Ivan Holzmeister, service manager at I-70 Truck Repair on north Vine, says he’s not surprised that Ellis County has had a mechanic position vacant for a year.

“I can believe it,” Holzmeister said. “We have nine mechanics here and we could probably hire a couple more.”

But for two months I-70 has advertised a mechanic vacancy, and had only one applicant. Vo-Tech graduates are choosing ag careers, he said.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 some years, and years ago when we had a vacancy we’d get so many applicants we’d get tired of interviewing,” he said.

Ellis County Public Works Director Bill Ring knows the problem.

“We are not getting people to apply and the few that do don’t have the qualifications or experience as a heavy duty equipment mechanic,” said Ring. “We work on graders, bulldozers, dump trucks, excavators, all that big yellow iron you see when we’re building a road.”

The county’s Public Works Department has three mechanic positions, along with one welder-mechanic and one shop foreman. The mechanic position has been vacant a year despite advertising, job fairs and working with the Hays Workforce Center, Ring said.

Public Works is competing for mechanics with the cities of Hays and Russell, and other counties, as well as the private sector like I-70 Truck, Doonan, Bruckner’s and Lewis Ford, among others, said Ellis County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes.

He hopes Ellis County can solve its hiring problem by paying a temporary 10 percent premium to the hourly wage.

Smith-Hanes will ask the Ellis County Commissioners Monday at their regular meeting if Public Works can offer the base starting pay of $16.36 to a new mechanic, plus 10 percent extra — $1.64 an hour — for a starting pay of $18.00.

“This would be closer to what some of the other shops in town are paying,” said Smith-Hanes. “We looked at the private sector and at other governments. We’re in line with governments, but we’re below the private sector.”

Counties in the western and central parts of the state have lower unemployment and a tighter labor market in general because population growth is not as strong, said Tyler Tenbrink, senior labor economist in Topeka for the Kansas Department of Labor. Ellis County unemployment is notably lower, 2.7 percent for June, than the state of Kansas, at 3.6 percent, the latest figures available from the department.

“Mechanics are on our list of high demand occupations for the state,” Tenbrink said.

High demand occupations are those that are growing quickly, such as registered nurses, which have been on the list for several years, he said. Typically it indicates high replacement rates because people are moving out of the job through retirement or just leaving the occupation, Tenbrink said.

Holzmeister and Ring say they don’t see a lot of young people entering the profession, opting instead for desk jobs. While mechanics can make good wages, it’s a hard profession, they said, including a constant learning curve because the technology is always changing.

“It’s complicated, it changes all the time, you have to have $40,000 to $50,000 in tools, it’s dirty, it’s hot,” said Holzmeister. “And trying to get young people to take online classes is like pulling teeth. They want 9 to 5. But you can’t just learn on the job. From the front to the back, the headlights to the muffler, it’s all changed.”

Even so, I-70 Truck has seven employees that have been at the shop for 30 years or more, he said.

“We have a good work environment. We have real good health insurance,” Holzmeister said. “And we try to pay them what we have to to keep them.”

That’s the hope of Smith-Hanes, Ring, and the county commissioners who approved pay premiums for hard-to-fill jobs at their last regular meeting Aug. 6.

The mechanics now working for the county also will get the 10 percent premium. The premium can be renewed for up to three years after re-evaluating each year. After three years the wage class can be permanently changed if needed, Smith-Hanes said.

If it’s no longer a problem, however, the premium goes away. Mechanics will be put on the pay scale closest to the spot they are near, he said.

The county settled on the premium option to avoid other problems.

“We’re in this sort of Catch 22,” Smith-Hanes said. “If we hire someone new and pay higher, the two guys that we have will be justifiably mad. They would potentially get over it if we hired someone with a lot of experience, but many of the mechanics in town don’t work on graders. They work on trucks and cars. So our mechanics are somewhat specialized.”

Also, it’s hard to justify higher pay for the new guy if the person has to receive training, he said.

Giving everyone a raise poses other problems, because there’s not a lot of room between the mechanics and the shop foreman. And the shop foreman is paid the same as the road foreman.

“If we give people a raise because of this one problem, we create a domino effect,” he said. “So we’re going to try this.”