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The Complicated Role of Technicians

Written by Dennis Tucker

We have all been there! A squad car is out of commission for mechanical reasons and no a backup vehicle can be found. In the meantime, a technician evaluates the problem, and you have one of two outcomes. The technician jumps on the repair and has the squad back on the street in record time. Or the technician decides it is a good time to take lunch and, as a result, the officer stays off the road for longer than expected.

This isn’t a negative comment on the tech who decides to take lunch. It is merely an observation I have seen many times while our vehicles were at repair facilities. It is not that techs don’t have the right to take breaks or lunch based on their contracts, it is just that not everyone approaches the job in the same way.

Let’s face it. If you can’t buy new vehicles, then having qualified and dedicated technicians is the next best thing. The techs are the lifeline to the cops on the street. Without them, it’s just not possible for the department to do its job.

So what is the problem if a small percentage of technicians just don’t seem to care? And just to be clear, this issue isn’t limited to techs. It could be office workers, your tow-truck driver or anyone who reports to you. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s limit it to the techs. If this includes others on your staff, then so be it. Some managers tell me it’s a bad attitude. Others attribute the problem to situations outside the workplace. Once those problems are brought to work, everyone on site is affected. Excuses stack up, and so does the workload. So what’s next?

Several fleet managers say the first thing to do is observe what’s going in the shop. You need to know who isn’t holding their own on the shop floor. Determine how these employees interact with your other mechanics. Are they constantly talking about sports, home life, or what they did over the weekend? In other words, do they seem bored or disinterested?

You obviously can’t increase their productivity until you talk to them to ask about the problem. Pull them aside and find out why they just aren’t working up to their potential. Maybe it has something to do with their work hours. Perhaps there’s a personal situation at home that is overwhelming them. Maybe they’re just bored and tired of what they’re doing.

A lot of reasons could exist as to why they are underperforming. But, before you can help, you need to know what the problem is. If it is work related, then ask how they think the issue can be resolved. Discuss the possible solutions together, and see if it’s feasible to implement any or all of them. Let your mechanics know that you appreciate the work they do and how they contribute to the success of the shop every day. It is important that the mechanics know there is a problem and that you are interested enough to discuss it with them.

Personal problems are something you may want to steer clear of, but yet, if your department has resources available for personnel, make those resources known and provide contact information. Remember that it’s often easier for someone in your position to spot a problem than for the person who actually has the problem.

If the problem has something to do with what’s going on in the shop, then get everyone together and discuss what is going on. The focus should not be on a specific problem unless it affects everyone in the shop, but rather, how to retain productivity levels and make it a good place to work. Remember to stress teamwork and how important it is to accomplishing your department’s mission. Maybe you order lunch in and talk about it informally if your staff is small enough to do so. Sometimes an informal discussion accomplishes more than holding a formal meeting because staff members will usually talk more in an informal setting. But regardless of your method, discuss the issue!

Once you talk about the issues, get ideas from your staff members on how to address it. Let them know that it may not be possible to implement all suggestions, but you’ll do your best to evaluate and determine which ones can be instituted. Obviously, money and basic operating procedures may limit what you can do. But it’s important to follow up with your employees and discuss with them what you can and cannot do. If you can’t do something, tell them why. Maybe your employees don’t know your constraints because they’re new to your operation or maybe they are so focused on their job, they’ve blocked out all else around them.

After you’ve talked with them, monitor if improvements have taken place. Have follow-up meetings, and if the shop is running better, let them know it. Nothing goes further than praise and appreciation for a job well done. And don’t forget to build in goals for their annual evaluation so they have something to shoot for. Among other insights, Tom Powell from North Richland Hills, TX said, “As a supervisor, treat each mechanic fairly and don’t show favorites. Spend an equal amount of time visiting with each mechanic so he feels as an equal.”

Dan Augstin from Bloomington, IL said he doesn’t have problems with techs who don’t care. It starts with being very selective in the people he hires. And in recent interviews for a new hire, he invited one of his techs to sit in on the interviews and help with the selection. That’s a great idea for getting your staff involved and to buy in on what you’re doing. They know you’re interested in their opinion, and they also know the new hire is on the job because of knowledge and experience rather than being someone’s friend.

He requires his technicians to have and maintain four to six required ASE Certifications, and most have many more. Per his union contract, they are paid a $0.10 an hour increase for each ASE Certification they have. One of his technicians has about 20 of them, so besides getting the additional salary, he is also looked upon as a leader in the shop. Another point of professional pride is that his facility just received the ASE Blue Seal Recognition of Excellence. This is a great incentive for the techs to continue to have pride in their jobs and put out a quality product.

Obviously, each department, shop or operation has different rules and constraints. But the result is the same in providing safe and mechanically sound vehicles for the officers and staff to accomplish their job. Your mechanics may not wear a badge, they may not drive a vehicle, and they surely don’t often bask in the glory, but they need to know how important they are to you, the department and those who put their lives in their hands.

Not everyone always has a great day. Nor can they avoid being told about a poor job they did or getting to work late or whatever it is. That’s just part of the job. If nobody ever had a bad day or got something wrong once in awhile, you’d have to ask how that tech became so perfect. But the trick is noticing when things are going wrong and to take action. The longer you wait, the worse things will get. And unfortunately, one employee with a bad attitude, one who doesn’t get along with the other techs, or one who does a bad job is sure to infect your good techs.

It is said that 10 good things are negated by one bad thing. Memories are short regardless for whom you work. Make your shop the best it can be. In the end, few will recall how many cars you purchased, but they will remember the last time their squad car died on duty!

Dennis Tucker recently retired as police fleet manager for the Illinois State Police with 29 years of public service experience. He is chairman of the Police Fleet Expo hosted by the Hendon Expo Group. He can be reached at DTucker@hendonpub.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Jul/Aug 2008

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