The Vilas County Highway Department endorsed and moved forward Tuesday a program regarding the diesel mechanic position to the finance and budget committee.
For the past few months, the department has been trying to find a solution to its trouble with hiring a third diesel mechanic. In July and August, the department began to take steps in addressing the issue.
Vilas County isn’t alone in the issue.
According to highway commissioner Nick Scholtes, other highway departments are having similar issues due to the private sector paying more.
At a previous meeting in July, Scholtes presented to the Vilas County board’s highway committee information he had gathered from a survey sent to highway departments across the state to get feedback on their pay rates.
In recent months, Scholtes said three well-qualified candidates had turned down the position at the Vilas County Highway Department to take other positions offering them a more competitive rate of pay.
Scholtes worked with new human resources director Richard “Kip” Kipley to formulate a plan to draw potential candidates to the position.
Kipley presented the committee with some recommendations regarding the county’s difficulty in recruiting and maintaining qualified diesel mechanics.
“The first part of this, it’s no secret we’ve had a history of both staffing and retaining maintenance mechanics,” Kipley said. “We’ve posted and prayed, if you will, to recruit them. We’ve had some success, we’ve made some offers, we’ve had turn downs. And the issue, in large part, is money.”
According to Kipley, to address what the “true lack of candidates,” the county needed to do things going forward that represent the current state of affairs, such as continuing to promote the position through job-searching sites such as Indeed and TechConnect.
Another method was using what Kipley referred to as “old school things”— developing relationships with the surrounding area tech school.
“We’ve got to develop a pipeline of diesel mechanics for the future,” Kipley said. “Jerry (Burkett) said it before, it’s just not acceptable that we might enter the winter season without a diesel mechanic and we certainly don’t want to do that.”
Kipley also said only recruiting for the position when there was a “true need” wasn’t the best way to go moving forward, and when there was an opening, there “ought to be” candidates “in the pipeline” to consider.
Plans moving forward
In its plan to continue posting the position on job sites, Kipley said the department wanted to expand its relationship with the local area technical colleges and consider developing internship opportunities for individuals aiming to get hands-on experience.
Other options for bolstering recruitment included potentially participating in more on-campus learning opportunities, such as adjunct professorships for online courses, establishing mentorship programs, and attending job fairs.
Scholtes committed to attending a diesel job fair on Sept. 24 at the Fox Valley Technical College.
“Some of this is involving the Internet and doing the posts and pray, some of it is hands-on getting to know the students and the candidates out there and becoming a choice for candidates in the future,” Kipley said.
He mentioned the department also needed to have opportunities for candidates and presented the committee a recommendation to redefine the mechanic job description to include a “family” of job descriptions.
This included creating an entry-level mechanic role, called Mechanic I.
Though the Mechanic I title already exists, Kipley said it would be replaced by a job description which would allow the department to hire a candidate with less experience and give them opportunity to learn on the job, expand skills, and be eligible for promotion.
The department would also include a Mechanic II position, a specialist, as well as a shop foreman.
“An individual could join us as an entry-level mechanic and they can progress through those roles as the county may have a need, and they are qualified,” Kipley said.
Kipley also referred to the salary information Scholtes gathered from other counties for current rates of pay for diesel mechanics.
“What we found was, the average salary midpoint for that survey was $24.45 an hour,” Kipley said. “Now, if you remember, the one candidate that turned us down on an offer, they accepted $24.50 elsewhere, so that’s pretty consistent.”
According to Kipley, that survey range midpoint currently exceeds the range maximum for the department’s diesel mechanic salary range.
Kipley’s recommendations also included changes to salary grading moving forward.
“We do want to be competitive. The range that’s been recommended allows us to be competitive,” Kipley said.
“It’s up to the county, and Nick and the board and everybody else, to take care of the people that we have,” committee member Todd Achterberg said.
Committee member Jerry Burkett asked if the department had considered doing creating a “feeder” program where continuing education was compensated or paid for by the department and reimbursed by the employee’s time, possibly through a five-year contract.
“Is there a situation like that so that we can start tapping into a younger market and create our own workers?” Burkett asked.
While tuition assistance wasn’t something currently offered by the county, Kipley stated it was something to consider in the future.
“You don’t need to worry about a five-year contract,” committee member Chuck Hayes said. “What you do is set up a system where 20% of the tuition cost was reimbursed every year.”
Burkett said that’s what he was asking for.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Burkett said. “We’re doing the same thing over and over and getting no result, so obviously, if we continue to do just that, we’re insane. So, let’s look at something. Let’s get creative, let’s make a program.”
In order to make the recommendations a reality, Kipley said it needed to be reviewed and approved by the committee before it went to the county’s finance and budget committee.
For incumbent employees, Kipley said the recommendation was moving the current incumbent Mechanic I into the level two position and provide a salary adjustment.
“When we get in front of our colleagues at the county board meeting, I will guarantee you somebody is going to say, ‘Why aren’t we doing this in all departments? Why are we just doing this in highway?’ and use that as a means of scuttling the program,” Hayes said.
Kipley said he had already reviewed the program with finance director Jason Hilger, and while he didn’t have the exact figure on hand, he believed Scholtes had done a “quick calculation” that would put the program’s projected cost at $8,320.
Kipley said the program would become effective upon hire of a Mechanic II into the new salary rate, or January 1 2020, “whichever date is earlier.”
“Well, it just depends on how things go, because the budget is so limited sometimes,” committee chair Charles Rayala said. “I think, through the years, the highway workers have been underpaid compared to other offices, any office in the courthouse. Period. Including the sheriff’s department.”
“I have the highest respect for you, but man, you got one drum in your drum set. I’m telling you, you’ve got one drum,” Burkett laughed.
“There seems to be some people that think some positions are worth more than others. They’re not, necessarily. Or which are more dangerous,” Rayala said.
Committee vice chair Willy Otterpohl also spoke in favor of the program.
“I think a great idea is, like you guys suggested, an entry level. Get them working on other things, and get the guys off doing basics and get our mechanics on our diesels,” Otterpohl said. “If that’s what it comes to and we can’t find one. Really, I think that’s the way to go.”
“This is a lot more creative approach than we’ve had in the past,” Hayes said.
Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]