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May 22, 2018

5/15/2018 7:23:00 AM
The diesel mechanic debate
Committees, highway department wrestle with recruiting and pay rates
Members of the Oneida County Labor Relations & Employee Services, Administration, Public Works, and Planning & Development committees met last Wednesday to discuss an ongoing staff shortage.

"We've had a very difficult time filling a vacant diesel mechanic position at the highway department since the first of the year," Oneida County Human Resources director Lisa Charbarneau explained to the commissioners. "If you remember, the sheriff stole the diesel mechanic and took him to his office."

Her comment was aimed at sheriff Grady Hartman, who was in attendance at the meeting.

"So what will it take to get him back from the sheriff's office?" asked commissioner Ted Cushing.

"I'll trade him for a draft pick to be named later," Hartman joked from the audience. "Or maybe two first-rounders."

In December of 2017, the sheriff's department advertised for a diesel mechanic, and the job was taken by a highway department employee who left a vacancy at the county shop.

A replacement was hired by the highway department, but that mechanic quit after a month for a higher-paying job in the private sector.

"Part of the issue is that our mechanics do not get overtime," Charbarneau said. "Or very, very little."

She also explained the county's benefit package may have little appeal to job candidates who are insured through their spouses or parents.

Another recruiting effort in April to fill the highway department vacancy netted only four applicants. Three of those met the minimum requirements, but two told department head Bruce Stefonek that they would not be able to start work for several months, leaving Stefonek only one viable choice.

"The pool that we're getting is pretty small and the qualifications just aren't there," Stefonek said.

"I think it all boils down to more money," said commissioner Sonny Paszak. "And we've got to pay more money."

"It's going to get worse," Paszak said, in assessing the recruiting problem. "It's not going to get better. I can see it mushrooming."

Stefonek told commissioners while pay is important, the skill set required of a diesel mechanic also complicates recruiting.

Presently, the county pays general and diesel mechanics the same wage. A diesel mechanic, however, has received more training and is often required to perform more complicated tasks than a general mechanic.

Stefonek compared the positions to nurse practioners and doctors; both can diagnose and treat a patient within limits, but only one can perform surgery.

"They shouldn't be in the same wage category," supervisor Scott Holewinski said.

Stefonek's request, as it was brought before the committees, was to reclassify a higher wage for all mechanics.

"Instead of having another mechanic, should we have an actual position for diesel mechanic?" Holewinski asked the committee.

Commissioner Ted Cushing was in favor of creating a distinct position at a separate pay rate. "So we don't have to give a huge wage increase to all the mechanics," he said.

Commissioners also inquired about the possibility of doing without a diesel mechanic and hiring out complicated work to private shops.

"Going outside will cost us a lot of money in the future," Stefonek warned the committees.

He pointed out it costs the county - overhead included - $73 per hour for an in-house diesel mechanic to operate. Private shops charge a labor rate in a range of $105 to $115 per hour.

Stefonek also reminded commissioners it is standard for private shops to charge a marked up price for parts they acquire on behalf of their customers.

Finally, Stefonek pointed out in-house mechanics perform preventative maintenance on vehicles every time they are checked. Private firms only fix a pre-determined problem and do not tend to the vehicle as a whole.

"We've got to take care of two things," commissioner Robb Jensen said. "Are we going to move up the mechanics' wages to make it more competitive? And are we going to create a separate category for the more specialized diesel mechanic?"

"It seems that this should go back to the public works committee and for them to establish two levels of mechanics, work through that, and then come back with a proposal," chairman Dave Hintz said.

"Technically, this hasn't gone to the highway committee yet," Holewinski said. "It's bypassed highway and gone directly to labor. And it's not supposed to work that way ... I think we should wait."

"If you think kicking it down the road is a more efficient way for the county to operate, that's fine," commissioner Billy Fried told commissioners.

Fried was the only committee member to vote against the motion to send the issue back to the highway department.

On Thursday, a joint meeting of the same committees (minus administration) met to explore the issue further.

"I made a job description this morning," Stefonek said after the meeting. "And called it a 'diesel technician' ... It could turn into that. But what they want me to try first is two re-interview the two applicants that couldn't start right away and possibly re-advertise the job."

"The bottom line is the budget," he said. "I brought that forward today, but the public works said 'No, we're going to table this for today,' and we're going to try the status quo."

Fred Williston may be reached via email at fredw@lakelandtimes.com.

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