“We always think there’s gonna be more time,” Dr. Jenner said at the end of the first season of The Walking Dead.
He is standing in his office, looking over the darkened main floor of the CDC in the early days of the apocalypse. The lights around him begin switching off as the CDC’s generator powers down, representing the hastening end of the civilization the characters knew.
I don’t mean to start off what should be an examination of flex scheduling in the diesel world as a total downer. But Dr. J’s words were the first ones I thought of when this assignment landed on my desk. My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to examine the notion that diesel techs aren’t interested in just money anymore.
Don’t get me wrong—wages are a huge deal, and you should be paying your techs what they’re worth, full stop—but mechanics are starting to look at things beyond pay. Things like time.
People want to work to live, not live to work. That’s true in almost every industry you look at. By and large, most of us already spend more time “at work,” whether we’re wrenching or writing, than we do with our families.
And time—well, time is the one thing we can’t make more of. We can only do our best with the time that is given to us.
(Zombies and a vague Lord of the Rings reference? I’m on fire.)
So you have a group—diesel technicians—who, thanks to a dwindling supply, are becoming more valuable by the day. Many have seen an appropriate increase in wages. But they’re realizing that all the money in the world can’t take the place of the hours they’d rather spend with their families, or fishing, or whatever outside of work.
Flexible hours, once seen as something only open to jobs in Silicon Valley or the self-employed, now look way more appealing. And shop owners, hoping to keep their existing talent and attract new faces, are slowly responding.
WHAT THE PANDEMIC WROUGHT
I do think the pandemic had something to do with this shift. Whether it directly impacted you or not, millions of people were abruptly reminded that they only have so much time, and were prompted to take a hard look at their lives and think about what was really important to them.
This includes the diesel tech.
Theirs is a role that is absolutely critical to life as we know it. Without them, we don’t have functioning trucks, farming equipment, construction machinery…without them, the supply chain collapses. And as the equipment they work on becomes more sophisticated, they broaden their technical skills—but it’s also a job that still demands a lot from the body. You’re lifting, wrenching, bending, getting your fingers jammed—it’s hard work.
So it’s not really a surprise to learn that maybe techs don’t actually want to live in the bay.
But are shop owners paying attention? How can we as an industry move forward, providing our techs (and other employees!) with the kind of jobs they want while still providing the outstanding work necessary to keep our machinery running?
We knew we needed some additional perspective on this article, so we turned to two awesome people who are deeply passionate about helping shops and techs: Aaron Picozzi, President of American Diesel Training Centers; and Jay Goninen, Co-Founder and President of WrenchWay.
As we talked, we came to the conclusion that the industry does seem to understand that certain things need to change. Many shop owners are not against flexible hours and other benefits; they often stop short of offering them because they aren’t sure how to implement them.
Before jumping into this further, let’s make one thing clear: the remote craze that has swept across many workplaces is quite obviously not really feasible for the diesel tech. They need to be in the bay making repairs. So by and large, that perk is off the table. But shops can start figuring in things like flex time and other benefits and set themselves up to attract a wider pool of talent—and retain that talent over time.
THE TECH SHORTAGE: YOU GOTTA APPEAL TO PEOPLE
Let’s acknowledge the role of the tech shortage in somewhat improving the lot of the diesel tech. Because techs are retiring from the field faster than they can be replaced, those who remain have more bargaining power. They are, for the first time, in a position where they can ask for more than just $XYZ in wages.
Enter time. They want time to go to the doctor, to take a long lunch, to go to their kid’s sporting event. Shop owners probably understand this on a human level, but are not entirely sure how to position the business to accommodate them.
The big fear around providing more flexible schedules tends to center on structure. It’s the same in every industry: the work still needs to get done. How can you set up a schedule that allows techs flexibility, but also ensures the units in the bay are still worked on?
It starts with listening to your existing staff: “You have to dig in and understand, understand what people value, and make it work,” Aaron says.
That’s why your first step should be sitting down with your team and discussing flexibility and what they want—and laying out what’s possible. Ultimately, that can guide you toward a plan that a) suits your staff and b) allows the work to get done.
If you’re wincing at the thought of putting together a flexible schedule, consider the idea that you don’t need a blanket policy. Yes, blanket policies are easier to implement. It’s one and done: everyone works 6 days a week, 9-7, end of story. But let’s say your techs are only required to work four days a week, but they can pick what days they want. One tech works Monday through Thursday. Another Friday through Monday. Maybe you try 4 on/3 off.
Those are just a few potential examples. The work is covered, even if your techs aren’t all there at the same time.
“You need to understand what the motivator is for each individual,” Aaron advises. “It takes more than a blanket strategy; it takes a targeted strategy based on the incentives of the recipient.”
What matters to one tech won’t necessarily matter to another. You might have Daryl, who refuses to work weekends; you might also have Andrea, who will work every holiday except Halloween. And then there are techs who will take every hour you give them.
TIME IS GREAT, BUT WHAT ELSE CAN YOU OFFER?
Okay, we’ve established that time is a huge benefit for your techs, but as other industries have recently proven, it’s not the only thing you can offer. Health insurance is another big one. Paid time off. Company BBQs, too (free food is free food, people). But what else is out there?
“I think our industry can learn a lot from the tech field,” Jay says.
No, we are not suggesting you open a gourmet cafeteria with a live-in sushi chef (although if you have the budget for one, I’m coming over). Look for things they want anyway—things that enhance their lives. Think Spotify accounts, so your techs can listen to music or podcasts while they work. Think pet insurance for employees. One place had their employees painted as dragonslayers. Another had, I kid you not, a room full of puppies.
By and large, these things are not insanely expensive (I guess it depends on who’s doing the painting). And yeah, most diesel shops don’t have room for a “puppytorium.” The point is there are a lot of things you can offer your staff if you sit down and think about it for a few minutes. The Spotify and pet insurance, for example, is one less expense for them a month. We even heard about a shop that not only helped its employees further their education, but helped pay for employee spouses to go back to school—even in totally unrelated fields!
While shops are starting to open up to these ideas, it’s still very few of them. Maybe one out of 10, if we’re lucky.
In a lot of cases, techs—particularly older techs who have been around—see all shops as the same. The more you, an owner, can show that your operation is different, that you’ll do more for your techs, the more potential employees (and existing ones) will look at you in a different light.
I’ll add here—may my former fellow worker bees forgive me—that if you’ve provided a few nice perks for your employees, you make leaving that much harder for them.
CAN WE BLAME MILLENNIALS FOR THIS?!
Ah, and so we arrive at the scary bit: whether one generation is completely to blame for everyone getting uppity about hours. We’ve been through this before, of course. A few years ago it was millennials and their avocado toast (WHICH IS DELICIOUS BY THE WAY). Lately it’s been Gen-Z refusing to work for companies that don’t align with their values.
(Donning my asbestos longjohns now.)
Are the younger generations the lynchpin in this movement?
While stopping short of generalizing, Aaron did point out that the younger generations are very tech-savvy. They are also not as attached to their places of work as the generations before. They may always have one ear to the ground, looking for the next opportunity—because why not?
You’ve no doubt seen plenty of articles and comments where various companies bemoan this trend. It’s often described as a lack of loyalty or an unwillingness to work hard, but consider what a lot of these younger people have endured. They have grown up surrounded by layoffs, watching the same companies that slice their pay, benefits, hours, and eventually jobs. Or if it hasn’t happened to them, it’s happened to their friends and relatives.
“Some days you get a bonus, some days you get fired,” Aaron says, describing the mindset many Gen-Zs and millennials have developed. A young tech pulling out a phone and scanning job postings during a coffee break shouldn’t surprise anyone—especially if the only thing a shop is really offering is the pay.
If shops (and other businesses) want to lure in these more pragmatic workers, they’re going to have to offer more.
So, to answer the question above, sure—the clamor for more flexible work is generally associated with younger generations. But fellow younglings, let’s not pat ourselves on the backs too hard. Do you really think the older generations didn’t want the same flexibility? As Jay points out, boomers and Gen-Xers largely joined a workforce that had no flexible time for anyone. It just wasn’t a thing. You went to work. You did your job. You went home.
Flexible? Bah, humbug! It wasn’t even a pipe dream.
But the times, they are a-changin’—hopefully for the better. And with this information in mind, shop owners can look at their operations and start figuring out how they can offer more time to their technicians.
THE ROAD TO A MORE FLEXIBLE WORKPLACE
Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a lot of people in the diesel industry. All of them have been eager to talk about it and are seemingly enthusiastic about what they do, but they’ve also expressed interest in the emerging tools and technology that make their jobs more efficient.
Those tools and tech also give them more time.
The future of diesel will probably never be a bunch of techs working from home. But it will involve offering techs and other employees flexibility and respect and an understanding that #shoplife is not their entire life. “It really does come down to putting yourself in the shoes of your employee,” Jay says. “People love to have some level of flexibility in their schedule. I look back to my time in shops … I felt like I was tied down 100% of the time.”
That lack of flexibility, he adds, can slowly poison a job space. Even if you aren’t hankering for long lunches or half-days to watch a soccer game, you know deep down you can’t anyway. Before long you’re just a zombie.
(Holy guacamole, was The Walking Dead an allegory for working life?! MIND. BLOWN.)
The next few years are likely critical ones in the diesel industry. Shops continue to reckon with the tech shortage (on top of everything else), and they’ll start looking hard at what perks and benefits they can offer to entice applicants and keep them in place.
Time is a big deal. Not just because it’s your time that you can do as you please with; there’s also the fact that your employer (if you’re at tech) respects your time.
“At the end of the day, everybody likes to be treated better,” Jay concludes. “I think people of all generations love that.”