Where have all the technicians gone?

by James Menzies

Panelists on a Technology & Maintenance Council session on the shortage of diesel technicians took an introspective look at the issue and laid the blame for the current shortage squarely at the industry’s feet.

George Arrants of WheelTime said the industry has caused this shortage by failing to communicate to training institutions what is needed of graduating students and by doing too little to generate awareness and interest among prospective new talent. He noted the US, over the next few years, will experience its first shortage of human capital since WWII and it will be worse for employers seeking medium/heavy truck technicians because employers have not effectively engaged students and the institutions that train them.

“What education is teaching, and what we as an industry need, there’s a disconnect,” Arrants said. “That’s our doing. Any of you who serve on the advisory committee (of local training schools), raise your hand. The rest of you are part of the problem. If you’re not involved with your local schools, telling them what they need to do, you’re part of the problem.”

Arrants also said employers need to stop expecting recently graduated students to be productive on their first day on the job.

“You weren’t productive on your first day, why do we expect them to be?” he asked. “We need to mentor this generation.”

Panel moderator, Lou Stumpp of Navistar, said securing talent for the shop is like trying to land a sought-after free agent in sports.

The current generation is more likely to jump around between employers so more must be done to court and retain them.

Arrants added, “We created this generation, it’s our fault. We’ve been giving them a trophy for last place since they were six years old when we should’ve been telling them to pick another sport…They are entitled. We have to understand the way they think and engage them. They want a clean shop, they want a safe shop and they want to feel like part of a family. They want to feel needed.”

Arrants added young technicians don’t have a problem with the rules in the shop, they have an issue with the way those rules are enforced.

He said they need frequent encouragement and the occasional pat on the back.

Dave Williams, a retired Silver Spark Plug recipient who previously worked at Verizon, said the industry must do more to educate students and their parents about the opportunities that exist in the field. Kenneth Calhoun of Truck Centers of Arkansas, agreed, adding most of the people in the room at TMC started their careers on the shop floor.

“Today, you’re the directors, VPs, presidents,” he pointed out.

“We’re a career that does not have a career ladder, we have a career lattice,” added Arrants. “We’re the best kept secret out there. People don’t realize all the different things they can do with these foundational skills.”

Williams understands the difficulty of finding technicians first-hand. The company he previously worked for outsourced all its maintenance operations and then decided to bring it back in-house, necessitating the hiring of 157 technicians. It was a daunting task.

“We quickly realized we are not going to find the complete mechanic out there, looking for a job,” he said. The company found some success recruiting military veterans who are skilled, reliable and often willing to relocate if necessary.

Calhoun said his company employs an in-house apprenticeship program to develop talent, but finding takers is difficult. Apprentices spend half their day in training and the other half working on the shop floor alongside a mentor.

“We started a new group four weeks ago, and three of those six seats are empty today because I didn’t have the qualified applicants to plug into those spots,” he said.

Stumpp attributed part of the problem to the demise of mom-and-pop service centers, where many mechanics used to cut their teeth.

Arrants said employers need to work with nationally accredited schools to make sure their training programs are on the mark.

“All we have to do is go there and tell them what we need,” he said, adding industry should also give them tools such as unneeded cutaways and other resources that are often collecting dust in storage. Arrants encouraged employers to advise training institutions to put more emphasis on skills such as how to follow a troubleshooting tree, even though many young technicians want to dive right in to rebuilding engines.

When looking for young talent, Arrants said he looks first and foremost at a student’s attendance record.

“Schools make absence and tardiness acceptable,” he said. “Ten per cent absent is 10% of the time something didn’t get fixed. It’s unacceptable. I want to see your attendance. I don’t care about your grade point average, if you can’t show up on time I have no use for you. That’s the bottom line.”

Instilling an interest in the trade into students is time-consuming, but worthwhile and necessary, panelists agreed.

Calhoun speaks to eighth graders about opportunities in the field and they are shocked to hear the earning potential that exists. He even invites them into the shop to shadow technicians. Many are surprised by the complexity of the job.

“We have more technology on a truck than almost anything else that moves in our world,” added Stumpp.

Once a technician is successfully recruited, Williams suggested encouraging leadership within those employees to keep them engaged.

“We encourage these technicians to run this like it’s their own business,” he said. “They have to prioritize their work, they order their own parts, they work with the drivers and associates to get their vehicles scheduled in for maintenance and we give them objectives.”

Panelists and attendees also noted starting wages need to increase if the industry hopes to attract new technicians. Arrants said there has been progress in this area among dealers in the automotive industry.

“They are starting to adjust that starting wage,” he said. “We have to look at everything we’re investing in an individual who could be with us for a long time and part of that investment means ensuring they can at least live some kind of basic life with the salary we provide them. If not, they’re going to go somewhere else. We need to look at that and we need to look at that hard.”

There was also some discussion about the sizable investment a new technician must make in tools. While Arrants said tool suppliers heavily discount starter kits for students, it’s still a $3,500-$4,000 investment. One attendee noted it’s unheard of in Europe for a technician to pay for his own tools.

Arrants suggested buying tools for a new technician is likely cheaper than placing an ad for his or her replacement and he added if the shop owns the tools, a young tech is less likely to up and quit – taking his tools with him – when he’s having a bad day.

One mother in the room also addressed the high cost of schooling as an issue. She encouraged her son to become a diesel technician but when he calculated the cost of schooling combined with the cost of purchasing tools, the recruitment ads running on a local radio station funded by the electrical union began to sound pretty appealing, she added, highlighting the fact it’s not just the trucking industry that’s stepping up its search for new talent.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.