When it comes to determining shop and staffing needs, fleet managers across America have often had to rely on guesswork. Their colleague Ron Schulhofer thought that was the case.
His own guesswork has proven prophetic.
A fleet services division manager with Manatee County in Florida, Schulhofer made a presentation on Utilizing Vehicle Equivalents at the recent conference of the Association of Equipment Management Professionals (AEMP).
"It's a short presentation, it's only 16 slides, and to me it's all kind of self-explanatory," he says. "I fielded quite a few questions from the audience, but at the end of it I said, 'If anyone would like to have a copy of this, give me your card and I'll e-mail it to you.'
"Well, I got a stack that's two inches deep of business cards. Everybody came up and was flipping cards at me ... and I'm like 'Wow, there is obviously a big interest in this.' I don't think there was one individual there who didn't want a copy of it."
The previous year, Schulhofer was also a speaker at AEMP, addressing the challenges of new fleet managers. During that presentation, he brought up his own use of vehicle equivalencies, and this sparked later queries from some audience members. When he was asked if he had a topic for this year's conference, he didn't have to think twice.
"For most folks, unfortunately their staffing level is their budget level," he says, "instead of saying, 'Here's the level of service I can provide if I had this staffing, and I can show you through numbers how that works.'
"That's what equivalencies will do to you. You can drive your budgets, instead of your budgets driving you. It's a good defense tool ... or an offensive tool, whichever way you want to go with it."
Using historical data, fleet managers start off by determining the average hours of "wrench turning" per fleet class, then per unit. A base line is then set from a fleet class that is representative of the fleet as a whole. In Schulhofer's own case, Manatee's 68-unit half-ton truck fleet was chosen, because its model-year range best matched the remainder of the 1,421-unit county-wide fleet, and that particular class is maintained at all three shops operated by Manatee.
The base unit for all further calculations is the average number of maintenance hours per year for a unit in that representative class. In the case of Manatee, the number was 12.87, and that figure is then divided into the average of all other classes to obtain the maintenance repair factor — or MRF.
The MRF then enables the fleet manager to place all units throughout the fleet on a level playing field by ranking each class by maintenance intensity. Those half-ton trucks with their collective base MRP of 1 can now be fairly related to, for instance, a 24-unit ambulance class with an MRP of 11.
The last step is to determine the vehicle equivalent — or VE — by multiplying the class density by the MRF. In the case of the 24-unit ambulance class, the resulting number is 256. For the base 68-unit half-ton class, it remains 68. So, while the ambulance fleet in this comparison has barely over one-third of the number of units as the half-ton fleet, its VE is almost four times more.
For determining staffing needs, the fleet manager can multiply the base maintenance hours of 12.87 by the total number of VEs, in this case 2,238, for a total of 28,803 hours. A 40-hour work week equals 2,080 hours per year, but since no worker is totally productive every hour of the year, a man-hour availability factor — or MAF — is determined. Taking into consideration such factors as vacations, training, sickness, operational downtime and holidays, Manatee County's MAF was 1,334 hours. So, to cover the 28,803 hours of fleet maintenance time required, 22 technicians are needed.
Such information is key come budget time.
"Different parts of the country seem to be struggling more with first obtaining technicians, much less trying to defend keeping the technicians. There is a nationwide shortage of technicians," says Schulhofer. "But if you can convince your bosses with numbers, and show them: 'Here's the work we do; and here's the level of service we provide with that work; and here's the technicians required to do that; and if we can't find the staff to do that, then I can still show you the cost of the labor through outsourcing ... you can put that in your budget."
Following a 25-year career in the Air Force, where he first was exposed to the use of vehicle equivalencies, Schulhofer has seen the positive effect of his numbers during his six years with Manatee County, particularly come budget time.
"You prioritize your vehicles based on intensity of labor. Obviously, a 40-passenger transit bus requires a lot more maintenance than a Ford Taurus, and the people here started to see that," he says. "If you have 100 pickup trucks, you might need one technician, and if you have 23 buses, you might need four technicians. They started to understand that this makes sense, because you put it on a level playing field."
The size of the fleet really doesn't matter on the effectiveness of a vehicle equivalencies program, or the degree to which it can be taken, says Schulhofer.
"You can develop your own, concoction, if you will," he says. "If you want to group all of your pick-ups together, that's fine. But if you want to do some comparisons between Ford, Chevy and Dodge, you can break them out that far and do comparisons: 'Are we spending more for labor on this brand versus this brand? Or is it just this class of vehicles that is causing me a great deal of labor?' You can break this up any way you need to present it.
"With 1,421 units in this fleet, I have everything from D9 dozers, to transit buses, to air boats. There are folks out there in the smaller municipalities that may have 220 vehicles, or 100 vehicles, but the spatial of vehicles that they have might mirror exactly what I have. They can use this same formula and come up with how many techs they really need, or how much money they need for outsourcing for those classes of vehicles."
And it doesn't have to be guesswork.