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Technician shortage dominates first ever CFMS ‘Shop Talk’

TORONTO, Ont. - Maintenance managers participating in a town hall discussion on key industry issues agreed they have only themselves to blame for a shortage of heavy-duty truck and trailer technicians...

TORONTO, Ont. – Maintenance managers participating in a town hall discussion on key industry issues agreed they have only themselves to blame for a shortage of heavy-duty truck and trailer technicians. And unless the industry collectively changes the way it views and treats its technicians, the shortage is bound to worsen.

The grim realization came during Shop Talk – a new feature at the Canadian Fleet Maintenance Seminars involving the American Trucking Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC).

“We don’t take care of the young guys coming into the industry,” admitted Darry Stuart, general chairman of the TMC and president of DWS Fleet Management. “Is a young person coming into the industry going to want to work in a dirty shop with bad lighting or the BMW or Cadillac shop with plasma TVs? We hire them as cheap as we can and then expect them to go out and buy $3,000-$4,000 worth of tools.”

Stuart said the industry must polish its image if it hopes to attract and retain young technicians. And one way it can do that is to treat technicians with respect – pay them fairly and offer them opportunities for advancement.

“Technicians want to go to a company that’s investing in them,” he said. “You have to create an environment for that person to come in, work and advance.”

Robert Braswell, technical director with TMC, added maintenance managers must realize the new generation of technicians have different needs than their parents. He pointed out kids of the ‘Nintendo Generation’ are used to getting 90 to 100 positive reinforcements per minute when playing video games.

“You probably got one to three a week when you were coming along,” he told the audience of mostly seasoned maintenance professionals. Mark Irwin of Bison Transport agreed that strong-armed management styles just won’t cut it in the shop anymore if you hope to retain young technicians.

“Kids these days need a different management style, you can’t treat them the way we were treated,” Irwin said, adding the high dropout rate among apprentices can be partly attributed to an often abusive shop environment. Bison attempts to ensure cohesiveness in the shop by involving its technicians in the hiring process. Rather than parachuting a new hire into the mix, they first allow existing technicians to interview the prospective hire, reducing the risk of personality conflicts.

A representative of Armour Transportation said carriers must compensate new hires fairly if they hope to retain them.

“We forget to pay the people right,” he accused the industry as a whole. “Don’t start them at $10 an hour. Start them at $15 so now they can live.”

His sage advice was greeted with a round of applause by other maintenance professionals in attendance.

“We need to be creative and we need to overpay them so they don’t leave and become a copier repairman making $40 an hour with $40 worth of tools,” agreed Stuart.

Maintenance managers also said they are fighting a constant battle in trying to shake the ‘grease monkey’ tag that paints the industry.

“There are so many computers in the vehicle today, it’s a very sophisticated piece of technology,” Braswell said. Brian Strach of the Penray Companies said fleets should invite local guidance counselors into their shops as well as students and their parents.

“We need to educate the parents, not just the kids,” he insisted. He pointed out a strong case can be made for a technical school considering only 36% of students enrolled in five-year university programs actually graduate.

“A technical program takes 20 months and then they’re earning money and they’re off their parents’ insurance,” he pointed out.

Another potential source for new recruits is the European industry according to a Bison representative. He said the company has looked to the U.K. to staff its Calgary shop and has recruited nearly 20 technicians from overseas.

“We’ve got some tremendous applications from the U.K.,” he said, adding they are brought to Canada under provincial nominee programs.

“Send them on an eight-hour trip with a driver,” he suggested. “It improves communication between the driver and mechanic. Send them out in the truck and their attitude will change.”

Braswell said drivers and maintenance staff should also work together to develop standardized definitions to simplify troubleshooting. That means clearly defining terms such as “shimmy” and “vibration.”

Finally, Shop Talk forum leaders said fleet managers must begin treating their technicians as professionals.

“A technician is not in the maintenance business,” insisted Stuart. “They are in the asset management business. Every check written by your company is written by a mechanic with an invisible pen.”

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