Reader survey: The struggle to find and retain techs continues -【AGV, Logistic, Air Cargo, Supply Chain, Warehouse, ERP system, Logistic Management, Chinese Market 】

A new survey shows that the problem of finding the right people to maintain lift trucks and automated systems remains. But the introduction of some new certification programs is likely to ease the burden.

From MODERN MATERIALS HANDLING By Gary Forger · March 9, 2021

If hiring a technician were only a little less difficult, many maintenance managers would sleep easier at night. But that’s a big if.

In these pages during the past few years, we’ve looked at the hiring dilemma in several ways. We’ve considered which is better: in-house or contract maintenance. Also, the best ways to build a maintenance team. We’ve even considered the relative importance of the shift to digital and its impact on hiring techs.

All three of those, and many other considerations, are part of the finding-the-right-tech equation. And yet too many new hires still don’t work out or walk out the door to pursue something they haven’t found in this gig.

So this year, Modern Materials Handling decided to take a different approach. What if we teamed up with the Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association (MHEDA) and the National Center for Supply Chain Automation (NCSCA)? And what if we focused on the value of certifications for techs on lift trucks and automated systems? Hmmm. We might be on to something here.

By the way, both MHEDA and NCSCA have a strong interest in technician certifications. See the box on page 103 to learn the details. So late last year, Peerless Research Group surveyed the field asking several key questions about the preparedness of techs to maintain lift trucks and automation.

The 143 respondents said they were personally involved in decisions related to the maintenance of automated systems for warehouses and/or DCs.

We broke out automation and lift trucks to get a closer look at not just the preparedness of techs but the challenges of finding and retaining them. We also focused in on the value of certifications for techs.

Guess what we found? In a nutshell, managers don’t expect techs to arrive with a certification; however, they would prefer if they did. That’s how Katie Richards, manager of member engagement at MHEDA, put it when reviewing the survey results.

On the surface, that assessment makes survey respondents sound a little conflicted. And they are a bit. But it seems to be a positive conflict. Let’s drill down into what the respondents had to say.

Setting a baseline

Let’s start at the very beginning. To what degree are applicants for entry-level technician jobs prepared to work on this equipment? For both lift trucks and automated systems, the numbers generally lined up. Only 6% are extremely prepared to work on lift trucks and 4% on automation. In the very prepared category, the numbers are 14% for lift trucks and 13% for automation.

There was barely more divergence in the somewhat prepared category, with 49% ready for lift trucks and 46% for automation. Meanwhile, 26% are not very prepared to maintain lift trucks and 29% for automation. The balance, 5% for lift trucks and 8% for automation, are not at all prepared.

That’s one side of the hiring coin. The other is the ability of the company to hire and retain technicians. When asked about that, 41% say “it’s somewhat of an issue for us to find capable technicians.” Another 31% call it a minor issue.

On the two opposite ends of the spectrum, 16% say hiring and retaining is not an issue (clearly people who always get a good night’s sleep). The final 12% say they have a very difficult time hiring and retaining techs (probably a sleepless group).

On the surface, the results of the survey support only somewhat all of the gripes typically aired by maintenance managers about finding the right people and holding onto them. But perhaps what is more important is that none of the survey answers come back in a majority. The closest is the 49% of entry-level techs ready to work on lift trucks and 46% on automation.

However, the next survey question tells the story a little differently: What problems do you have hiring and/or retaining technicians? Just short of 60% of respondents identified the leading problem as “finding the necessary skill sets.” That’s where the availability of certifications enters the picture.

Eight-seven percent say they strongly agree or agree that “my organization is more likely to hire someone with a certification.” That’s a fairly strong endorsement. Also, 87% say certification is valuable for up-skilling existing employees. Almost 75% say people with a certification get a higher starting wage than those without.

We carried this line of thought a little further. Almost 72% say people with a certification perform at a higher level than those that don’t. And perhaps most impressively, just more than 87% say an industry certification is valuable for training both new and incumbent workers. In fact, 82% of respondents include certifications in some form in their own training programs.

What MHEDA and NCSCA learned

MHEDA and NCSCA partnered with Modern on the survey to establish a baseline on how certifications are being received by people such as yourself. It’s one thing to believe that they are valuable. It’s something else to know that with some certainty.

Now they know that and a few other things. So we asked Liz Richards, CEO of MHEDA, and Steve Harrington, industry liaison at NCSCA, what they learned.

“While certification programs today are not alleviating the short-term challenges of recruiting technicians, these programs have great potential,” says Richards. “However, these programs could potentially increase the pipeline of prospective technician employees in the long-term,” she adds.

She goes on to say that certifications are an enhancement to existing in-house training/apprenticeship programs. Also, that certification of incumbent workers would be of value.

“The survey results validated anecdotal data and established a baseline for MHEDA to move forward with its certification efforts,” says Richards.

Sounds a lot like mission accomplished, as it was for Harrington, too.

One of his key interests was to gain a firmer gauge of earnings of these technicians. The survey found that the base salary for an automation tech was $45,000.

“That’s a living wage from the start,” says Harrington, “which can start an individual on a viable career pathway.” Based on conversations with industry experts, he estimates earnings at the top end of this career pathway to be in the range of $135,000 to $150,000 a year.

Harrington also found strong interest in the automation technician certification late last year. That’s when he conducted 12 regional webinars on the program and its value to maintenance programs. By the way, more than 1,200 people in total attended the virtual seminars.

Perhaps the high point in the survey for automation certification was this question: Are applicants with a certification better prepared to repair and maintain automated systems than those without a certification? A resounding 78% said yes. Harrington thinks that’s fairly conclusive. And it probably applies to lift truck certification, too.

Additional findings

All of that said, maintenance managers still have some misgivings about how well staffed they will be going forward.

Less than 25% of them expect they will have no shortfall of lift truck techs now and up to five years from now. There’s a little more concern on the automation side, with just about 25% saying they will have no shortfall for the next year or so. They are even more optimistic five years from now, with just 16% expecting no shortfall.

All of which means, finding and retaining techs remains very much on the minds of hiring managers. And they are using several techniques to secure their next stars.

Hiring from other industries, specifically automotive and the military, is one approach for roughly a third of survey respondents. Offering signing and referral bonuses are used by 28%. Yet another lure is offering apprenticeships or internships, often to students at community colleges. Interestingly enough, only 28% outsource the maintenance function because they can’t find qualified technicians.

So, what skills and qualities are prized? That’s a long list. Here’s a condensation.

Skills range from communication abilities to knowledge of basic maintenance principles. Mechanical and electrical skills as well as computer skills are all important, too.

Some of the other write-in answers that jumped off the page are: critical thinking; attention to detail; curiosity; can-do attitude; and self confidence. By the way, common sense also made the list. And there is always the old standby: experience.

So, there you have it. The struggle to find and retain techs for all types of materials handling equipment marches on. But if everything works right, some new certifications will help to put the right people in the right jobs in the first place.