Five tips for hiring a top technician

Operators know that oftentimes the hardest part of doing coach repairs isn't figuring out what the trouble is — it's finding someone to competently do the work. Even in today's job-sparse economy, hiring qualified coach technicians is a challenge in many parts of the country.

"Good technicians are hard to find, that's for sure," says Scott Crawford, MCI technical training manager. "It can seem like the good people are working somewhere else, and if they're good, they stay where they're at."

Crawford points out that coaches have some unique challenges for technicians — there's a lot of new technology, the HVAC systems are bigger, and the spaces in which mechanics must work are smaller. "The wiry guys come in handy," jokes Crawford.

Mike Mazzeo, director of maintenance for Lakefront Lines in Ohio, says he had 17 applicants last time he advertised a technician job. "I never ask for a coach mechanic because I just can't find one," says Mazzeo, who looks for mechanics with skill sets that will transfer well to a coach environment. That can mean people who have worked on trucks, cars or other equipment — or who are just willing and able to learn.

Mark Waters, who oversees maintenance programs at Coach America's western locations, recalls one job search in which he was looking for a shop manager  and asked for five years of experience. Of the 60 or so applications he received, only one had the desired experience.

Things are perhaps a little simpler in Canada. Canadian coach mechanics generally must possess a 310T certification to get a job as a coach or heavy truck technician. And since there's a test, operators have some assurance that certified job applicants are proficient at a wide array of repair skills.

So, short of implementing a certification system of your own, how do you get what you’re looking for? Here are a few tips:

1. Establish relationships

"When we're hiring, we try to keep it in the community," says Mazzeo. To that end, he sometimes works with local schools, and he's open to finding people from the local unemployment office.

"The use of a trade school connection could be beneficial for hiring entry-level mechanics," says Waters "If I were constantly hiring, I would make a point to get to know the instructors."

Waters also depends on word-of-mouth. "This is a small industry," he says, "and once the word is out that you are looking, it can bring applicants from your competitors. The local union hall can also be a source of mechanics looking for work."

2. Character counts

"You have to have someone who's willing to dig in, get their hands dirty and troubleshoot," says Bob Kaylor, fleet maintenance manager at Coach USA. "It's been a real struggle finding experienced technicians."

Waters pays close attention to how a new technician acts on the job. "Is he eager to be here? Does he ask questions when he is being taught? Is he the first or last into the break room or lunchroom?"

"I don't want a guy who's had a new job every six months or a three-year gap in his history," says Mazzeo. "Sometimes showing up every day is the half the battle. I'm looking for someone I can work with."

Mazzeo notes, "I have had very good luck with ex-military. Every time I've made that choice it's been a good one."

3. Hire for the future

In some cases, it may work out better to make a technician rather than hire one. "A lot of companies prefer to train younger technicians if they have some mechanical ability," says Crawford. "That way, they can be sure they're doing inspections and other work the way they want it done, rather than how they did it somewhere else."

Waters subscribes to the "clean slate" theory as well, though he admits hiring inexperienced people can be a gamble. He notes how it used to be. "When it was more common for the mechanical trade to be represented by unions, there was a rule about the journeyman-to-apprentice ratio. The reasoning was to ensure we always had people receiving hands-on training from the journeymen. This would result in a much better qualified mechanic to step in when others retired and keep the workforce at a higher standard of competence. We are really doing ourselves a disservice by  not holding to the concept of hiring entry-level people for the purpose of training, with the end result being a better qualified mechanic.

Kaylor says that many Coach USA companies do hire newer technicians. "We train a lot of younger mechanics, sometimes right out of high school. If you're lucky, they'll be with you for a long time."

Mazzeo has had good luck as well. Some of his strongest technicians have been ones that gained much of their education onsite. Lakefront, which employs 19 technicians, has one position devoted specifically to trainees, who typically won't work alone for a full year.

4. Keep them happy

"The problem the tour bus industry has is paying an appropriate wage to retain people," says Crawford. "People are beginning to figure that out. It's difficult, because the trucking operations tend to pay better. We often lose people who are looking purely for money to the trucking industry."

Waters and Kaylor both say that they try to compensate their technicians as well as possible. Lakefront Lines has a bonus system in place — when the company does well, the technicians, drivers, bus cleaners and front-line employees get a portion of the profits. Mazzeo says it also has the benefit of letting employees know that their performance really counts.

5. Train to retain

Great mechanics aren't born — they're trained. MCI offers Technical Training Tuneups, the MCILearn Program and other educational opportunities to its customers free of charge, but there are plenty of other ways to make sure technicians have the skills to advance.

Mazzeo says it's also important to make sure your technicians are doing what they do best. In the case of a Lakefront technician who won several Golden Wrench competitions, it was deciding that he should be sharing his expertise with other technicians.

"We try hard, when there's something new, to guide less-experienced technicians through it," says Mazzeo. "With a new technician, you have to understand that he's never gone to school to put a windshield in a bus. If he makes a mistake, sometimes it's best just to say, 'Hey, thanks for learning.'"

As Mazzeo says, "It's better to educate than terminate."

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