Truck News


It’s in need of a fix

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But what if it is broke and ain't no one trained to fix it? As if the driver shortage were not enough, the trucking industry is also facing a shortage of heavy-duty me...

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what if it is broke and ain’t no one trained to fix it? As if the driver shortage were not enough, the trucking industry is also facing a shortage of heavy-duty mechanics. In a report of the service technician industry called “Bridging the Gap”, done this year by the CARS network (Canadian Auto Repair and Service Council), nearly 50 per cent of mechanics are more than 40 and inching their way toward retirement.

Generalist technicians account for some 40 per cent of the industry, and specialist technicians account for 12.8 per cent, or just over 25,000 employees. Within this group, medium to heavy-duty truck technicians make up 5.8 per cent, or 11,632 technicians. The study also revealed that the trend toward specialization is gaining ground within the dealer and specialty repair segments, but independent garages continue to hire more generalists.

There is no number or timeline, according to the study, for how many technicians will be required in future, because the time of retirement of those already in the industry is difficult to forecast. But in the very short term, only five per cent of respondents said they would “likely not” or “not” remain in the industry for the next five years. After 10 years, this figure goes up to 21.4 per cent. And the time period beyond 10 years is the one where the need seems to be most pressing.

While there is pressure to bring new workers into the industry, some industry watchers are suggesting that traditional heavy-duty apprenticeship programs are simply too long, and are actually discouraging potential recruits. Then there is the question of whether the courses are teaching the specialized knowledge that’s required, as well as the barrier relating to the high cost of tools.

“The technological skills required of an individual in the commercial transport and heavy-duty trades are now considered more or less equal to that required of a computer programmer and X-ray technician,” says Bob Brady, the president of Hi-Tech Consulting and a diesel mechanic instructor at Vancouver Community College. Plus, he adds, many other trades don’t require costly tools or a long apprenticeship.

The requirements vary from province to province, but apprentices are usually looking at a year of basic training, followed by an apprenticeship that can take three to four years. Some students, though, have made that time much shorter. Michael Ponech of Delta, B.C. used to be a commercial fisherman before he joined Vancouver Community College’s commercial transport program, from which he graduated in 1996. Ponech said the apprenticeship program offered him the best opportunity to upgrade his skills and move out of an unstable industry as he hit his 30s.

“Believe it or not, I always wanted to be a diesel mechanic. I had done some automotive work (as a hobby of sorts) and I had moved up from netman to engineer on the boats, so I had a fascination with diesel engines,” he said. Ponech’s fascination quickly blossomed into success as he got further into the program, started winning awards, and kept a high grade point average.

“I walked into the course as a mature student, because I just had my Grade 10. But I did the four-year program in 2-1/2,” he says. The high average and the awards meant that Ponech didn’t have any trouble getting approved to speed up his studies. He graduated on a Friday and was hired by Sunday of the same weekend, such was the demand. He still works for the same company, Charter Bus Lines of Delta, B.C.

Ponech is an example of a student who found his niche, but others advocate a shorter program, saying that while there is a tremendous amount to learn, current training may actually be too generalized, and that achieving the “mechanic” designation may not always mean that a particular apprentice has had equal exposure to all specialized areas of the job. The Canadian Trucking Alliance is just now beginning to look at what training should really be required.

“Apprenticeship just gets you started,” says Al Tucker of the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association. “Is (the traditional environment) gonna work in future, or will people wait that long, especially now, when people change jobs more frequently?”

For that matter, the training of modern mechanics doesn’t end with an apprenticeship, anyway. Not only do many shops have their own training programs in conjunction with manufacturers, but groups such as Tucker’s are promoting yet another tier of certification.

“We’re also promoting the writing of ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) tests twice a year as an upgrading device for those who have already apprenticed,” he says, referring to the form of voluntary certification common in the U.S.

“The heavy-duty mechanic appellation does give some capability of work on trucks in a limited way,” says Rolf Vanderzwaag of the Ontario Trucking Association’s Maintenance Council. “But nationally, the trades still have a variety of qualifications. Every mechanic with certification cannot do everything. And since the licence drives the pay structure, the industry needs to find ways to adequately reflect the more complicated work or more specialized training. This would require the shift to industry taking the lead.

“Comments were made by members of the Maintenance Council that apprentices are being taught out-of-date material. Many programs stop at the basics. The things we teach apprentices should be in line with the technology 10 years from now, but we are teaching 20 years behind in some cases. We create someone who has to get most of the training after the fact.”

One of the models being put forward, Vanderzwaag says, would see an apprentice become a basic mechanic, but then be accredited in a specialty. Another model would see different levels of mechanics altogether, reflecting the future shape of the work environment.

“We may want to create qualifications for someone doing light running repairs versus someone doing major overhaul work,” he says.

The underlying problem is that governments are telling training facilities what to teach and what to learn, rather than the trucking industry setting the agenda, he says. But there’s no real outlet for the industry to be heard.

“Industry is getting little or no response from HRDC (Human Resources Development Canada), so we’re not sure how this shift will take place. Some of the individuals the system puts out don’t have the qualifications the industry needs. And it’s inconsistent how the various governments respond to that.”

Others say the governments are busy enough with coordinating efforts at both the federal and provincial levels. “We’ve done quite a bit of work on national standards with Human Resources Development Council. But you have so many different bodies responsible for education in Canada. It’s not a federal mandate, and that makes it more of a challenge to come to a national standard,” says Dan Bell of CARS.

And the onus is largely on industry to get the word out that there’s a need for people, says David Watson, manager of standards and assessment at the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities: “The fact is, industry has to provide the training – I would encourage industry to take more of an initiative in advertising and letting (potential apprentices) know that they’re willing to train them. I think that would solve a lot of industry’s problem,”

Because the heavy-duty and commercial trades have become so technologically advanced, qualifying students have a wider range of programs from which to choose. That may make the career more interesting, but it also worsens another deterrent to the industry – apprentices face the hefty cost of tools to begin the program.

“The real specialist could possess as much as $100,000 worth of tools. This is a trade where, basically, you get to keep your own tools. But these apprentices aren’t usually self-employed, so they can’t write them off,” says Tucker.

The CTEA and AIA (Automotive Industry Association) have been battling with the federal government for an answer.

“Getting started is the problem as we see it. The
feeling we have is that once people are up and running, they are in a better position (to shoulder the costs). We’re hoping for some recognition or incentive in the way of an annual allowance or tax break, at least for the first few years,” says Tucker.

“We’ve had a meeting with (federal Finance Minister) Paul Martin’s senior tax advisor,” says Ray Datt, president of the AIA.

But again, the government hasn’t offered much willingness to address the issue.

“They seem to feel that all trades would want to be treated the same way and get tax breaks, that this is an industry problem, and they should be paying for it.”

But Datt doesn’t see the length or content of the apprenticeship programs as a problem. “It’s a fairly flexible process to get into the stream, and to cash in your time in the field,” he says. “The one barrier the trade faces now is the cost of tools.”

In May, the CTEA and AIA both succeeded in getting a private member’s bill – Bill C205, which addresses tax, leasing and financing costs – presented for a second reading, and it got 213 yea votes to 11 nays in Parliament. It’s since been sent back to the Finance Committee for review and recommendation.

“If it goes to a third reading, the Bill may go through, and if the legislation changes, we have nothing more to talk about,” Datt says.

But the tool-expensing problem is further complicated by the fact that the tools themselves, along with the apprentice’s training, have become more technologically advanced. Apprentices in the heavy-duty and automotive mechanic fields have always had to purchase their own tools, as the tools were often made to fit their work habits.

“Even as the cost of this equipment continues to go up, its life expectancy continues to go down. Not every skilled tradesman can use the same tools. With the more technologically advanced tools, it becomes an issue of different product features, different gadgets, etc.,” says Datt.

But this doesn’t mean the trucking industry isn’t causing some of its own problems. Because of the shortage of heavy-duty mechanics across the industry, dealers and fleet shops are competing against each other for the already-trained.

“They end up robbing Peter to pay Paul. People are now more demanding and they don’t want to work in certain situations. It means the shops are looking at facilities and amenities more. And some apprentices will move for two bucks more and hour,” says Tucker.

But while some think that industry does not have enough say in how apprenticeships are run, and some see industry as reluctant to invest in the apprentice, some schools are forging ahead with new partnerships that hope to change the situation, especially with solutions to the tool question.

“We supply the tools for the student, otherwise it creates a bit of a stumbling block. A basic toolbox for heavy-duty courses runs at about $1,500 to $2,000,” says Brady. He says that although industry has become more and more involved in the process of creating apprenticeships, it has also been one of the weakest links in the chain.

“They say, why should I spend money on the training if the apprentice is gonna leave?” he says.

More and more, manufacturers are linking up directly with schools, planning for the future of dealerships.

“We have a long-standing tradition of manufacturer partnerships which were driven by the change in technology,” says Dan Bloomer, coordinator of the truck and coach programs at Centennial College in Toronto. Mack has a facility at the school, and Freightliner has confirmed that it will set up a modified apprenticeship program in the fall. Volvo Trucks has also established a 36-week guaranteed Modified Apprentice Program for truck coach technicians, which graduated its first class in June.

“There is a chronic and growing shortage of technicians in the industry, and it’s very important that all manufacturers in the trucking industry follow this path,” Michael O’Connell, president of Volvo Trucks Canada, told Truck News during an official opening of the Volvo program.

Mack Canada’s in-house training centre at Centennial College provides apprenticeship training and also upgrading for certified mechanics. They are also equipped for computer training.

“Some of the apprentice technicians in first year don’t know what they’re going to do. But when they go into the labs, they get exposed to the machinery, and it helps them direct their search,” says Steven Pang, Mack technical trainer.

But Bloomer says that industry may have been slow to get involved because having an apprenticeship agreement is not necessarily cheap.

“It costs the manufacturer to have an apprentice on the premises. The work has to go on, yet the apprentice doesn’t have the same skill set,” he says.

Joseph Appiah Boadi is a heavy- duty mechanic apprentice at Mack Canada’s service facility in west-end Toronto. He’s in his second year of apprenticeship and enjoying every minute. Boadi started off studying to be an automotive service technician in his native Ghana, and also here in Canada. But while he was attending Centennial College, in heavy equipment service and repair, he and some other students were chosen to assemble a truck transmission at a Mack truck show. After that, Boadi was offered the opportunity to apprentice with Mack.

“For me, the heavy duty area is the best – if you want to work hard. I went into the course because I wanted to know both (automotive and heavy-duty). The Mack service manager and lead hands have helped a lot, and I really love trucks more than cars,” says Boadi.

He says that the apprenticeship conditions allow him to continually take upgrading courses, and also get some tool allowances. Boadi is being exposed to all aspects of truck servicing, including engines, transmissions and brakes. But he says that there is still a bit of a stigma about the profession.

“I would advise new students to work with trucks because they’re simple to work on. Some people don’t want to lift anything so they prefer the automotive side. The mentality is that there is a lot of dirty grunt work on trucks,” he says. Boadi works in an airy, clean facility with ample space in the service bays, and a modern, clean lunchroom.

And for those students who are not apprenticing with a particular manufacturer, there is the advantage of exposure to different equipment.

Corporate involvement has also eased some of the financial stresses of a first-year apprentice. Snap-On Tools of Canada has a program in place at several colleges in Ontario for first-year apprenticeship students to get a discount on a starter set of tools.

“The starter set differs according to the apprenticeship, and we do not handle the tools. They pay up front and the tools are delivered to the school,” says Snap-On Tools’ Bob Neilly.

So if industry can be convinced to put their two cents into training, can the schools put out the message that this is an industry crying out for skilled tradespeople?

“What’s happening in the trucking industry is a need to address the technology issue at the dealer level. They can no longer put a sign on the front lawn saying they need someone. The time has come for those companies to turn the training over to the schools,” Bloomer says.

Adds Brady: “Typically, apprentices in commercial transport or heavy-duty areas will start at about 60 per cent of the (wages of a) licensed journeyman, receiving a five per cent increase every six months until they reach their fourth year. Current per-hour salaries in the industry run between $24 and $30,” says Brady. And once certified, it’s not unusual for certified mechanics and technicians to earn $60,000 a year in some areas of the country – a pretty penny for a trade that is viewed so negatively.

“The biggest negative is parents want their kids to go to university. This is not a dirty-fingernail job anymore. You need human resources skills, you do technical reports, you need math, physics and English. We’re trying to improve the image tremendously.”

Although Vanderzwaag would agree that the Canadian education system does not provide a positive image of trades, he says that supe
rschools can create their own set of problems.

“We have colleges competing against each other, and maybe we’ll see colleges specializing in one program and opting out of another, limiting the apprentice’s choice,” he says.

For some, the issue is not possible competition among schools so much as responding to an urgent need for manufacturers and apprentice-seekers.

“The biggest thing for us is fighting the stigma of what a technician is about,” says Bloomer. “It is getting better with the complicated technological changes.

“We’re trying to pass on the message that this is not a place for schools to send their people who are challenged.” n

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