Drivers may be the ones who deliver the freight, but without technicians, the trucks would eventually stop rolling. Many of the most experienced technicians have reached retirement age and left the workforce, leaving a void that must be filled by younger workers. But they must be trained, and trucking companies are challenged by the ongoing task of recruitment, and more importantly, retention.
Like other industries, trucking is faced with the retirement of many veteran workers from the Baby Boomer generation.
The average age of a technician is getting younger, according to Terry Rivers, senior manager of vehicle services training, Cox Automotive Mobility. A decade ago, the average age of a diesel technician was mid-50s. Today, he says, it’s mid-40s.
Just look at the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, he says, where the age of the industry leaders in maintenance is much younger than it was a decade ago.
With the retirement of most experienced techs, the industry also lost a lot of knowledge and ability. Rivers says for every seven of these veteran technicians who have left the industry, because of the loss of expertise garnered from decades of experience, it will take 10 technicians to fill the void.
Where are new technicians coming from and how are they trained? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 4% growth in diesel technicians by 2030.
“There’s not a whole lot changing in respect to new technicians coming into the business. So that's an ongoing challenge,” explains Victor Cummings, Rush Enterprises vice president of service operations.
“Recently, we’ve had some success with increasing our student loan reimbursement amounts, and we've had some good influence with techs coming out of the schools.”
Rivers says there is a need for accelerated diesel technician training, similar to what Cox Automotive Mobility offers through its FleeTec Academy locations. With the need for new technicians, Rivers expects there will be an increase in training academies or programs offered at tech schools.
But he cautions that some technical colleges ask technicians to study for four years, which leaves them with high student loan debt.
“They want you to go spend 60 grand and four years of your life there before you ever turn a wrench,” Rivers says.
He says whether new technicians come from a four-year tech school or an expedited training course, they will all begin their career doing the same thing — preventive maintenance and other low-level technician tasks.
“Everyone starts out doing PMs no matter what their background is,” he says.
Recruitment and Retention
A key factor in efforts to recruit future technicians is encouraging younger people to consider the career path.
Joe Aschoff, Rush Enterprises director of service, Peterbilt, points out that both Peterbilt and Navistar are reaching out to high schools and getting involved, and Rush has been teaming up with high schools and providing mentoring.
Rush has an internship program to work with students in school, whether trade school or high school, and provides a curriculum that they follow.
“They have a required curriculum that they complete, we look at their proficiency performance, and they get to experience work in the dealership environment on kind of an introductory or gradual basis versus just full throttle right out of trade school,” adds Cummings. He expects to see more high schools gravitating back toward vocational programs, as well.
Level 1, 2, and 3 technicians, in particular young techs, more commonly leave one shop and jump to another employer, says Aschoff. But often they return to Rush later.
“I think a lot of that is youth, experience, expectations,” Cummings says. “The lower-level techs, the tenure is much shorter, but we do have a few that stick with it from start to finish. But we do have a very high percentage of technicians that leave and come back several months to a year later. In fact, it's run as high as 22%.” And when they come back, they tend to stay.
Rusty Rush, president and CEO of Rush Enterprises, says once techs get past Level 2, they are more likely to stay, and the turnover rate drops significantly.
The shop culture is an important factor in whether a technician stays or leaves for greener pastures.
Any techs who are toxic or drag down the positive culture must be weeded out, says Michael McDonald, who’s senior director of maintenance at Benore Logistic Systems. Some of those individuals later request to rejoin the team, but the answer is no.
“The culture of the shop is huge. I always say people leave over management or toxic work environments; that’s when they get to looking,” McDonald explains. “A lot of times they'll leave for more money. But if they were really happy, they probably wouldn’t be looking, and they wouldn't have noticed that there’s more money somewhere else.”
Mead has noticed the same trend of culture being king.
“If you talk to technicians, they don’t leave for pay, and in most cases, they leave for atmosphere, leadership reasons,” he says. “A lot of the companies that have great retention picked up their shop retention basically by showing appreciation and other ways.”
Things like offering more training so technicians can shape a career path can be huge. Or, it may be as simple as occasionally feeding the shop techs, even taking time to eat with them. Creating that spirit of “family” helps techs feel at home and belong. Tool allowances, scheduling flexibility, and other considerations also can help build a healthy workplace they’re less likely to leave.
“Any perk you come up with to help retention really doesn't replace a strong salary,” Mead says. “So that's still important, but it still allows them to feel like they’re there and at home.”
“If there's any hesitation on a technician saying that they trust the leadership or even their teammates, I want to do things to eradicate that, because the lack of trust is toxic to any organization,” McDonald says.
Pay, Benefits, and Incentives
McDonald has seen technician pay and benefits increase in recent years. At Benore, for example, they have added a tool reimbursement program. The technician pay structure has been built around factors such as differential pay for night work and having a CDL. Benore has also added sign-on bonuses and has a 401(k) plan with a company match.
“A lot of your benefits that I think weren’t as commonplace in truck technician pay structures in the past, we’ve added those now,” McDonald says. “We are seeing senior-level techs that are making over $100,000 a year.
“You’re dealing with that level of individual that’s looking for those wages and benefits and 401(k) and career advancement and progression throughout the company, and they want a clear career plan.”
For a new technician, building up his or her inventory of tools can be daunting, and a huge financial obstacle. At Cox Automotive Mobility, all technician students who complete training at either FleeTec Academy location will receive $20,000 in tools, basically everything they need to start a career.
If they stay with the company for two years, the tools are theirs to keep.
Many employers are incentivizing new hires by helping pay for the training they received in a technical school. Rush Enterprises, for instance, will provide a stipend to cover up to $30,000 worth of student loan payments spread over five years. Depending on the residual amount of the loan, that repayment may be quicker, but it never extends longer than five years, according to Cummings.
“I think with the larger employers, reimbursement amounts range considerably,” he says. “But if you’re looking for the cream of the crop, somebody that’s invested $30,000 to $40,000 going to trade school, I don’t think you’re going to have much of a chance if you don’t offer student loan reimbursement when you consider a young professional coming out of trade school with that kind of debt.”
Entry-level pay for a new technician, Cummings explains, ranges from about $18 to $24 per hour depending on the location. But if a technician sticks with the career, Aschoff says, he or she can eventually make $55 to $60 per hour.
Training On New Technologies
Most commercial truck technicians are diesel mechanics, but as the trucking industry increasingly focuses on a shift to lower- or zero-emissions, some of those techs will need to learn how to work on alternative powertrains.
Cummings says currently, training on electric vehicles is sporadic or fragmented, because everyone is still trying to shape out what techs will need to train on moving forward.
“We’re building out training modules to educate our employees internally and provide those training modules just to kind of get a baseline,” he says. “That’s definitely something that technicians today, veteran and new, need to migrate into to know what’s available and really embrace it. There’s still so much to learn.”
Aschoff expects each shop will have a couple of techs who learn about battery-electric vehicles, in a similar fashion to when techs started learning about natural-gas vehicles 15 years ago. Not every tech will have to learn every alternative powertrain, but techs wanting to learn more will be drawn to whatever interests them.
“I think the field will become more specialized as the vehicles develop, the EV and hybrids, because the product is so technical,” Cummings says.
Cox Automotives’ Rivers knows electric-truck and component manufacturers can train technicians on specific EV systems. However, he says, technicians should learn the basics of EVs in advance of OE-specific training.
“We built our own internal agnostic EV training program because the OEMs were not doing it. And all the OEMs we deal with love that we did that,” Rivers says. “It helps them streamline their training because they don’t have to teach the fundamentals of electric vehicles. They only have to teach what’s unique about their specific vehicle.”
Powers says 10% of mechanics working for Cox Automotive Mobility are EV-certified to Level 2 EV standards.
He says most OEMs that provide electric vehicle training ask for technicians to be sent for a week of training but thinks the industry needs to shift to more remote learning so technicians are not pulled out of the shop.
If each of the 1.75 million technicians in the country had to be removed from the workplace for 50 hours one week to be sent to training on EVs, Rivers says, using an average labor rate of $130 an hour, more than a billion dollars of work and more than 100 years of labor hours would not get done that week on internal combustion engine vehicles.
“We have to make it accessible online so they can learn remotely. We have to make it easy. We have to revolutionize the way we train our mechanics,” Rivers explains.
Replace Rather Than Repair
Cummings thinks the industry will increasingly see truck components, such as transmissions, being removed and returned to OEMs for repair rather than being rebuilt by a technician locally. He points to the new fully integrated S13 drivetrain by Navistar as an example.
“I think you'll see more of that just out of necessity, I think the business will drive that,” Cummings adds. “The industry is definitely going to a more fully integrated product, and as the complexity increases, I just see that evolution coming.”
When he and Aschoff started as technicians, starters, alternators, water pumps, and many more components would be rebuilt locally in the shop, he says. That is no longer happening.
Rivers notes that rebuilding an engine, for instance, takes time, and the best option is the one that gets the truck back on the road as soon as possible.
“If a guy's making three grand with his truck every single day and you pull his truck down for an entire month to rebuild an engine that you could just swap out with a good one in less than a day, you're doing everybody a disservice,” Rivers says. “So, there's that reason why nobody does on-site engine remans anymore. Just swap it out.”
Rivers also thinks that soon fleets may be faced with a choice to either replace a diesel engine or convert it to battery-electric, so techs will be tasked with such conversions. At the FleeTec Academy in Indianapolis, the students did just that — converted a Mercedes Sprinter service truck from diesel to electric.
“Not long from now, we’re going to electrify transportation and trucking. It’s already happening, rapidly growing,” Rivers says. “If an engine blows and the engine’s 25 grand, you can convert it for 45 grand.”
The technicians of today face different challenges than those a generation ago. Not only must they know the traditional methods of preventative maintenance, service, and repair, but they also have to be positioned and eager to learn even more. Whether that means how to maintain battery-electric trucks, fuel-cell powertrains, or other emerging technologies is yet to be determined.
Yet, it seems they will be able to shape their course, and career path, based on what additional training most appeals to their interests.