The professionals needed to repair heavy-duty trucks and commercial vehicles require a set of skills distinct from the “grease monkeys” of 40 years ago. It’s time the industry pivots to reflect this change, say those closest to the issue.
“Technology changes overnight and we have to stay on top of that. That’s the reason we call them technicians today,” instead of mechanics, says Paul Cupka, superintendent of training and quality assurance and support for Fairfax County (Virginia) Department of Vehicle Services. “They are not the grease monkeys of 40 years ago, who took things apart, then put them back together. Now technicians use computer software to find and fix problems.”
But many schools are still churning out technicians who cannot address these high-tech concerns. Cupka cites aftertreatment systems as a key example. Many technicians today still do not understand this system and therefore struggle with diagnosing it.
“Now we have to play catchup for a system that’s been in use since 2007,” Cupka says. “The same thing is happening with electric vehicles. Naysayers say ‘EVs won’t work for commercial fleets. They are just a fad.’ But we are heading in that direction, whether we like it or not.”
The industry faces a looming question: How will it train enough technicians on alternative-fuel engines, battery-electric vehicles, fuel-cell-electric vehicles, and the latest smart-screen dashboards? The need for new skills and knowledge has caused schools to upgrade their curricula. But how can fleets help address this critical issue?
There are no easy or concrete answers. But what is certain, says Cupka, is “we want to train techs on innovative technologies now, so we have technicians who can work on them later.”
Schools have enough students in the pipeline today, but not necessarily students mastering skills the diesel industry needs, says Robert Braswell, executive director of the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations. Educational gaps can take some of the blame for this. But fleets working in silos versus partnering with educational facilities share responsibility, too.
“If schools do not deliver the right skill sets when students matriculate, it’s a problem,” Braswell stresses. “Curricula must cover more than how to rebuild an engine. It must build soft skills and personal development and teach students on available technologies.”
What to Know About the Diesel Technician Shortage
The need for technicians trained on the latest technologies compounds an existing technician shortage.
“Technicians represent one of our biggest hiring and retention needs as an organization,” says Ron Schwartz, vice president of staffing for Penske Transportation Solutions.
Penske recruits heavily, partners with industry and education, and strives to retain existing technicians through a well-defined career path, mentorships and other incentives. Still, Schwartz laments, “There is a shortage of qualified new technicians entering the industry. There are not enough new techs available to replace those who are retiring.”
Penske’s concerns parallel a litany of complaints across the heavy-duty trucking industry. There are simply not enough technicians to go around. And those entering the industry rarely can replace all the knowledge of those exiting.
Heightening concerns are issues surrounding the industry’s need for technicians tomorrow and the educational pipeline of today. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for 2020-2030, demand for diesel technicians will continue to rise, albeit slightly slower than before, at about 1% a year. This growth will generate a need for 25,000 new diesel positions by 2030.
But that’s not accounting for the technicians that will be needed to replace those leaving the industry — 163,000 positions by 2030. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a huge spike in technicians changing careers, leaving the workforce or retiring early, says Mike Pressendo, chief marketing and strategy officer for TechForce Foundation.
“There’s no question that the technician shortage has grown more acute in the last decade,” TMC’s Braswell adds. “But the real question centers on the cause of the gap.”
TechForce Foundation’s 2021 Transportation Technician Supply and Demand Report explains the void as a matter of supply and demand. The demand for automotive, collision and diesel technicians in 2021 exceeded the number of technicians completing their certification in 2020 by over 500%. That means the industry must quintuple the number of technicians entering the field just to keep pace with current demands.
“There is a deficit between the number of available jobs versus the number of newly minted technicians,” says Dana Rapoport, TechForce consultant and author of “Women Techs: Solving the Tech Shortage Problem.” “We are not putting enough students into the front end, to pump out enough technicians after graduation to support the workforce.”
The pandemic also caused graduate numbers from qualified secondary programs to plummet, Pressendo adds. From 2012 to 2017, the industry saw a steady increase of students graduating from diesel tech post-secondary schools. Since 2020, that number has inched downward.
“We hear enrollments are up, but we lack current data to support that sentiment,” he says. “But we know education enrollment is up in general. A dicey economy often sends people back to school to retool.”
Receding concerns over COVID-19 also will push more students into the education system.
“COVID turned everything upside down and made it harder to go to post-secondary tech school, especially when students could not attend in person. That has changed,” he adds.
Overcoming Barriers to Becoming a Diesel Technician
People still apply the concept of dirty work to commercial vehicle repairs. It’s a stigma that persists and drives people away, according to Rapoport.
The people influencing students’ career paths still dissuade them from careers as diesel technicians.
“We still need to fight the stigma. The idea that, ‘I don’t want my kids to be a grease monkey’ or mechanic must change,” she says.
The educational system also must sift out tactile learners and nourish the way they learn. “Tactile learners make great technicians because their minds are on the problem-solving side of things,” she says.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes also can steer students toward these careers. Many students gravitate toward robotics and computer electronics, both of which are in high demand in the technician space. The industry needs these skills, and they are rewarding careers.
Encouraging job shadows and internships at the high school level can attract more students to the fold, as can recruiting students while they attend post-secondary education. Penske, for example, employs recruiters to forge working relationships at vocational-technical schools and at the high school level.
Still, TMC’s Braswell suggests recruiting should begin earlier than it does.
“We need to reach out at the elementary and middle school level, because it’s too late by high school,” he says. “By then, many students have already decided their career path.”
Penske also sees the need to intervene early. The company recently donated a 26-foot Freightliner M2 box truck to house the TechForce Mobile STEM Career Center. The traveling hands-on exhibit takes Gen Z on a discovery tour of the professional technician career path. The truck can offer indoor or outdoor displays and can scale from one to more than a dozen activities.
This vehicle now reaches thousands of kids. “From this experience, we then highlight Penske’s compelling career opportunity, which includes ongoing training, available career paths through technician and shop management, great compensation and benefits,” Schwartz says.
Another creative method of reaching out to young people is the TMC SuperTech augmented reality game, which lets players progress through a career as a maintenance technician to shop owner in the trucking industry. The app, sponsored by the Arkansas Office of Skills Development, TA Petro, Cummins, Dana, and others, is inspired by TMC’s national technician skills competition.
“This is what’s needed to reach students,” Braswell says. “For far too long, education has discouraged tactile learners from pursuing their career interests. The idea is everybody must attend college. But there are a lot of other opportunities for these students.”
Kimberly Fanning, national program manager for Universal Technical Institute, agrees. “It’s critical that students, parents, and educational influencers like high school counselors are aware of the demand for skilled workers,” she says. “With some training programs lasting less than a year, UTI graduates can be prepared for lifelong, fulfilling careers. Students who enjoy hands-on work are well-suited for these careers.”
The move toward skilled trades in general has gained momentum, adds TechForce’s Pressendo. A national study has tracked the percentage of high school seniors who choose two-year versus four-year degrees. The proportion of high-schoolers who are considering a four-year education has plummeted from 71% to 48% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey by the ECMC Group, a nonprofit student loan guaranty agency that also operates career schools.
“This year, for the first time, the study showed high school seniors were looking equally at tech and trade schools as they were four-year institutions,” he says. “The word is getting out that a four-year degree doesn’t guarantee a job. Sometimes students come out with a lot of debt and struggle to find employment. We are doing a better job of showing that the trades offer viable careers that are well compensated, high tech, with good benefits.”
Scholarships also help drive this effort. TMC and Old World Industries have partnered to offer a series of scholarships for students looking to pursue an education in heavy-duty commercial vehicle maintenance. The PEAK Performance Scholarships will support two students with up to $12,500 each for their education at a college or vocational school.
To qualify, students must have a 2.5 or higher grade point average and graduate from an accredited vocational, public, private, or parochial high school. A 400-word letter must accompany their applications and explain why they seek a career as a tech in commercial transportation maintenance.
“Finding innovative solutions to our industry’s ongoing technician shortage is a priority for TMC, and the council is pleased to partner with OWI to bring this scholarship opportunity to fruition,” Braswell says. “The initiative, which adds to TMC’s existing portfolio of scholarship offerings, will provide greater choice for deserving scholarship-seeking students looking to prepare for a career as a commercial vehicle technician.”
How to Drive Techs to the Trucking Industry
According to Fullbay’s 2022 State of the Heavy-Duty Repair Industry Report, over half of responding fleet and independent shops identified hiring techs as their top challenge, while 65% found hiring “difficult.”
Some organizations and companies are developing innovative technician training programs that get students into the field faster than a traditional two-year program.
One is New Village Institute Blairsville, a Pennsylvania diesel and automotive training school that opened in January. The campus, once a WyoTech campus that closed in 2018, has compressed training time into a six-month program broken into four six-week units. NVI partnered with fleets, such as PGT, United Rentals, Pitt Ohio, Penske, Ryder and Waste Management, to tailor curricula to their needs to provide the right educational mix and resources so technicians can contribute their first day on the job.
“Our industry-experienced instructors teach all the core skills our employer partners told us they need,” New Village Institute CEO Gary Beeman says. “By focusing on those needs, we are able to get technicians through comprehensive training in six months instead of the standard one to two years, and at a significantly lower cost that can greatly expand the population of prospective students. Through our New Village Foundation and our strategic industry partners such as PGT, we can offer many prospective students loans and/or grants that they otherwise might not be able to qualify for.”
UTI also keeps momentum moving with its Manufacturer-Specific Advanced Training (MSAT) programs for students who complete its core diesel program.
“We have four diesel programs that are directly associated with diesel OEMs,” UTI’s Fanning explains. “All of our OEM partners keep programs updated with trucks, engines and equipment, and help supply current curriculum. The curriculum offered in these programs mirrors what a technician in the field would receive at a training class.”
OEM and fleet partners help UTI ensure its educational offerings hit the mark. Fanning explains OEM partners invest in technology to keep their programs state of the industry. The Peterbilt program, for example, recently invested in ARTech, a specialized iPad that allows technicians to use three-dimensional and augmented reality views of chassis-specific wiring harnesses on Peterbilt trucks.
UTI also has partnered with Bosch to develop an electric-vehicle curriculum. And partners are adding EV courses to MSAT training programs to produce graduates with EV certifications.
Schools such as WyoTech, UTI and the University of Northwest Ohio are progressive, but some programs are less so, says TMC’s Braswell.
“Often people who are very set in their ways in terms of curriculum lead these programs,” he says. “That’s something that must change.”
What Trucking Fleets Can Do to Combat the Diesel Technician Shortage
Most fleets don’t have the resources to set up their own technician training program, as Republic Services did last year. The Dallas program was developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor and Lincoln Tech, a provider of post-secondary education for auto, diesel, and skilled trades. Students are paid during the 12-week program and upon graduation begin full-time work at one of Republic’s local business units.
But there’s much that fleets can do to move the needle forward, TMC’s Braswell says. Fleets can partner with their local educational boards to ensure they know what companies really need. Collaborative partnerships between industry and education ensure students receive the right training from the get-go. But, he adds, fleets also must develop internal mentoring programs and career paths for graduates entering the workforce.
He advises putting a detailed plan in place.
“TMC has developed baselines for apprenticeship programs,” he says. “Address this issue on two fronts. Work with the educational system to ensure the technician skill set is there when they apply for the job. But also develop a plan to work with new hires through the first 24 months. People who do not have an enjoyable experience in the beginning will leave.”
Assigning a mentor also can help in the early days, he adds.
“It shows the company cares about their success,” he says. “A lot of times people experience the opposite on the job.”
Incorporating a growth path with incentives also aids retention. Fairfax County incentivizes techs to train and gain certifications as they go. Technicians can register for certifications and if they pass the test, the county immediately reimburses them for the registration fee. Near Christmas, techs also receive a bonus based on the certifications they have. The more certifications they have, the more they receive, Cupka says.
“We must focus on attracting and keeping technicians,” he says. “If they are stuck doing the same thing every day with little progress to higher skills and promotion, you will lose them. Someone will offer them more money and they will leave to work for them because you provide little more than a paycheck.”
Efforts to Attract and Retain Technicians in the Trucking Industry
“Hit recruiting from all angles,” says Penske’s Schwartz.
Fleets must consider current and former techs, tech students, and extend recruiting efforts to the military and nontraditional trades such as construction, HVAC, or electrical.
“This leads to some productive conversations with individuals considering an industry shift, but also attracts students who can leverage their experiences to work on more sophisticated trucks,” Schwartz says.
One group that has generated limited attention until now is women.
“Women bring a tremendous skill set to a technician position,” TechForce’s Rapoport says. “Women are detail-oriented problem solvers who are aligned and organized in their diagnostic approach.”
Women also represent a group of people the industry hasn’t tapped into before, she adds. In the past, educators and other influencers pushed women who were “tinkerers” or “car girls” into other jobs. The women who entered the field had people in their lives who encouraged them or tough life experiences that hardened their resolve.
“They had a tenaciousness that said, ‘I don’t care what people think. This is what I enjoy doing,’” she says.
UTI puts an emphasis on attracting female techs. The technical school has partnered with Ignite Worldwide, a national nonprofit whose mission is to achieve gender and racial equity in STEM education and careers. This partnership allows UTI to offer scholarships to female high school students who plan to train there. The school also hosts hundreds of high school girls at virtual and on-campus panels to attract them to the transportation industry.
Fairfax County has had tremendous success employing women, Cupka says. The county’s two female techs are a true asset to its team. He explains they listen well and are open to additional education and training.
Welcoming women and other groups to fill open positions makes sense. But just hiring women or someone from a minority group does not mean they will stay, Rapoport warns.
In her interviews with female technicians, Rapoport discovered these techs were often the first female technician at their shop, lacked a locker room of their own to change in, and encountered company cultures ill-equipped to prevent gender bias.
“It’s important that employers educate male employees before hiring a woman,” she says. “This should be part of every diversity training effort. Organizations also must develop their own diversity, equity, and inclusion statements. Make sure that the entire organization supports these policies. If you’re going to employ women, it’s unacceptable to have pinup calendars in the bay or an old boy’s club. Employers must set standards that ensure they offer an equal and fair place to work, and then lead by example.”
Like everyone else, women want a career path that grows their knowledge and their skills. A lack of one will drive many qualified technicians out the door. TechForce’s Pressendo shares an instance where a female technician considered leaving the industry after seeing male counterparts promoted while the shop kept her on the lube rack.
“Another shop under the same brand bought her out of the contract,” he says. “She’s become one of the highest-performing people at the shop. People love working with her. The problem wasn’t her, it was the culture at the other shop.”
Recruiting efforts also must evolve to attract other groups. If an employer places a job advertisment with an image in it, that image should reflect diversity.
“It shows you are welcoming to other groups and that you’re prepared for them,” Rapoport says.
The technician shortage lacks a short-term answer. But fleets that think long-term will do better than those that don’t. These forward thinkers will partner with education and industry to access recent graduates trained to their needs. They will recruit well and from diverse groups. And they will do what it takes to keep technicians for the long haul.