Where are the techs?

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The maintenance people of trucking are a resourceful breed. They get things done. Yet there’s a challenge that’s been haunting almost every shop manager – at fleets, dealerships, and independent garages alike – for as long as I’ve been writing about this industry of ours.

The shortage of skilled technicians is a plague that just won’t go away.

It was the subject of a key panel session at the first maintenance conference I attended as a journalist way back in 1979. The organizers of the old Canadian Fleet Maintenance Seminar saw it as a major issue four decades ago, and it still is, with not much progress made.

One of the problems, as we’ve heard endlessly about the shortage of willing drivers, is that demographics are working against us. We have a workforce that keeps getting older and shrinking as retirements occur because we can’t get enough young’uns to join the party. It’s tough to make a brake overhaul look sexy. Things are no different in other industries, from plumbing to you name it.

Interestingly, in the course of researching this subject, I came across an old Heavy Duty Trucking article by John Bendel on this very subject. It’s from the April 2000 issue, entitled Crisis in the Shop, and it could have been written today. Veteran man-about-the-maintenance-world Duke Drinkard, now retired, made an excellent point in John’s piece. Then vice-president of field maintenance for Southeastern Freight
Lines, he said the mechanic shortage is about competence, not numbers.

“The drain of experienced mechanics through retirement and various attritions is taking the knowledge out even though we have close to the same numbers. Those coming in are not coming in with the knowledge that we’re losing. That’s a big loss to us,” said Drinkard. Whether you look at it as a lack of people or of expertise, the mechanic shortage is a serious concern that grows more critical all the time, Bendel wrote. The problem is worse for fleets than, say, dealerships.

“We are no longer in competition just with other trucking companies for experienced people,” said Drinkard. “We’re in competition with various other trades, vocational groups, and utility companies. If you get a knowledgeable fellow who’s up on electronics, computers, and troubleshooting you’re actually in competition with the IBMs of the world.”

The consensus of the people he interviewed back then was clear: we’re going to be in trouble someday soon. Sadly, I heard the same thing 21 years earlier at that maintenance conference, and we hear the same tune today. Some truck makers and other suppliers are trying, and trying hard, and I thank them for it.

But the technician shortage rarely gets a mention in the never-ending stream of surveys and reports and analyses about trucking and its key issues, serious though it is.

As I wrote in the late 1970s and Bendel’s people said in 2000, any solution starts with changing attitudes about what constitutes a good
post-high-school education. Does everyone need university? Absolutely not. Why not a trade?

Again, this takes me back to my first magazine, an engineering title where I spent just a year. I had a call one day from the frustrated owner of a tool-and-die company who was desperate for machinists. He had approached a local high school, to which he offered to equip a classroom with machinery, even instructors.

When a few school board officials came to visit his shop, they turned away in disgust. Too dirty, they said. Too noisy, we couldn’t send students in this direction. And that was that.

They were painfully shortsighted, to say the least, but it seems that same attitude persists, among schools and parents and students alike. And until we break through that prejudice, we’re in trouble.

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Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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