NASHVILLE — Trucking needs to do more to get the technicians of tomorrow educated and into truck shops. That was the message of a standing-room only panel discussion Tuesday morning at the Technology & Maintenance Council’s annual meeting.
George Arrants with Wheeltime suggested that the we may not quite as short of technicians as we think.
The Department of Labor projects that between 2014 and 2024, 76,900 bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists will be needed for both growth and replacement.
“If you’re looking for experienced techs, that number is telling us they don’t exist,” Arrants said. “Stop looking for them.”
However, he said, looking at private and public schools, his research determined annual graduates from diesel technician programs add up to more than 10,000, which theoretically should be more than enough to make up that number.
“We graduate 10,738 medium and heavy truck technicians every year in this country,” he noted. “Where are they going?”
There are three reasons these technicians aren’t ending up in our shops, he said:
1. These schools aren’t teaching what our industry needs. “And this is our fault,” he said. “If you’re not involved with your local schools, you’re part of the problem.”
2. We expect these graduates to be productive on the first day. That’s unrealistic, Arrants said. “We need to mentor this generation.”
3. Someone else is stealing them from us. Arrant contends we need to get schools to stop marketing these programs as “diesel technicians” and focus on medium-heavy trucks. “Industries like wind [power] generation are grabbing our technicians,” he said.
In short, he said, “Do we have a technician shortage, or are we not taking care of the resources we are provided?”
The new generation
Arrants struck a chord with the audience in talking about the challenge with getting young people today into a technician career:
“We created this generation. We’ve been giving them a trophy for last place since they were 6 years old when we should have said pick another sport,” he said, generating applause. “40% of millennials don’t eat cereal because they have to clean the bowl! We’ve been sending them to school with Lunchables for the last 12 years. And we’re expecting them to understand the way we think? We need to understand the way they think.”
While salary is important, he said, the younger generation wants a clean shop, a safe shop — “but the most important thing is, ‘I want to feel part of the family, I want to feel needed; I want you to pat me on the back back and say ‘You’re doing a good job.’ Because we’ve been giving them participation trophies forever.”
Promoting the career
The industry needs to do a better job of promoting being a technician as a career, Arrants and other panelists emphasized, both to kids and parents who think going to college is the only path to a lucrative and satisfying career.
Kenneth Calhoun of Truck Centers of Arkansas asked the audience how many started on the floor in the shop, and there were a large number of hands raised “Today you’re directors, vice presidents, presidents,” he pointed out. He followed up with the question, “How many of you dearly love what you do?” When a large number of hands were raised again, he asked, “Why don’t we say that?”
As Arrants noted, “We are a career that does not have a career ladder. Every one of us in this room represents that career ladder, but we’re the best kept secret out there.”
Dave Williams, a retired TMC Silver Spark Plug honoree who previously oversaw Verizon’s fleet operations, pointed out that in many high schools, there are no longer shop classes. Young people aren’t learning basic hands-on skills like welding.
Arrants said many of these high school programs would not go away if they had an active local business and industry advisory committee, putting resources into the programs and hiring graduates.
And in a world where “STEM” is the new buzzword for student enrichment, we may be seeing a perfect opportunity. “We are STEM,” Calhoun said. “Everything on [the TMC] show floor has to do with science, technology, education and math.”
Programs to help
Calhoun said he recently spoke to two classes of eighth graders as part of a program called Career connect, a joint effort with the North Little Rock school district and the local Chamber of Commerce. When he gave them a salary range (that happened to be that of technicians) and asked them what kind of careers they thought could earn that kind of money, the answers were doctor, lawyer, engineer.
“There is no concept that there are such lucrative opportunities in our world," said Calhoun, who will be hosting several eight-grade students in his facility for a week of shadowing technicians.
Another program Calhoun gave as an example was Be Pro, Be Proud. This new workforce initiative in Arkansas, spearheaded by the state Chamber of Commerce, is designed to draw more educational interest in the trucking industry and other skilled trade professions.
His dealership is also working with Arkansas State University’s diesel technology program. The company recently provided a modern Freightliner Cascadia for students to learn on and will replace it with newer model in two years.
While these initiatives are new, Calhoun gave as an example an apprentice program his dealership started in 2009, called “High Gear,” with the tag line, “Put Your Career in High Gear.”
“Graduates of that program now represent more than 50% of my technician force at our headquarters in North Little Rock,” he said.
“I asked myself, are you going to complain or are you going to do something?” Calhoun said.
It’s also important to make sure technician trainees are being taught the skills the industry needs.
“More students just means more bodies — it doesn’t mean capable bodies,” Arrants said. Ideally more schools would be certified by NACEF, he said, but at the minimum, students should take NACEF certification tests. They can do it right online in their schools, even if the school isn’t accredited. One thing trucking can do is work with those local schools to make this happen.
“More importantly we have to become a single entity in industry and education.”
How early should you start? Why not at the age when they are still playing with toy trucks rather than waiting till high school? “We have to engage, and we have to engage early,” Calhoun said.
Arrant pointed out that we take Cub Scouts to police stations and fire stations — why not to truck garages? “At that age we have to include Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, merit badge counselors, let them do merit badges in your place of business and expose them to non traditional occupations. Everybody else is doing it, why aren’t we?”