these valuable employees around for years. And the best thing about that: It doesn’t have to cost a dime.

“Honesty is at the top of my list,” says Phillip Davis, a former technician who is now production manager for Sports and Imports Inc. of Duluth, Ga. “My employer has to be an honest and good person. It has to be an enjoyable work place. If there’s no reason to leave, we won’t leave.”

For shop owners, Davis is a dream employee. He’s an ASE-certified master technician and an I-CAR Gold Class professional. And perhaps most enviable of all, he’s been with Sports and Imports—and owner Gene Hamilton—for 16 years. The key to recruiting and retaining employees like Davis, say industry experts and human resource gurus, isn’t only to throw money at them. It’s simple things like offering praise and gratitude for a job well done. And for the generation coming out of training programs right now, known as The Millennials, this kind of positive reinforcement isn’t negotiable. It’s expected. So for all the Baby Boomer bosses out there baffled by the expectations of the younger set, put on your happy face. You’re gonna need it.

WHO’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT?

A 2007 survey conducted by the I-CAR Education Foundation quantified what many in the industry have known for years: There aren’t enough automotive technicians to fill the jobs, and the problem is getting worse. The average age of automotive technicians increased from 35.5 in 1995 to 38.7 in 2007. More than 25 percent of technicians changed jobs in the year preceding the survey, and 11.1 percent (21,500 technicians) left the trade altogether, up from 9.1 percent in 2004.

“[Techs] know they’re employable,” says John Putzier, President of FirStep Inc., an automotive industry consultancy in Prospect, Pa. “The demand is greater than the supply. They’re loyal to a profession, not an employer. The more effective you are as a manager and business owner, that’ll raise your game. These people don’t have to put up with your crap. They’re in the driver’s seat, and that’s just the way it is.”

Recruiting and retaining automotive technicians means making yourself a competitive employer with a solid reputation in the industry.
“These guys talk and hang out with each other,” Putzier says. “They know the good places to work and the bad. You want to be an employer of choice. Then you’re in the driver’s seat.”

Below, we detail specific ways to become a top shop choice for techs. Some suggestions are short-term and even instantaneous; others are longer-term investments. The good news: Many are simply common sense human resource strategies that bear repeating. The bottom line: Winning over top techs is more often about having an open mind than an open pocketbook.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The number one reason employees give for leaving a job? The work environment. The immediate relationship with the boss is paramount. “It’s like a marriage,” Putzier says. “The shine wears off. You wake up with morning breath, and you’ve left the toilet seat up.”

Maintaining a high level of trust and respect between managers and employees can smooth the way for a longer-lasting relationship. Putzier and other industry experts offer specific suggestions for building and maintaining a trusting, respectful environment in your shop.

1. Have several one-on-one meetings with technicians, especially when they’re newly hired. “You should be doing a performance review on a regular basis, even every month,” says Rick Jazwin, vice president of industry development for Universal Technical Institute Inc., a technical education provider with campuses around the country.

2. Catch your technicians doing something right, and praise them for it. “Shop owners are problem-solvers,” Putzier says. “If all they’re looking for are problems, they spend 99 percent of their time catching people doing something wrong.”

3. Keep your word, says John McEntire, owner of McEntire’s Body Shop Supplies in Camden, N.Y. McEntire visits more than 60 auto body shops every week and talks with technicians about why they leave shops. “Commitments are critical. If someone promises you something and doesn’t follow through, the second time they promise you something, you’re not going to trust them.”

5. Trust your technicians with some decision-making power. “The second leading cause of small business fatality is the inability to delegate,” says Putzier, noting that many body shop owners have a hard time letting go of control, and they tend to micromanage. “Not only will it kill you, but it can’t be done. Customers aren’t satisfied, employees are frustrated, the bottom line suffers.”

WORKING FOR THE MAN EVERYDAY

Of course, pay and working conditions are important. The numbers show that a career as an automotive technician is a relatively good blue-collar option in terms of compensation. The I-CAR survey reports that the average technician salary in 2007 was more than $51,000, up 13 percent over three years. Average income among the top 10 percent of earners was more than $88,000. Compare those numbers with other traditional blue-collar careers like carpenters, who earn an average of less than $35,000, or heavy truck drivers, who make only an average of less than $32,000, and becoming a tech looks pretty lucrative.

However, in this tight tech labor market, offering great pay may still not be enough. Industry experts suggest compensation packages that reward loyalty.

6. Give one-time bonuses instead of nominal pay raises. Consider giving a 3 percent raise to someone earning $50,000. That $1,500 spread out over a year’s worth of checks may go nearly unnoticed, Putzier says. But paid out as a year-end bonus, that single check will likely leave a lasting impression—and could be an even greater value for the employee.

7. Create a “trust” fund—an account that grows over time and rewards employee loyalty. Putzier recommends education funds to pay for further training. “You’re rewarding retention because they can’t use it if they leave,” Putzier says. “Maybe you put in $20 a month. As it builds, the employee looks at that and realizes, ‘If I leave, I lose that.’”

8. Provide a comprehensive benefits package. The percentage of shops offering paid time off, health care, retirement plans and life insurance dropped slightly in 2007, according to the I-CAR survey.

9. Create a tool purchase program. Davis estimates he has spent somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000 on tools throughout the course of his career. He notes that many young technicians know their career choice requires a major investment in tools, and that, on top of paying off student loans for training programs, the first few years in the workforce feel pretty pinched.

10. Allow for more flexible work hours. Hamilton lets his technicians come in at six in the morning and leave by three, so they miss Atlanta’s infamous rush hour traffic. “They beat traffic and they’re not mad when they get here,” Hamilton says. “The neat thing is, they get to go to their kids’ Little League games and have a family life.”

TALKIN’ ’BOUT MY GENERATION

Alternately called Generation Y or The Millennials, these young professionals can be the bane of an older supervisor’s existence. Self-absorbed, lazy, resistant to authority and ungrateful are some of the labels often used to describe this huge generation of Americans—80 million of them—born between 1980 and 1995. They were reared on positive reinforcement, such as winning Little League trophies just for showing up, says Christi Gibson, executive director for Recognition Professionals International, a nonprofit association of employers that studies ways to enhance employee engagement through recognition. To Baby Boomer bosses, who were raised by Depression-era parents to be grateful just to have a job, Millennials can be frustrating subordinates. Here’s how to deal with the young people just emerging from tech school:

11. Accept the fact that they’re not scared of you. “Don’t look to motivate Generation Y using fear,” says Jazwin, noting that many older people worked from a basis of fear of being fired if the boss didn’t like their work. Young people are impervious to this kind of fear, especially technicians who know they’re in high demand.

12. Train them. “This is a generation that wants to work, but [they also] want training and mentoring,” Jazwin says. They might not want to become president or foreman, but they do want mobility within their chosen profession, and that means further education.

13. Recognize them. “The single biggest mistake in employing Generation Y is lack of recognition,” emphasizes Jazwin. Think gift cards, handwritten notes in the paycheck and verbal praise, Gibson recommends. “You have to be creative,” she says.

14. Get to know them personally. “I remember when women always got a brooch and men always got a tie tack,” says Putzier, recalling the days of old-fashioned employee recognition programs. “You have to know what your employees value.”

Talk wealth building, not retirement planning. “[Younger workers] think retirement is so far away it doesn’t exist,” says Carlos Lowenberg Jr., CEO of the Austin, Texas-based Lowenberg Group, a compensation and investment consultancy that works with the automotive industry.

16. Give your technicians time off. “Free time is a big deal to younger people,” says Lowenberg, whose own staff enjoys 32 paid days off per year, including holidays. “We have a generous vacation schedule, but I give them the responsibility of, ‘This doesn’t work unless you train so-and-so.’ It fosters cross-training and cooperation.” Lowenberg says he gets better job performance because of the arrangement.

17. Feed them. Food is a great way to have some fun at work, Putzier says. “Everyone has to eat lunch anyway, so go out and fire up the grill, and have a barbeque.” These are good times to get to know your employees on a more personal basis. Lowenberg makes sure there are plenty of good snacks available in a comfortable break room for his employees.

18. Include a technician’s family in your re­cognition efforts, too, especially their spouse. “Get her a facial or a massage,” Putzier says. “You’ll help make the technician a hero at home.”

19. Have fun at work. For instance, create recognition programs that foster friendly competition, Putzier says, like rewarding the person who has the most billable hours. No need for pricey prizes—a simple certificate or an inexpensive gift card for the nearby coffee shop will do.

20. Be honest. “What matters to a Gen Yer is truth,” Jazwin says. “They respect the salary and they want it, but they want clear job expectations.” Without trust between employees and management, he says, many young workers will leave.

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