In the past, Tennessee-based truckload carrier Ozark Motor Lines didn’t have a big problem finding technicians to work in its shops. Vice President of Maintenance Glen McDonald explains that there were always a few applications on file to use when an opening came up.
That’s not the case anymore. Today, he says, he “has to chase them,” working with high schools and technical schools.
Ozark is not alone. Trucking companies have to do more and more to not only find the technicians they need now, but to up the number of potential technicians in the pipeline.
“It’s really hard to find people,” says Taki Darakos, vice president of maintenance for Transervice, a New York-based supply chain solutions company. “We see a lot of folks that are retiring in the next two to five years. We’re looking everywhere. I think in the old days you’d have folks that would come off the street and would develop; they would be the truck or trailer washers looking for an opportunity to grow. We find fewer and fewer of those folks.”
Nearly 300,000 new diesel technicians will be needed over the next 10 years, according to the TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness among school-age students about technician careers. That’s close to 30,000 a year. Penske Truck Leasing alone hired some 2,500 technicians last year, for growth and to replace those retiring or moving to other positions.
There are a number of reasons fleets are having a hard time filling this need. Low unemployment nationally is making it hard to fill all types of positions. And trucking fleets aren’t the only ones looking for techs.
Paul Pettit, vice president of maintenance at Arkansas-based PAM Transport, says the technician shortage is easily his biggest concern. “I think the skilled trades decline in the country is definitely felt. And not only am I up against other fleets, but I’m also up against the dealerships,” he says. “There are only so many kids coming out of school; it’s a very competitive market.”
Longer term, cultural and demographic shifts have made working in a shop less appealing to young people in search of a career. There’s not the kind of vo-tech training there once was in high schools, and educators and parents push for kids to go to college. Being a technician suffers from an image problem – and it’s an outdated image.
“We have not educated our young people about this opportunity,” says Dwayne Haug, who retired from Werner Transportation in 2015 and is now a consultant. “We have to also make them aware that it is no longer a ‘greasy’ type job. It’s a very clean job. We deal more with laptops than we do sometimes with wrenches.”
Fleets have been investing in their shops to make them a more pleasant place to work, including better lighting, heating, and air conditioning, and labor-saving machines to make tasks such as changing tires faster and easier.
Gregg Mangione, senior vice president of maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing, notes, “We’ve made a lot of investments in technology in our service department driven toward user uptime and complexity of the trucks, and this is attractive to young people.”
The next generation
Fleets are increasingly getting involved with local schools to try to update that image. Penske Truck Leasing, which has nearly 300,000 trucks and 8,000 people in its truck maintenance staff, is going after young people with the help of 16 dedicated recruiters across the country, says Mangione. “They’ve partnered with our maintenance management and HR professionals and maintain local relationships with roughly 100-plus technical schools across the country.”
Penske also has joined the TechForce Foundation and its efforts to create the next generation of truck technicians. The FutureTech Success campaign aims to raise awareness with a national multiyear, multimedia effort.
“The main goal is to get the messaging out to students, and likewise primarily parents and educators, about the opportunity for technicians,” explains Travis Leybeck, director of strategic alliances at TechForce Foundation, “about how it’s a highly technical career, that there’s great opportunities, that pay is outstanding, that there is career advancement. These are stories that parents and educators haven’t been hearing.”
Reneé Fisher, Ryder director of maintenance, also emphasizes the importance of getting that story out. Young people, she says, “They’ve been hearing from friends and relatives and teachers, telling them it’s dirty, that they don’t want to do it. Other folks have been telling our story, and no one tells our story better than us.” When technicians talk to young people about their jobs, that “this is how they’ve raised their families and come up through the ranks,” she says, it has real impact. Ryder is working with Big Brothers Big Sisters in its hometown of Miami, for instance, “to let them know this is what a shop environment looks like, this is what a mechanic does. A lot of folks really don’t know.”
The National Transportation Center, an organization dedicated to attracting, training, and retaining the transportation industry’s workforce, recently hosted a group of 25 students from a high school in the Indianapolis area for a one-day industry-sponsored boot camp.
“The transportation industry has always had a challenge reaching young people and making them aware of the many career opportunities it can offer,” says Tom Weisenbach, chief development officer at the center. “We included sessions at our training center on career opportunities in the industry and site visits at a FedEx Express maintenance facility and its Indianapolis airport hub. The boot camp was so successful that we’re getting calls from other school districts about hosting their students.”
Part of selling the idea of technician as a career is to point out that there is a career path. In the TechForce campaign, Leybeck says, “We talk about career opportunities – not only the traditional career ladder, but also a career lattice – the idea that not only can you move from entry level to master level technician, but you also can move within departments in an organization, to a service advisor or service management position, or end up in training or corporate positions.”
And of course there are ways to advance while staying in the maintenance track. In addition to advancing from one level of technician to another, shop employees can become trainers, go into parts positions, go into shop management, etc.
“It’s important to have a process for advancement, and explain to them how they get promoted,” says Old Dominion Freight Lines Training Manager Winston Minchew. “We have a process, and we make sure that the technicians know about that process, so that also helps retain technicians.”
At Averitt Express, it’s not unusual for employees who started out as mechanics to work their way up the career ladder and become service center directors or regional vice presidents, says Laura Wettack, personnel manager at the Tennessee-based less-than-truckload, truckload, and logistics company. “Most of the folks in our upper management have been with us 20 or more years and have grown with the company in different roles.”
Training new technicians
So you’ve got the interest of a young person in a technician career; now how do they get there? One of the stumbling blocks is the time and expense of training. While tuition costs aren’t as much as a four-year college, there’s also less financial help available from the government. That’s why Transervice Logistics recently established a tax-free educational assistance program for technicians, which includes payments for school-related fees and tools.
But some are looking at alternatives to full diesel technician post-secondary technical programs.
At Monroe Career & Technical Institute, a longstanding high-school vo-tech program in Bartonsville, Pennsylvania, some graduates plan to enter a post-secondary tech school – but others get jobs as technicians right out of high school. Students who start as freshmen can enter a cooperative education program as juniors, where they work half days, paid, with local companies. “That’s where they really get a lot of learning,” says Monroe diesel technology instructor Ed Chipalowsky. After graduation, most of them get full-time employment with the co-op company they’re working for.
Chipalowsky says that while there’s a lot of interest in the program, one of the biggest things fleets can do for schools like his is offer support – and funding.
“I’m trying very hard to develop partnerships with industry,” he says. “I want to see fleets get more involved with supplying them with shirts, with trucks. I would love to have fleets with their banner on the building, students working and learning different fleet preventive maintenance steps. Sometimes the fleets volunteer some of their techs to come in and conduct training classes, and be mentors to the students. But the biggest thing is they have to step up and invest in these schools,” he stresses.
Ozark Motor Lines and FedEx are among the companies that have partnered with Cummins and its TEC program (Technical Education for Communities), a global initiative that targets the technical skills gap through local vo-tech. The Shelby County (Tennessee) school system has turned Memphis East High School into the East T-STEM Academy (an abbreviation for transportation, science, technology, engineering and math.) It offers on-site dual enrollment classes for students to learn skills around the creation and maintenance of diesel engines. Students can earn an industry certification before they graduate, or can transfer credits to a technical college.
“Diesel mechanic ranks 208th on the list of majors supported by U.S. government backed loans – just in front of Public Policy Studies and behind English/Language Arts Teacher Education,” says Tim Spurlock. “There are only 173 colleges that offer diesel technology, and the enrollments are quite small. A typical graduating class is less than 20 students. Most drop out before completion due to time and cost.”
The answer, he says? Companies must grow their own mechanics. That’s why he and Chris Ellis founded American Diesel Training Centers in Columbus, Ohio.
In a 12-week, hands-on program, ADTC prepares entry-level diesel technicians in preventive maintenance, electrical, brakes and emissions, with an emphasis on diagnostics. It promises to deliver a work-ready tech on day one, teaching what’s important to those employers, and placing the new technicians in jobs with those same employers.
Meanwhile, a group at the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations is working to develop a formal apprenticeship program for truck technicians.
In 2017, President Trump issued an executive order, Expanding Apprenticeships in America, which created a pathway to new, industry-recognized apprenticeships.
“It struck me that as far as technicians for fleets, there probably wasn’t a trade association positioned to take on that task better than TMC,” explains Kenneth Calhoun, fleet optimization manager for Altec Service Group in North Little Rock, Arkansas. “When I brought it up to [ATA President and CEO] Chris Spear, he challenged us to be that association.”
The resulting effort attracted some two dozen people across TMC’s various committees. Ozark’s McDonald is chair of the resulting Technician Apprenticeship Standards Committee, which has developed a draft outline of such a program.
Calhoun explains that the Department of Labor’s existing apprenticeship program, called a Registered Apprenticeship Program, hasn’t kept pace with industry needs and has too much bureaucratic red tape. That’s why the new industry-recognized apprenticeship program piqued his interest.
“Some of the more progressive states, about half a dozen, have latched onto this and are making the effort to help employers to get to compliance level quickly,” he says. “We’re hoping by borrowing some pieces of the framework [from the existing program], this can work toward state requirements for more formal apprenticeships, which could make employers eligible for some funding.”
Some companies are turning to veterans transitioning out of the military who already have training and experience in heavy-vehicle maintenance.
Averitt Express, for instance, is aiming a new on-the-job training program at vets with GI Bill benefits.
“The thing that has been a game-changer for us is we’re getting folks who have been in the military for two, four, six years, and they are coming to us with those diesel technician skills, and we’re able to translate them into our world very easily with just minor tweaking,” Wettack says. “If you know how to turn a wrench, we can teach you the other things. What we’ve found is that folks that fit well in the military tend to fit well at Averitt Express.”
Program participants are trained by Averitt on everything from basic computer skills to assisting with in-depth repairs on tractor-trailers. “Honestly, if you know how to diagnose problems without a computer, a computer is only one more tool,” Wettack says.
Ryder gives hands-on diesel technician training to military veterans exiting service through its Pathway Home program, begun in 2016. The 12-week training program takes place on base, and graduates are placed in eligible open Level II technician positions at Ryder locations across the country. The program, which started at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, has since expanded to Fort Riley in Kansas.
“This is free to the soldier,” says Fisher. “We have members of our learning team there locally to train them to make sure they are ready to enter one of our shops as a technician. The reason we’ve called it Pathway Home is we allow those technicians to go where they want to go, or close to it, to get back home.”
North Carolina-based Old Dominion Freight Line doesn’t have a problem recruiting and retaining technicians, according to Minchew. The less-than-truckload carrier has won awards for being a good place to work; recently it was the only trucking company to make Forbes’ World’s Best Employers list. For technicians, a key part of that is training.
“Technicians want to be trained on the equipment; they want to know about the new technology that’s coming out,” he says. “We are an ASE-certified training provider, and we’re proud of our program.” In addition to its own team of four trainers, the company has suppliers and manufacturers come to ODFL locations to do hands-on training. And technicians can take self-paced training offered on OE and supplier websites. Regular emails put the latest tech tips and other documents into technicians’ hands. ODFL uses a learning management system, an Internet-based system that allows it to create a short 15- or 20-minute, self-paced course and assign those courses to technicians.
“We set goals for the locations based on that work that is performed. For example, work that all locations and all employees perform, like preventive maintenance, we ask that 100% of the employees take training. Locations don’t need 100% of their trucks trained in HVAC work, so we set a smaller goal for training in that area.”
Training’s also a priority at Transervice, which rewards technicians for gaining certifications from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, better known simply as ASE. “We have some that have nine and 10 ASE [certifications], so every February they get a nice post-Christmas bonus,” Darakos says.
PAM’s Pettit has focused on developing and formalizing the company’s technician training program since he came on board in late 2017. “We’re going to get better at retaining the technicians we have, training them; the goal is to really keep the guys that we’ve got,” he says. “If you’re continually training [inexperienced staff], you’re not only tying up one or two technicians to train them, but it also takes a while for them to be able to identify problems proactively. Anyone can see a blown tire, but why is the tire wearing unevenly? The main thing for me is investing in technicians as much as in our equipment.”