Who will fix the trucks?

by James Menzies

Rarely does a month go by in which Brent Edmonson doesn’t receive an unsolicited e-mail or phone call offering him a job as a truck and coach technician.

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Brent Edmonson at work

“I keep getting e-mails, phone calls, hits on LinkedIn non-stop from people I don’t even know,” he says. “I ask, ‘How the heck did you get my number?’ and they’ve gone through five or six people to get it, just to see if I want to go work for them. Quite often, they say ‘What will it take to get you here?’ They’re not even saying what they pay, they’re saying ‘Name your price and we’ll see what we can do’.” 

Such is the demand for experienced truck and coach technicians. Edmonson, at 36 years of age, is younger than most of his peers and engaged with the industry through social media. He works for independent shop Transaxle Service Centre in Aberfoyle, Ont. and sees first-hand how demand for technicians like him is outpacing the arrival of new talent into the industry.

“Every shop is swamped,” he says. “We’re run off our feet. It’s been non-stop, go-go-go. The work keeps piling up. Half of the guys in our shop are over 50 and we’re realizing, in five, 10, 15 years, when all the baby-boomers have retired, we’re going to be in trouble.”

Employers are realizing that, too. Some are randomly calling up technicians and trying to poach them from the competition with sweet offers of more money and better benefits. Others are taking a longer view and developing talent from scratch.

Bison Transport falls into the latter category, and it’s a point of pride for Jeremy Gough, the Calgary-based director of fleet maintenance, who is responsible for overseeing Bison’s national maintenance operations.

“You can hire for today, but you need to create for tomorrow,” Gough says. “We always want to be very strategic about not only recruiting for our place, but to recruit people into the industry.”

This means reaching out to high schools, technical schools and other post-secondary institutions wherever Bison has terminals. Bison participates in job fairs and offers scholarships for students. It seeks out ex-military servicemen and women who are transitioning back into civilian life.

Gough looks for potential recruits that exhibit a good attitude above all else.

“Hire for attitude, train for skill,” he says.

Other attributes he looks for are the ambition to carve a career path and a hunger for continuous learning. While developing a technician from scratch is generally more costly than hiring a seasoned technician, Gough said it’s also more rewarding.

“There needs to be a consistent, well thought out process to bringing those entry-level people in and setting them up for success,” he says. “It might take a little longer than your highly skilled technician that already has his licence and has been through that, but the rewards that come out of there from creating an entire team are greater. It’s like being a hockey coach. Someone may not be the best right winger but if you consistently give them opportunities and new challenges and support them, you’re going to make them better.”

Ed Roeder, LCL director, transport maintenance with Loblaws Canada, when speaking at the 2015 PIT Group conference, said maintenance managers have a responsibility to cultivate talent.

“Apprenticeship is expensive, it can be frustrating as hell, but I do encourage you if you manage fleets or even manage a third party, to hire an apprentice because if we don’t hire them, train and give back, the shortage is going to kill this industry,” he warned.

The right mix

The constant challenge when mixing apprentices with seasoned technicians is to achieve the right balance, but Bison’s Gough said there’s no perfect ratio because when talent becomes available, you must always be willing to recruit.

“If you see somebody that’s full of talent, you can’t stop recruiting,” he says.

Attracting young technicians is just part of the battle. Retaining them is equally important, especially when the investment has been made in helping them become licensed and they begin receiving those phone calls with alluring promises of more money. This is where developing a positive corporate culture rich with opportunities for further learning and continuous engagement pays off, says Gough.

“It’s very tough to leave family,” he says. “We do a lot of things outside the box.”

Bison offers flexible work shifts, has gyms available at most of its facilities, recognizes achievements through awards programs and banquets and celebrates its culture through events such as barbecues.

Gough said providing technicians with the opportunity to bring forward new ideas and suggestions is just as important, when it comes to retention.

“Treat them as an owner,” he advises. “Their voice is always heard when they see a new opportunity. We empower them to elevate our business.”

Edmonson agrees such initiatives are important, as are common perks like boot and tool allowances. However, he also offers suggestions on how those could be improved. Edmonson says he has spent $75,000 on tools since he entered the trade 15 years ago – roughly $5,000 per year – and that investment benefits his employer as well.

“I can’t stand borrowing other peoples’ tools and having more, I’m able to work quicker, easier and more efficiently,” he points out. So, why don’t employers do more to assist technicians with the purchase of tools, he wonders, including ensuring they actually use their tool allowances for the intended purposes?

“Some places, once a year will give you a cheque for $1,000 and call that a tool or a boot allowance,” he says. “Well, a couple hundred bucks is deducted right away for taxes. Why doesn’t the owner go out to the Snap-on tool truck and give every guy a thousand bucks? And then you know it’s actually going towards tools and a guy isn’t going to buy a big screen TV to put in his man cave. You’re basically reinvesting in the company because you know those tools are going to be bought and will be in the shop.”

Edmonson also agrees the workplace environment is important. Technicians don’t want to work in a dingy, rundown shop, he reasons. And flexible working hours are important if employers want to hang on to technicians as their lives evolve.

Edmonson says flexible working hours are one of the reasons he has remained at Transaxle despite frequent offers to go elsewhere. When he began his career he regularly put in 60-70 hours a week.

Now, with a young child at home, he has scaled back his working hours to 40 or 50 per week – straight days – so he can spend more time with his family.

He also relishes the opportunity to do side jobs, repairing trucks for friends and family, something that many employers won’t tolerate.

“At dealers, you’re often asked to sign a contract saying you will not work elsewhere,” he says. “I won’t stand for that.”

Edmonson enjoys working at an independent service shop because of the regular hours, the accessibility of the owners and the ability to work outside a major city.

“Everybody calls you by your name. You put your name on the work order, not a mechanic’s number that’s four or five digits long,” he says.

But he acknowledges training opportunities are sometimes too few when you are working for a smaller, independent organization.

“If you’re not working in a dealership environment, training opportunities are few and far between,” he claims. “Everybody wants to be continually trained. The technology is changing so fast now. You don’t want a truck rolling in the door with something you’ve never seen before. It’s going to be pretty intimidating, to say the least.”

Failing to provide adequate ongoing training, when truck technology is evolving so rapidly, will leave technicians in the lurch and unable to effectively do their jobs, according to Loblaws’ Roeder.

“If the truck can’t do its work, it’s no good to anybody and if we can’t fix it, that’s an even bigger challenge,” he said. “It’s no offense to the technicians – it’s about training. Training, and patience on an employer’s part to allow these people to get better at what they do and to understand the products that are out there.”

Second career

Samantha Sharpe, a first-year diesel mechanic apprentice with Nova Truck Centres in Dartmouth, N.S., says companies looking to proactively develop new talent should seek out future technicians who are looking for a second career. And she speaks from experience.

Sharpe earned a diploma in early childhood education, a field she worked in for about six years before seeking something that would be more rewarding. She enrolled at a local college part-time and was paired with Nova Truck Centres, which hired her full-time just four shifts into her work term there.

Now, she’s working towards obtaining her red seal certification, a Canada-wide program that requires 8,000 hours of work experience and four blocks of classroom instruction, each lasting six to eight weeks.

Sharpe says she joined Nova Truck Centres because it was the most visible among employers in working with local colleges.

“As far as I was concerned, Nova Truck Centres was the only truck centre that was looking (for apprentices),” she says. “If you’re not already into the trucking or car industry, you have no idea these places exist.”

Sharpe is now active in promoting the trade to others – male or female.

“It’s an interesting job in general, not just for a female,” she says. “I really don’t like to be treated any differently than anybody else.”

She says to attract more young people into the trade, employers need to do a better job with outreach to students and educating them about the opportunities that exist. Edmonson agrees, but adds they should take it even further and seek out potential recruits where they spend their recreational time.

“Not only should they go into high schools to approach kids, but when trying to find truck and coach technicians, go to where you think future technicians may be,” he suggests. “Go to the truck show, the local drag strip, the race track, where gearheads tend to congregate during their leisure time. Set up a booth there. Get them interested. That way it’s not a blanket approach like going to a high school where only 1-2% of the kids will be interested.”

And once you find these potential recruits, don’t forget to mention that it’s an extremely rewarding career – and the rewards come in many forms, it’s not all about the money.

When asked about the most rewarding aspects of their career, young technicians turn surprisingly sentimental.

For Sharpe, it’s about contributing to the success of the company she works for and its customers. She cites “Growing clientele,” as the most rewarding aspect of the job. “Helping people,” she adds. “Sometimes they’ll come back and they specifically ask for you to work on their truck, which is nice. Knowing that when I pass a truck on the highway, that it was one I worked on.”

Edmonson agrees.

“I couldn’t be happier,” he says of his career choice. “I’m always learning. Everything is constantly changing and to me, it’s a necessary job. Freight has to move. People have to eat. Food has to get from the farmer’s field to the supermarket to your kitchen and if the truck stops, everything grinds to a halt. Watching that truck go down the road loaded after you did a ton of work on it, knowing everything is working as it should be, is one of the most satisfying things.”

– This topic will be explored in detail at the upcoming Canadian Fleet Maintenance Summit. Visit www.TruckSummit.ca for details and to register.

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  • I have been in the heavy truck trade for 50 years. Five of those years were spent working as a instructor of truck/coach at Community colleges. Funding for the Colleges was poor for the automotive and heavy truck areas. When offered a instructors job with Navistar International Trucks, I signed on for the next 15 years. Navistar spent thousands of dollars equipping my training truck to travel all over Canada providing up-date training to dealers and Navistar customers as well. I loved the job and was well supported by Navistar Canada. Dealer tech’s enjoyed having this training brought to their door. Most of the tech’s I worked with wanted more training and I know they still feel this way. More manufacturers should be involved in this matter. I operate a Training company as we speak but have few calls for my service to provide on site training once the customer see’s the cost. Training can be viewed as a not required cost of doing business, I also build training displays for Colleges but few for the truck industry. As for the tool issue, Revenue Canada does little for the automotive tech when it comes to tax deductions. No other trade requires a worker to spend soo much on tools. This has been an issue since I entered the trade in the early sixties. I recently purchased a new lap top and a communication adaptor so my lap top will talk to ABS Control units. Those tools just set me back almost $ 2000.00. I would like to purchase a new Scan tool for engine diagnostics but don’t have $ 10,000.00 for that tool which may or may not cover all diesel engines. The high cost of tooling for this trade and in many cases, low wages do not inspire new people to enter the trade. For me, this trade has been good to me and would do nothing else. I constantly consul young people to get involved with the heavy truck repair trade. We need the brightest young people out there and I shall continue to promote my trade to the younger folks!!

  • Mr. Gough will take Bison Transport into the best future positioning for a top-notch maintained fleet!

    Kudos to him for understanding the dynamics of the current Candidate market-base and for remaining in touch with the ongoing development of their ‘human capital’.

    Pretty apparent on how it’s grown their organization – well done!

  • Firstly cudos for the well written article on the coming shortage of trained technicians.
    I have been a red seal heavy duty tech. for well over 45 years,two years ago I damaged one of my knees doing a job on a truck that really should have had help,but no help was not available, over the last two years with help from the medical people my knee has been replaced and i am now fit to go back to work. BUT being a senior mechanic ,I still feel that I am now healthy enough to return to work, but when employers find how old I am, I’m sort of overlooked, I have had a lot of experience over all the years I’ve been mechanicing. I am in my 70s and no-one is interested I giving me a try. I really have no interest in retiring yet, but maybe i’ll have to. Its a shame to waste all my training and experience.!!

  • N reeves

    This is how it is, the current trucking industry is a complete mess if not chaos, from truck driver shortage to qualified mechanics, juniors can learn a lot from seniors, its just guidance, thats all. Me being 5 years behind the wheel for long distance and now out of trucking and i know how frustrating for me to bring the truck to garage over and over again for same problem.

    Being at 70, you can still teach those juniors a lot

  • Lack of wages is and has always been the problem. Mechanics have to buy their own tools. That comes out of their pay. Young people have the ability to learn this profession, but they can’t support a family on it in today’s economy. Best if they find another career path. Ultimately, it will take a toll on them physical also. Back,knees, joints etc. Health plans lack in this industry also.