Practitioners of the trucking art are a resourceful breed. They get things done. That’s true in the shop just as much as anywhere else. Yet there’s a challenge that’s been haunting almost every maintenance and repair manager — at fleets, dealerships, and independent garages alike — for as long as I’ve been writing about this industry of ours.
The shortage of skilled mechanics and technicians is a plague that just won’t go away.
It was the subject of a key panel session at the first maintenance conference I attended as a trucking journalist way back in 1979. A major issue four decades ago — four decades! — and it still is, with not much progress made.
One of the challenges, as we’ve heard endlessly about the shortage of willing drivers, is that demographics are working against us. We have a workforce that keeps getting older, that’s shrinking as retirements occur because we can’t get enough young’uns to join the party. It’s tough to make a brake overhaul look sexy. Things are no different in other industries, from plumbing to electricians to you name it. Small consolation.
In the course of looking for background information on this subject, I came across an old HDT article by my friend and veteran journalist John Bendel on this very subject. From the April 2000 issue, entitled “Crisis in the Shop,” it could have been written today.
Veteran man-about-the-maintenance-world Duke Drinkard, now retired, made an excellent point in John’s piece. Then vice president of field maintenance for Southeastern Freight Lines, a less-than-truckload carrier, he said the mechanic shortage is not about numbers — it’s about competence.
“The drain of experienced mechanics through retirement and various attritions is taking the knowledge out, even though we have close to the same numbers,” Drinkard said. “Those coming in are not coming in with the knowledge that we’re losing. That’s a big loss to us.”
Whether you look at it as a lack of people or of expertise, the mechanic shortage is a serious concern that grows more critical all the time, John wrote. The problem is worse for fleets than, say, dealerships or equipment manufacturers.
“We are no longer in competition just with other trucking companies for experienced people,” said Drinkard. “We’re in competition with various other trades, vocational groups, and utility companies. If you get a knowledgeable fellow who’s up on electronics, computers, and troubleshooting, you’re actually in competition with the IBMs of the world.”
The consensus of the people John interviewed back then was clear: We’re going to be in trouble some day soon. Sadly, I’d heard the same thing 21 years earlier at that maintenance conference. When people do talk about it today, I hear the same tune again — but it tends to get drowned out by the driver shortage and other issues.
The technician shortage rarely gets a mention in the never-ending stream of surveys and reports and analyses about trucking and its key issues, serious though it is.
I don’t have a solution, but I think it starts, as I actually wrote in the late 1970s and John Bendel’s people said in 2000, with changing attitudes about what constitutes a good post-high-school education. Does everyone need to go to college? Why not a trade?