Our feature article, "Brakes and Mechanic Staffing Top List of Maintenance Concerns," (April/May 1999) illuminates a growing concern over finding and keeping good mechanics. These results are consistent with trends throughout other transportation industries. Although not as well reported, this trend is just as serious as the need to hire and retain good bus drivers. In fact, in many ways that we'll discuss below, good mechanics might be even more valuable to a school bus operation than good drivers.
Challenge grows with size
Our survey found something that at first glance might seem the opposite of what you might expect. We asked: "Do you have problems recruiting and/or retaining mechanics?" The study found that managers of larger fleets were far more likely to say yes to that question than smaller fleets. You might think that larger fleets should have fewer problems than smaller ones. After all, they tend to command larger maintenance budgets and staffs. Our survey findings imply that despite these size advantages, resources are not keeping pace with the challenges facing medium-size and large operations. The problem of mechanic retention is consistent with another of this survey's findings - that mechanics at larger district transportation departments and contractors work under more challenging conditions than their counterparts. For example, larger fleets expect their maintenance crews to service more buses (19.8 per mechanic) than the smallest fleets (12.8). In addition, larger fleets tend to be located in suburban and inner-city areas, where labor competition and wage pressures are highest. Thus, it becomes easier for mechanics and drivers to find higher-paying jobs elsewhere. This has also been true of two other transportation industries: public transit and commercial trucking.
Do not underestimate the issue
The message of this survey is two-fold. First, the pupil transportation industry must increase the attention level to this problem. It should be just as high on the radar screen as finding and keeping good drivers. In fact, it might be more important. After all, poorly maintained buses are also a very common cause of accidents. These maintenance-related factors include bad brakes, wheels out of alignment and malfunctioning lights, windshield wipers and mirrors. Think of it this way: A shortage of one driver puts one bus out of commission. However, one missing mechanic can put a significant portion of your fleet out of service - nearly 17 buses, according to our survey. There is another area in which good mechanics are valuable, and that is the bottom line. Properly maintained buses maximize the investment in them; conversely, as we all know, poor fleet maintenance is a "pay me later" approach. The second message of this survey is that you can't rob Peter the mechanic out of competitive wages and working conditions to pay Paul the driver adequately. Both are important to everyday operation and safety. Moreover, these messages must be communicated to your district business staff and school board. Let me put it another way: The industry forcefully advocates for the investment required to implement a reasonable replacement cycle and to keep up with enrollment growth. It has also been actively trying to keep up with growing driver competition so we make sure someone competent is behind the wheel of all those school buses. Should we do any less for those people working under the hood?