Maintenance technicians follow a career path that ultimately can be shaped by others in the field who take the time to inspire, coach, and share what they have learned. - Photo: Wayne...

Maintenance technicians follow a career path that ultimately can be shaped by others in the field who take the time to inspire, coach, and share what they have learned.

Photo: Wayne Parham/Canva'WT Illustration

The career path for a maintenance technician is, or should be, full of learning and advancement. But, that is not only driven by coursework, books, or studying for certifications. It takes the influence and guidance of others in the field to shape someone into becoming a great tech.

Whether it be an instructor, a shop mentor sharing his or her experiences, or a peer with a knack for problem-solving, individuals help grow a maintenance tech’s abilities and can drive career success.

Inspiring & Motivating Techs

How can an instructor or work supervisor relate to and inspire new technicians, or win over experienced technicians?

There has to be a different approach for inspiring new technicians as opposed to experienced technicians, says Dave Holston, senior technical trainer with Fleet Services by Cox Automotive.

For new technicians, Holston says you have to empower them, motivate them, and show a sense of gratitude. When new technicians hit the shop floor and experience their first struggle, it is time to show support.

“You're constantly giving them accolades and you've got to constantly encourage them to excel past their downfalls. I mean, they're going to make mistakes,” says Holston.

Jacques Van Heerden, director of service and aftermarket fuels specialist at Rush Enterprises, says identifying mentors in each shop is important. That new tech needs someone to turn to and say, “I need help with this,” or ask “Where can I find this information?”

“We found that our older, more experienced technicians can hand down some of the experience they've picked up over the years,” shares Van Heerden.

That mentor should almost take on the role of a foreman for young technicians. Van Heerden explains how a mentor should let the tech work on a problem and allow them to try to solve it without help. But, they also must ensure the tech is not taking too long trying to solve the problem or becoming frustrated. In either case, it is time to intervene.

“The moment you get somebody frustrated is when they're going to give up and say, 'I don't want to do this anymore.’ We don't want that frustration. We want our mentors to step in prior to that happening,” explains Van Heerden.

Victor Cummings, vice president of service operations at Rush Enterprises, agrees with Van Heerden on the value of mentoring but adds that new technology can motivate younger, new techs.

He points to virtual goggles that an inexperienced tech can don to learn how to make a specific repair. In that case, a remote technical support person watches the new tech work through the process and provides assistance and coaching.

On the personal level, a different avenue is needed to train or inspire the more experienced workers. For those experienced technicians, Holston says you have to approach it more as a peer-to-peer relationship.

“With, with the experienced technicians you have to present as an instructor, or a trainer, a sense that you've been there, you've done that, you've already lived that experience and you're there as a mentor. You're there teaching them from past experiences,” Holston explains. “It’s gaining their respect.”

To reach the more experienced maintenance techs, Cummings says it is about providing the opportunity for them to increase pay through obtaining more certifications or sending them to OE-provided training. He also thinks most technicians prefer in-person training over online training, so Rush tries to send them to the OE trainings that interest them.

What Skills Sets Should Techs Develop?

What traits, past just the technical skill set, does an instructor or supervisor want the new maintenance tech to take forward into his or her career?

“We encourage you to show up on time, do the job, and it’s basically about work ethic and commitment,” says Cummings.

But, he also points out they need to venture into the profession with an open mind of where the career path may lead because the equipment is now more complicated and techs are becoming more specialized. He says with all that specialization, the days are mostly gone when a tech would work end to end on a truck.

For Van Heerden, creative thinking is one of the most important talents a maintenance tech can take forward into his or her career. He points out that the profession, the industry, needs creative thinkers who can think outside the box.

“Somebody that has the ability to think outside the box is a lot more successful at solving the problem in a timely fashion,” explains Van Heerden. “Most of our technicians can solve an issue. One guy might take an hour to solve the problem, but another guy will take eight hours. The guy that can solve it within an hour can think outside the box and have that creative thinking behind him.”

According to Holston, a technician needs to have some basic mechanical abilities, but more importantly, they must want to continually learn more about their craft.

“We want to instill a sense of self-education,” Holston adds. “We try to teach them the proper way to advance in their skills and keep a positive mindset. You have to keep a positive mindset and have a sense of self to move forward.”

That could be pursuing additional ASE certifications, or it could even mean pursuing something like learning about new technology and powertrains, such as battery-electric vehicles.

Dave Holston, senior technical trainer with Fleet Services by Cox Automotive, talks with a maintenance technician during training. - Photo: Cox Automotive

Dave Holston, senior technical trainer with Fleet Services by Cox Automotive, talks with a maintenance technician during training.

Photo: Cox Automotive

What it Takes to Be a Good Tech

Who makes a good maintenance technician?

In addition to having a basic aptitude for mechanical work, they should have curiosity, a sense of respect, and a lot of patience, explains Holston.

Dawn Schremp is celebrating 40 years with Enterprise Fleet Management and has led the national service department for about seven years. Enterprise hires technicians for remote work as either a maintenance coordinator or a service manager. But, when staffing those remote roles, Enterprise must understand what makes a good technician.

So what does Schremp think makes a good maintenance technician?

Someone with a mechanical background or understanding who brings a positive attitude and is a problem solver who can find creative solutions to challenges. In the remote roles with Enterprise, they also must be clear and concise communicators.

“Being positive, I think that’s the biggest thing,” she says.

Van Heerden likes to see what he describes as a farm kid, who worked every day with his or her hands, and if a tractor broke down they found a way to fix it rather than send it in for repairs. He sees that prior ability to fix things as a key element of someone finding success as a new tech.

Cummings agrees with that approach of finding people who grew up working with their hands to fix things, but says it is getting harder. Today, he points out, it is not as common for a young person to work with dad to fix up a car.

When Rush hires techs, the company uses a predictive index and cognitive assessments.

“There are more people that have less mechanical experience as they come into adulthood,” says Cummings. “So it's really about finding the right people, and then getting them guidance and training to get them started. So again, again, it's really about trying to find that person who wants to be a tech, enjoys that dynamic, and that we can help bridge that gap from the lack of experience.”

What career advice would an accomplished technician, after winning the Rush Truck Rodeo competition, give to other technicians?

“Get out there, get your hands on it, and actually do it,” said Michael French in December after winning the 2023  Rush Truck Skills Rodeo as the all-around champion. “Make sure you want to do it. Don't read it in a book, don't ‘try it.’ Just get out there and actually tear into it and find out if it's what you want to do. If you want to do it, you'll enjoy it. If not, you'll hate it.”

While fielding questions after his win, French shared what he said is the number one problem he sees with technicians. They say “I can't do this” or “I don’t know how to do this.”

‘There's no such thing,” he said. “You're either going to try, or you’re not.  If you want to do it, you're going to try.”

Investing in Your Techs

What is the best way to recruit and retain maintenance techs?

Schremp has heard from Enterprise technicians who previously worked in shops that they were not provided enough training and development opportunities. So, Schremp sees that investing in techs can go a long way in retaining them.  

“You have this valuable person in front of you who can do this work. Keep them there for the next 20 years, make them feel great,” she suggests. “You, you are going to train them, you're going to give them positive reinforcement, you're not going to train them one time, you're going to train them every 90 days on something.”

That investment is not always monetary and can be as simple as taking time for them.

Schremp also suggests ensuring technicians have a good work-life balance, in particular by not working too many extra hours, and making sure they can see they have a career path.

“The ASEs, we’re heavily focused on those. We believe in the way that they are keeping up with what is going on,” Schremp said, also pointing out that techs can pursue training and certifications on new technologies, like EVs.

For Holston, he sees the key to maintenance tech retention to be solely monetary. But, it is not that simple. He points out it is up to each technician to get the money that he or she deserves by pursuing ongoing training to grow their expertise.

“We can provide them with the opportunities, and the resources, and the education. Of course, the incentive is always going to be monetary,” Holston says.

While the technician can control his or her future earning ability through training and certifications, sometimes they will leave one job and jump to another for a quick boost in pay. Holston knows of one tech who left Cox Automotive to work at a dealership, but in about six months returned. That is common for early-career techs across the industry. The grass is not always greener. Jumping ship to go to a different employer doesn’t always work as anticipated for young technicians.

Growing bonds with peer technicians and creating a sense of family togetherness is also important, and many times technicians return to a company and appreciate it more on their second time around. Holston describes that as a shop where technicians have a “good bond, and a good respect for each other.”

Leadership’s level of engagement is the most important thing when it comes to retaining technicians, says Cummings.

“I remember this when I started, when I came out of trade school, and I was out on the shop floor. If we ever saw the manager walkthrough it was a good thing. We knew that they cared if they wanted to stop and talk,” he recalls. “Everybody wants to feel connected on some level.”

Van Heerden rallies behind Cummings’ thoughts on leadership engagement, jumping in to add, “Vic is 100% right.”

Van Heerden suggests leadership should talk to techs regularly, and not just wait until it is time for a performance review. Talk to techs about their training as well and learn what they want to do in the future.

So what is key in recruiting good technicians?

‘First off, I think company culture,” says Cummings. “ I think everybody wants to be part of the winning team and that culture attracts the right type of people.”

He and Van Heerden both say word of mouth is the best way to recruit good talent since techs tell other techs when they are happy, the pay is good, and the culture is healthy. Just let them know you are recruiting, and word will get out.

“If you want to find good technicians, talk to your technicians and let them spread the word. They hang in the same bars as the other technicians, they hang at the same restaurants. They are going to be one of the best recruiting tools that you have,” explains Van Heerden.

Holston, a military veteran of 10 years, points to the young people who have served in the military as a great resource pool to find talent. They offer consistency, he adds.

“They show up on time, they've got a different mindset. When they come out of the military, they may or may not have the skills to perform the operations, but they've got the basics,” he points out.  “I'm a strong advocate for hiring the military, the folks that are coming out of the military whether they're younger, or in their late 30s. They could be a 20-year military vet, but they still need a place in the workforce.”

Earn, Learn, Share

A technician's career is simply a path where one starts with what they learn in formal training and gains more experience hands-on in the shop as they progress. While the shop may be filled with tools and repair manuals, it is the people who are key to the profession’s continued success.

Holston says he and Terry Rivers, who runs the FleeTec Academy for Cox Automotive, have always looked at the technician career path as broken into three segments, assuming a 30-year career.

The first 10 years they learn, the next 10 years they earn, and in the final 10 years they give back by helping younger techs learn in their careers.

“Of course, if we do that on a continuous basis, we're going to replenish the mechanical gap that we've had we had in the industry for years, we’re going to be able to recoup that,” says Holston.

About the author
Wayne Parham

Wayne Parham

Senior Editor

Wayne Parham brings more than 30 years of media experience to Work Truck's editorial team and a history of covering a variety of industries and professions. Most recently he served as senior editor at Police Magazine, also has worked as publisher of two newspapers, and was part of the team at Georgia Trend magazine for nine years.

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