Benefits packages help public works departments attract and retain qualified fleet mechanics, even if public-sector wages run somewhat below the private sector, say fleet managers. Shortages of qualified mechanics appear to be a regional problem.
“Our hourly wage is a little lower than the private sector, but our benefits package is much better than the private sector,” said Dennis Albers, the fleet facility manager for the department of public works in Bismarck, N.D. Mechanics average $15 to $16 per hour in wages, and the city pays 100% of medical insurance for all mechanics. And, the city offers a pension plan.
“Plus we have intangibles,” said Albers. “We have a state-of-the-art shop; we buy all the mechanics' tools. Training is provided at our expense, and we require our mechanics to be ASE-certified.” (ASE refers to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, which tests and certifies mechanics.)
In Sioux Falls, S.D., fleet operations manager Jeff Weber had no problem finding two highly qualified mechanics in recent years. “When you combine our wages and benefits, our package is more competitive than the private sector,” said Weber. “We still offer a retirement program, which is a vanishing benefit in the private sector.” The city offers both a 457K plan, which is a municipal retirement savings program, and a pension program, in which employees are vested after five years.
The city employs 14 mechanics and six support personnel. Shop rates for mechanics' time bill at $65 to $68 per hour, and mechanics earn about $16 per hour in wages. Weber estimates that benefits push up the actual cost of employing a mechanic to double the hourly wage, or $32. Mechanics are union employees with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
When Sioux Falls last advertised for one mechanic's position, 35 people applied. “We interviewed about 10 of them, and of those 10, I could have hired any of the top five and been very satisfied,” said Weber. The winning applicant was ASE certified in both truck and automotive technology.
Until recently, the department of public works in Madison, Wis., had some difficulty hiring qualified mechanics because they could make more money working in a flat-rate shop in the private sector. Under a flat-rate system, a mechanic is paid for a certain number of hours to do a given task. But mechanics typically become proficient at their work, complete a task in less time than the flat rate, and earn more money per day than at a straight hourly rate.
“It's difficult to compete with that kind of pay structure when you have a mixed- fleet,” said Bill Vanden Brook, motor equipment superintendent with Madison's public works department. “You name a piece of equipment, and we've got it—from lawn mowers to trucks and backhoes.
“So we negotiated a new career ladder with the union,” said Vanden Brook. “Before, we had just two positions, an automotive mechanic's position and a master mechanic's position. A master mechanic had to retire or move away in order for anybody to advance to master mechanic.”
Under the new system, all mechanics are fleet technicians, and they can all move up the pay scale, said Vanden Brook. The new ladder, which became effective in December, calls for mechanics to receive raises of about 5% at the five- and 10-year threshold. But to get those raises, mechanics must obtain ASE and Emergency Vehicle Technician (EVT) certification.
“So I get trained, certified technicians, and I am paying them more than I did in the past,” said Vanden Brook. “And they don't have to obtain the ASE and the EVT certifications; I don't require them to do it. But the added two raises are incentives for them to get that formal training.”
Under Madison's former system, a mechanic “maxed out” his raises after taking five steps up in 42 months. The new system retains those five steps, plus adds two new steps based on the training. Moreover, the union mechanics get negotiated cost-of-living raises—and longevity raises— which also were part of the former system.
Vanden Brook is hopeful that the new pay ladder will solve his hiring problems caused by uncompetitive wages. “Now I can offer more money— and more training—over a longer time.”
— Daniel C. Brown is a freelance writer in Des Plaines, III.