It’s every shop owner’s worst nightmare. You get to work and no techs show up. They’ve all taken jobs in another industry, where their starting wage is higher and they got a four-figure signing bonus and generous moving allowance.
It happens. A lot
“B.C. is losing work force to the north and east like crazy,” says Leslie Simpson, of Simpson Auto in Chilliwack, B.C. “One tech told us he's getting $35 to start a job servicing fire equipment – something he knows nothing about,” she says. Others are going to the oil sands where salaries are impressive and work is plentiful.
There’s gold in them-there hills!
She knows of three technicians who recently picked up and moved to Sparwood, B.C. where mining operations are paying top dollar.
“Now I know what the pioneers felt like when the rumour of ‘gold in them there hills’ tempted them!” she says. But like other shop owners who face that threat, she believes the best defense is a strong offense. Treat your employees well and they’ll be less likely to be lured away by the promise of big money elsewhere.
“I talk to my guys regularly,” says Mike Bealer, owner of Caliber Automotive in Edmonton, Alta. “I keep the lines of communication open. If there’s an issue like that, I need to know about it. If they’re thinking of moving on, I need to know what’s the reason and what can I do about that.”
Not easy to replace technicians
So far, he says, no one’s every indicated they want to make $150,000 in nearby Fort McMurray, the destination of many fortune-seekers in the area. “If somebody wanted to up and leave, it would definitely be challenging for me. It’s not easy to replace good technicians.”
Earl Reimer, owner of Renfrew Auto Service in Calgary, Alta. has learned that preventing that kind of catastrophe starts with hiring people who wouldn’t be tempted to move away.
“You’ve got two kinds of people,” he says. “There are those who are willing to go north like that, and there are those who are settled in right here, with family and homes.”
Todd Eskow, owner of Computerized AutoPro in Edmonton, Alta. agrees.
“Families make a huge difference,” he says. “The young single guys? Who knows. But once you have a family, with kids, and a home, you’re far less likely to move far away even for bigger bucks.”
What does all that cash cost?
“This is a huge issue in Alberta,” says Garth Doupe, a Canadian Tire technician in Vegreville, Alta. He knows several good techs who moved to the oil patch, because it pays three times what they were making… and that was just the starting wage.
“What the poachers don't say, however, is what all that cash costs: long hours and reduced family time,” he says.
In Nova Scotia, the big lure comes from a recently announced ship building contract worth $25 billion over the next 20 years.
Timothy Flemming of Harrietsfield Auto Service in Halifax, N.S. says Irving Shipbuilding is bringing in workers from all over Canada. In his neck of the woods, it has turned more than a few heads among automotive technicians.
The temptation to move to greener fields
“I know several people looking into trading in their spark plug sockets and filter wrenches for a course in welding or pipefitting,” he says. “You'd have to work pretty hard in this field to match the wages they're offering in shipbuilding or oil rigging.”
Jed Palmater of Fredericton Import Auto Specialist knows the value of keeping his employees happy before they even start to be tempted to move to greener fields.
“If my guys are looking around for work they aren't much good to my shop,” he says. “Bonus dollars, a fair salary, and a pleasant working environment are all they ask for. And that's all I would ever expect myself.”
“We were blindsided when one of our technicians was lured away, with little notice, into the welding industry,” says Bev Kaltenbruner, of Harold’s Auto Service in Lethbridge, Alta. “Since then we found and lost two great technicians – one to the oil patch and one back to the land of flat rate at a dealership.”
She says cash is not the only incentive other industries are able to throw at technicians.
“Many of them are lured by jobs in which they spend much of their time driving from wellhead to wellhead to service diesel engines powering the oil pumping process,” she say. “This can be very attractive for a technician tired of leaning over engine compartments and working with their hands over their heads.”
Her three-point plan for keeping good workers is pretty simple:
1.Make sure you not only talk to your staff, but listen, listen, listen – and then honor their concerns.
2.Remove unnecessary stresses and streamline operations so your technicians can concentrate on the job at hand, not on paperwork, answering the phones, or chasing parts.
3.Keep fully updated with the latest equipment technicians need to properly service today’s technically advanced vehicles.
“Respect your staff and they’ll respect you,” she says.
It’s a tough lesson to learn.
Sean O'Gorman, of Glenn’s Small Car Parts and Repairs in Courtenay, B.C., says he lost his entire crew in the 80s, when another employer offered them more than he could match.
“Since that time I’ve taken a hard look at how I treat and compensate staff,” he says. “I got rid of flat rate and I now pay some of the best wages in the area. I allow flex time. I pay whatever benefits the employees’ want, and I try to make the atmosphere a nice one to work in."
Cyril Barry, of Westside Auto Repairs in Maple Ridge, B.C. learned the same lesson the hard way. He lost a top-performing technician when a recruiter propositioned him at a training courses to find new employees.
“He bit on the ‘greener grass’ on the other side of the fence, fell for the false promises and left my employ after I’d trained him and paid to get him certified in all aspects of our trade,” he says. “It sucks, but it also taught me a hard learned lesson. It's difficult in any ma-and-pa business to match the big boys. All you can do is try to offer up something that cannot be matched by the big boys.”
He has recognized the power of perks such as flexible scheduling, weekends off, unique incentives, and team-building outings away from the shop.
What’s conducive to family life
Clara Hooper of Buny’s n’ Bugs Auto Repair in Chilliwack, B.C., says the oil industry has been recruiting welders in her area.
“I don't think you can keep employees that are looking for the huge bucks,” she says. “However most employees know that job stability and good family living is not on offer in the oil industry.”
If your lead tech leaves, he was obviously not as happy as you thought he was, she says. “Most people with good jobs will not relocate all of a sudden unless there are things under the surface already brewing.”
“If you are looking after your technician properly and are understanding of their needs and plans, then you won't usually have this problem,” says Harley Daresi of Dave’s Auto Truck Bike in Milton, Ont. “However if the technician is looking to get out of the trade for whatever reason, there’s almost nothing you can do to stop them. And if he jumps ship, you can only wonder if you missed the signals that he was unhappy or unsatisfied.”
It’s not just about money
Sid Spencer of Active Green + Ross in Ajax, Ont. believes employees need attention every day that they’re on the job.
“It comes back to several overlooked things such as job satisfaction, being appreciated, giving them access to cutting edge technology, benefits… the list goes on and on. You can't expect someone to perform for you if you don't care about them.”
“Very few jump ship just because of money,” says Bill McLennan, of Remington Park Motors in Surrey, B.C. “They jump because of perceived lack of respect, poor working conditions, demanding work hours, poor shop equipment, the kind of cars they’re being forced to work on, and lack of training.”
“Flexible hours and work schedules help a lot. Make sure you are open to new ideas in equipment and diagnostics. Listen to your employees before making decisions. Don't just dictate,” he says. “To survive in this business it can't be ‘us versus them.’ If you foster a team atmosphere where employees are happy, high wages usually won’t entice them to leave.”
Tom Hines, a technician at Fountain Tire Richmond, in Vancouver, B.C., confirms that the culture of a shop plays a big part in a technician’s decision to stay.
Make your techs feel important
“The bottom line here is that if you’re paid fairly, you like where you work, and your shop manager makes you feel needed, you won’t go,” he says. “We all have families and feelings. Most of us want our shops to do well and we want to enjoy our time at work. The shops out there that are doing well are the ones where the tech and management feel like family to one another. Make your employees feel like they’re part of the business, pay them a fair wage, and treat them like family, and they will stay.”
Michael Smith, a journeyman auto technician in Montreal agrees. “If shop managers want to hold on to the talent in their shops, they have many ways to do that,” he says. “The most powerful is simply to make them feel important.”
Smith is used to getting enticing offers of work in other parts of the country.
“As a technician, I have a LinkedIn account,” he says, “and I’ve received many emails and phone calls from recruiters in the automotive industry. A year ago most contacts were from Alberta. These days they’re mainly from Ontario.”
Typically, they’re looking to fill a number of positions, sometimes 20 or more, he says, and they pull out all the stops to fill them – including offers of high salaries, a generous signing bonus, and moving allowance.
“I think most technicians leave because they view the new job as a better opportunity. They’re either promised status, advancement, or some prestigious title that they think is unachievable in their current job,” he says.
You have to look at techs as important parts of your business, says Doupe.
“Make sure that the other staff (and customers) see them as highly skilled professionals, and not the ‘dirty mechanic.’ That respect is worth a lot. We need to feel valued.”
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