A concrete producer can have the most efficient, fastest batch plant, the most cutting-edge mix design, the highest-quality ingredients, and the sharpest quality control personnel in the industry. But it's all for naught if the ready-mix truck breaks down and a helpless driver cannot deliver his load of concrete to the customer at the jobsite.

Telling a customer who expected the concrete to arrive on time that a ready-mix truck breakdown prevented the delivery is not an excuse.

Keeping ready-mix trucks running smoothly and efficiently is something any concrete producer may take for granted. But where do you turn to fix and maintain your trucks if your best mechanic just quit and took a job with the producer on the other side of town?

Finding and retaining quality mechanics can be a pressing issue for concrete producers, just as it is for other heavy industries. Unfortunately, help is not on the way, as young people continue to be attracted to cleaner, higher-tech industries that require less heavy lifting and more comfortable working environments.

“There is so much societal pressure to get your college degree, go into electronics, and become a computer guy, that people view dirty jobs as less desirable,” says Bob Johnson, fleet relations director at the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA). “It's a common problem. The supply of really qualified truck mechanics is limited.”

Richard DeBoer, executive vice president of Chicago-based Ozinga Bros., agrees such positions do not carry the respect they should. “There is a need for skilled people in all trades,” he says. “Our society does not promote the hands-on skills that are required. The real-life issues we face in the trades are not glamorized or publicized, but they are very skilled and good-paying jobs.”

Ozinga has not experienced a mechanic shortage recently. But Johnson says shortages are being felt in many industries. Even for those young people who are interested in mechanics, their training is often limited to automobiles and light trucks. This is true at the vocational, high school, and college levels.

Another problem: Increasing regulations are making trucks more complex. There have been three rounds of updated diesel transmission standards in the last 10 years, including electronic computer controls and particulate emissions systems. Mechanics must become familiar with more complex systems on larger vehicles.

Shortages vary by region. “If you're in an area where there is an established medium- to heavy-duty truck industry that is still in economic recession, then there is probably an available supply of mechanics,” Johnson says. “If you are in an area where the economy is better, the companies that are willing to pay top dollar will get the mechanics.”

A seller's market

Producers have two choices to attract mechanics. “One is to pay above-scale, which is often economically disadvantageous,” Johnson says. “The other is to offer premium working conditions. Have good shops, the right tools, and the right equipment. Offer the best available scheduling. Give them some reason to pick you over somebody else. It's a seller's market right now.”

Little things matter. Keep a clean shop floor that is not covered with dirt and mud. Keep the temperature comfortable so your mechanics don't freeze during the winter. Provide good lighting. Don't have them chasing around town looking for parts or doing odd jobs. “They may be willing to accept a little less money to work in a nice clean shop, rather than in mud and freezing temperatures,” Johnson says. “The better the working conditions, the more likely you are to keep them.”

The more progressive companies pay their mechanics a tool stipend, in addition to their salaries. For example, a company puts money in a special account and a mechanic will select tools from a Snap-on representative who serves the mechanic's location. Snap-on bills the company, and the company pays the bill through the mechanic's special tools account.

He also suggests offering your current mechanics or other employees finder's fee bonuses to recommend qualified mechanics as new employees. After a probation period, the employee receives a bonus if the new employee is still on the job.

Mechanics, like workers in other trades, want to stay up-to-date on the latest innovations and technology. Local dealers of major manufacturers, such as Kenworth, Peterbilt, Freightliner, and International, sometimes offer classes for mechanics. “Pay to get them into a class,” Johnson urges.

Ozinga has had employees participate in apprenticeship programs. Mechanics must develop specialties to work on ready-mix trucks, such as a knowledge of hydraulics for reparing and maintaining mixer drums. “There are some things you wouldn't get in a normal trade school,” DeBoer says.