Motor carriers are finding themselves grappling with more than one employment squeeze. On one side of the spectrum they are still trying to find enough truck drivers to fill their cabs and on the other side they are trying to find enough technicians to fill their shops. And with the problem compounding by the day, it is a not-so-secret problem that every motor carrier struggles with.
In fact, according to the TechForce Foundation, nearly 300,000 new diesel technicians will be needed over the next decade. Do the math and that amounts to 30,000 per year. The TechForce Foundation is a nonprofit that works to raise awareness about potential tech careers among school-age students. Big trucking companies, such as Penske Truck, are partnering with the TechForce Foundation to bring aboard the vast numbers of technicians they will need.
Consider that the profession of diesel technician ranks 208th on the list of college or university majors supported by Federal Funding, and it isn’t difficult to see where the problem lies. Even more, across the United States, there are only 173 colleges that offer courses in diesel technology. Of the colleges that do, enrollments are relatively small compared to industry need. Most classes that graduate students out of a diesel technology program only graduate 20 students. Many students may drop out before the end of the program due to either time, cost, or interest.
Many programs are also not prepared to train their students on the technologies that are currently built into modern diesel engines. With new onboard safety technologies, computers, and a we of interconnected technologies all snaking their way through a big rig, trade schools need to stay at the front of the technological bell curve and many simply aren’t doing so.
Organizations like the TechForce Foundation exist to combat these problems and help fulfill a need in this low unemployment environment. Positions across the fleet spectrum are harder than ever to fill. Also consider that trucking companies are not the only entities who require the expertise that a diesel technician brings to the table. The diesel technician shortage represents a larger problem facing companies: A decline in the skilled trades.
With such a competitive employment market, students are coming out of high school and choosing employment options that often don’t include a look at the trades. Long-term cultural and demographic shifts result in students looking on working in a fleet shop less appealing. Many of the Vocational/Technical schools that used to prepare students for these careers have slowly been disappearing across the country.
There has been an education gap. Diesel technicians suffer from an image problem. Potential employees must be educated regarding what type of job this has turned into. Being a diesel technician is no longer a dirty, greasy, un-sexy job. In many cases, modern diesel technician works with a computer far more often than they work with a wrench.
Even more, motor carriers have been investing quite a bit into their shops. Whether it be better lighting, climate control, or advanced machinery, diesel technicians can expect a lot more from their fleets today than they might have even a decade ago. A lot of this is driven from the simple fact that modern trucks are a lot more complex today than they were a decade or more ago. Fleets must make investments that emphasize user uptime and answering complexity.
By highlighting the technical aspect of the job, high-school aged job applicants consider these positions less of something dirty and unglamorous and something more akin to a job of the future. With demographic shifts, fleets must also adjust who they are targeting. There has been a huge push to reach out more to women truck drivers, but what about women diesel technicians?
Trucking companies and organizations are also targeting military veterans transitioning back into the civilian workforce. Vets with GI Bill benefits can also gain access to the training necessary to ensure they get a position in a fleet shop. In other cases, military veterans may already have the training they need to work on diesel engines coming out of the service. With just a little tweaking to account for the particular technology they are working on, these servicemen and women are the perfect fit to help fill the gaps.
Another group trying to make inroads in impacting the technician shortage is the National Transportation Center, a group dedicated to helping fleets attract, train and retain necessary workers, whether they be truck drivers or diesel technicians. One of the main problems the NTC hopes to address is a matter of outreach. Historically, the transportation sector has had a poor record highlighting itself to young people.
Attempting to address this challenge, the NTC holds boot camps at FedEx Express Maintenance facilities. These boot camps, aimed at high-school aged kids, walk kids through the maintenance facility and hosts technicians who talk to the kids about potential career opportunities. More importantly, they talk to the kids about not just a career job, but a career lattice.
Many students looking into potential fleet jobs may not realizing that diesel technicians go through rungs of their career. There are entry-, mid-, and master-level technicians, with each rung carrying with it a certain pay raise and benefits level.
In the NTC boot camps, students are also taught that there are ways to advance into different departments while staying in the maintenance field. They could go on to become trainers or even managers. The point is that there are many different tracks that diesel technicians can go on, besides just being a technician. There is a process for advancement and promotion and understanding this helps in both the recruiting and retaining efforts. In many fleets, vice presidents and members of upper management started at the bottom and grew with the company.
From Recruiting to Training
Once you have got a young person’s interest and they sign up to enter the technician pipeline, the next step is evaluating how you will approach training. Some fleets are approaching the training expense paradigm by establishing tax-free educational assistance programs. They are helping students who choose to attend trade schools to become technicians by covering books and materials costs.
While some students can choose to enter a secondary tech school, not everyone goes that route. Others can decide to enter the workforce straight away. When trade schools and trucking companies partner with high schools, they can put programs in place that shepherd freshman and junior students through cooperative education programs. These programs allow students to get the training they need while also getting paid.
Naturally, upon graduating, many of the students within these programs go on to full-time employment with the company they had been training with while in school. These types of programs provide not only a way for students to make some money, but it also instills them with a sense of pride and motivation, setting them up to enter their full-time job ready to go.
Fleets are also doing more than just offering support and funding, they are also developing industry and school partnerships that include things like T-shirts, educational materials, banners, workshops, and more. Current technicians also go into schools and provide mentorship to kids in the pipeline, providing a first-hand look at what one can expect out of the job.
OEMs are also getting in on the game, with companies like Cummins offering the Technical Education for Communities (TEC) program. The TEC program is designed to work with high schools to offer on-site education and enrollment classes for students. Students who enroll in the TEC program learn the skills necessary to work on and maintain diesel engines and can either earn a certificate to immediately enter the workforce upon graduating or receive transfer credits for entry into a technical college.
Trucking industry trade groups such as the ATA are also creating their own programs. Through their Technology & Maintenance Council, the ATA is developing a formal apprenticeship program for individuals looking to begin their career in a diesel technician program. The program works in concert with the Expanding Apprenticeships in America executive order signed by President Trump in 2017.
With recognition that this needs to be addressed from the industry, advocacy, and political spectrum, both the Department of Labor and states are getting in on the action. The DOL runs a Registered Apprenticeship Program, though this program has not been able to keep up with the demand required by the trucking industry. As with many government programs, bureaucratic red tape and administrative hang ups hamper what would otherwise be a far more effective program.
In the end, fleets must focus on organically growing their own technician program. They must be able to rely on the expertise of those already on the company payroll to ensure applications are being put in, training goals are being met, and staffing needs are not going unaddressed. With no end in sight for the expanding transportation sector, trucking companies need to stay on top of these needs or risk being left out when it comes to finding top talent.