Administration

They Keep the College Moving

Lynn Ketchum, Oregon State U.

Fred Fedak, an auto mechanic at Oregon State U. for more than 20 years, says that with only three employees to service the nearly 500 trucks, cars, and vans in the campus motor pool, "We’re always busy."
September 17, 2017

If you work as a mechanic at Oregon State University, one of the clearest signs that a new academic year is nigh is the number of pickup trucks that are brought in to be serviced. After a summer of driving to fieldwork locations that are sometimes off the beaten path, researchers make their way to the motor pool to turn in their vehicles.

"When we get the trucks back, they’ve been used hard," says Fred Fedak, a mechanic at Oregon State for more than 20 years. "They may have been out in the middle of the forest. People will run over large rocks or tree branches — anything could happen."

And when it does, Mr. Fedak and two other mechanics do what it takes to get the vehicles back on the road. With nearly 500 cars, trucks, and vans in the motor pool, the number of oil changes, tire rotations, brake jobs, tuneups, and engine replacements can quickly add up.

"We’re always busy," he says.

Nearly every college has cars available to faculty and staff members and students on official business. So the mechanics who keep that business moving are crucial to that business. Professors drive to conferences or research sites. Students pile into vans for field trips. A staff member may do a delivery run in a college sedan. Recruiters in the admissions office rack up miles attending college-recruitment fairs to help build the next year’s class.

At some colleges, the fleet includes several hundred vehicles, among them cars, minivans, cargo vans, SUVs, pickup trucks, and buses.

"We have a virtual smorgasbord of vehicles" ­— about a third of the university system’s 900 cars, trucks, and other conveyances, says Patrick T. Barrett, director of transportation services at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "We take care of vehicles from cradle to grave."

The operation can look a lot like a friendly neighborhood repair shop, a gas station, a towing company, a carwash, and a rental-car enterprise rolled into one. Preventive maintenance — key to keeping vehicles in good shape for as long as possible — is at the core of the work, in shops that typically employ no more than a handful of mechanics. Entry-level salaries for mechanics at colleges tend to start in the low to mid-$20,000s; lead mechanics can start around the low to mid-$30,000s.

At Nebraska, where fleet vehicles operate statewide, the auto shop does a minimum of six oil changes a day and replaces tires three or four times a week, along with a few tuneups, says Bill Svehla, who supervises the mechanics. A one-person body shop on campus was especially handy to have during a recent hailstorm; so many vehicles were damaged that the university had to hire a temporary employee to help with repairs.

College automotive fleets go beyond typical cars and trucks — think buses and dump trucks. Mechanics at Texas Tech University help maintain most of a 450-vehicle fleet in a garage with four bays that can "lift most any vehicle on campus," says Carey Hewett, director of services in the operations division.

“When we get the trucks back, they've been used hard. ... People will run over large rocks or tree branches -- anything could happen.”
 Service calls are, of course, part of the job. Once a student at Texas Tech called to say he was stuck in a campus parking lot because his car wouldn’t move forward or backward. A mechanic showed up and quickly discovered that the parking brake was on.

"As soon as he released the parking brake, problem solved," Mr. Hewett says.

Students’ safety is often on the minds of the people responsible for maintaining college vehicles. At Cornell University, fleet services operates the bus program that shuttles students between campuses in Ithaca, N.Y., and Manhattan. When it comes to servicing the six 45-foot motor coaches, which do 20 round trips a week, "we have to be pretty on the ball," says Carl Hoaglin Jr., assistant director of the East Campus Service Center and a former lead mechanic at Cornell.

Buses are serviced every 30 days, about the time it takes for them to rack up roughly 10,000 miles, he says.

Like many in fleet services, Mr. Hoaglin’s mechanic roots run deep. His grandfather owned and operated an engine-rebuilding shop, and Mr. Hoagland knew early on that he wanted to be a mechanic. He earned an associate degree in automotive and diesel technology, and spent 15 years in the automotive industry before taking an entry-level position at Cornell in 2007.

"I started out washing the buses," says Mr. Hoaglin, who now oversees about 300 vehicles among the more than 800 owned by Cornell. He took on his administrative role three years ago.

"I find myself extremely lucky to have the perspective that I do," he says. "I supervise people who, I have literally done the work they’re doing."

The passage of time and the advent of computerized technology mean that new makes and models keep joining the queue for service. But some things never change.

"Every car has tires that wear out, brakes still wear out — that’s the kind of stuff we’ll always be taking care of," says Mr. Hewett, at Texas Tech.

One thing mechanics can’t get around, though, is the attachment that some people have to their ride. Faculty and staff members, like everyone else, don’t want to bring their vehicle to the shop. And when they do, they don’t want to be without it for long.

"Some people drive them so much it’s hard to get them to bring it in," Mr. Fedak says. "We like to tell them the wheels have to stop moving for us to look at it."

Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at audrey.june@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.