Are Maintenance Workers Really Different than Other Shiftworkers?

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By Bruce Oliver and Dan Capshaw, Shiftwork Solutions LLC

Many maintenance managers will tell you their workforce is different than other shiftworkers — that their attitudes and behaviors are not the same. Recognizing, understanding, and accounting for how maintenance personnel evaluate shift schedules are essential to finding a schedule that will satisfy their needs and give you the required coverage to meet your business needs.

When it comes to shift schedules, what makes maintenance workers unique? Using our database of over 20,000 employee surveys, we compared the responses of maintenance personnel with those of the average shiftworker surveyed. The database includes information on the following topics:

  • Demographics
  • Health and alertness
  • Working conditions
  • Shift schedule features
  • Overtime

Let’s look at the maintenance worker results for each of these categories and compare it to the overall shiftworker results. If our assumption that maintenance workers are different is true, we should see some differences in the results.

Demographics

Almost 98% of the maintenance workers are male. This is a sharp contrast with other shiftworkers, 76% of whom are male. The maintenance field is clearly dominated by men. A graphic comparison of the two groups is shown in Figure 1.

figure1

Maintenance workers have worked 43% longer in their current department than the average shiftworker (8.6 years for maintenance vs. 6.0 years for the average shiftworker). Unlike production workers who can quickly learn a new job in another department such as quality control or the warehouse, maintenance workers tend to stay in their specialized trade. They usually are paid more and spend more time working weekday day-shifts, which also may influence their reluctance to transfer to other departments.

This finding has two important implications for maintenance workers:

  1. Maintenance personnel expect to stay in their jobs, possibly for their entire career. If they are required to work on a schedule they don’t like, they may see little opportunity to correct the schedule. This makes the stakes and consequently the emotions high when alternative schedules are considered. In fact, the shift schedule is so important that a substantial percentage of maintenance workers said they will quit their jobs before changing to a new shift schedule (24.7%).
  2. Since maintenance skills are often transferable to other companies, maintenance workers are able to change jobs to another maintenance job in a different company. Losing people because of your schedule is expensive. Of course, this also means that an attractive schedule can be a very effective tool for recruiting and retaining the best maintenance personnel.

Health and Alertness

The opinions and preferences of maintenance workers and other shiftworkers are aligned when it comes to health and alertness. They have similar sleep patterns and habits (e.g. alarm clock usage and their hours of sleep while working various shifts are almost identical), and their self-reported alertness is similar.

Working Conditions

Maintenance workers also gave similar responses to those of the average shiftworker on all facets of the work environment except the need for training. As shown in Figure 2, more maintenance personnel feel their employer doesn’t train nearly enough (65.8% from maintenance vs. 55.3% of the average shiftworkers). Maintenance employees are well aware that training can make their jobs faster and easier. They also often believe that more training for employees in other parts of the organization will reduce the number of breakdowns.

figure2

Shift Schedule Features

There were only a few schedule features where maintenance workers’ preferences differed from the average shiftworker. As shown in Figure 3, a larger percentage of maintenance people prefer fixed shifts (88.3% from maintenance vs. 82.9% among all shiftworkers). Most maintenance workers are assigned to weekday day-shift since most preventative maintenance work is done during this time. Minimal staffing is needed for corrective maintenance on nights and weekends. The likelihood of maintenance workers getting the shift they want is pretty high, so it is understandable that more of them want fixed shifts.

figure3

Maintenance personnel gave lower ratings to the importance of keeping their current crew members together (maintenance = 3.11 vs. average shiftworker = 3.71 on a 5-point scale where 1 is lowest and 5 is highest possible rating). Unlike other job functions that require extensive teamwork, maintenance work is given to individuals or small groups. Maintenance work often requires a high degree of independence, making the individual team member composition less important than the team skill composition is to the success of the organization.

Overtime

One interesting difference noted between maintenance personnel and the average shiftworkers is their preference for time-off instead of overtime. When asked, “If you had to choose between more time-off or more overtime, what would you choose?” 70% of the maintenance workers said “More time-off” in contrast with 61.4% of the average shiftworkers. This is shown in Figure 4.

figure4

Maintenance personnel are paid more than other shiftworkers, so they are not as dependent on overtime. In addition, maintenance workers work most of their overtime on weekends, since many companies push the maintenance work to the weekends. Since weekends are the most desirable time off, it is not surprising that maintenance personnel will choose to have more time-off instead of more overtime. To them, asking if you want more overtime is like asking if you want fewer weekends off.

Conclusions

The survey results reveal only a few differences between maintenance workers and the general shiftwork population. The most significant difference is the lack of mobility within a company coupled with the high mobility to move outside the company. Shift schedules are always important to shiftworkers, but if the only apparent choice to improve a schedule is to change companies, the importance to maintenance personnel is even greater. The nature of the job attracts strong, independent personalities, so when emotions run strong, discussions can be intense. This passionate response to schedule changes explains why so many managers perceive maintenance workers to be significantly different than other shiftworkers – even though their overall schedule preferences are very similar.

Since maintenance work can occur anywhere in the facility, maintenance workers have many opportunities to come in contact with employees from other departments. That puts them in a perfect position to support communications along the grapevine. It is therefore incumbent on entire management team not only to be aware of the maintenance team’s differences but also to understand their unique and valuable roles in the organization and use shift schedules that work well for their maintenance team while still meeting their business needs.