The changing face of tech candidates

Management Jason Cannon April 16, 2014

This is the second of a two-part series on the diesel technician shortage. 

A bright spot in the technician shortage is that more and more job seekers are realizing that becoming a diesel technician offers a stable career with good pay. No longer are admission offices filled only with fresh-faced high school graduates looking to enter the working world. An increasing number of enrollees are entering diesel programs with a degree already in-hand – or experience in other fields – and looking to change careers.

“We’ve had some folks that went through four years of traditional college and then decided that they are not as employable as they want to be, or they’re following their love – a passion – in diesel technology,” says Jerry Clemons, program coordinator at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College. “People are recognizing at various stages – young, (former) military, and with degrees in other subjects – they are recognizing great needs for technicians by looking at the want ads and seeing the earning power they have.” Salaries for diesel technicians can range from $40,000-$75,000 and up, depending on experience and location.

Clemons says he fields two-to-three calls per week from people outside the industry, but who are connected in some way to diesel technicians, each wanting to work their way into a new career.

Al Clark, diesel tech instructor at Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore., says the average enrollee in his program is in his late 20s and often in search of a new career. “Being a community college, and I’ve been here 29 years … pretty much that whole time our average age is in their late 20s,” he says. “The high schools here on the west coast just don’t have automobile programs like they used to, and because of that we just don’t get the pipeline of high school students.”

John Speights, diesel instructor at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., says more than half of his 16 to 18 students per semester are right out of high school, but the makeup of the other half has changed over semesters past.

“They’re definitely getting a little older,” he says. “I have two in their 50s and several in their 30s. We’re seeing some older students that want to change careers. They know there is a demand for mechanics. And we’re getting some females now, and that’s something we hardly ever had a few years ago.”

But just because the students and budding technicians aren’t fresh out of high school doesn’t mean they’re exactly old dogs struggling to learn new tricks. According to Clark, the opposite is true.

“We have a high success rate with (older students),” he says. “They are usually very motivated to be successful.”

Military veterans, like 26 year old U.S. Marine Corps Infantryman Jeremy Dones, have among the highest rates of success.

“Our former military guys, they start out making a lot more money because they’re older and have a background in other areas,” Speights says. “They’ve got some organizational skills and different kinds of experience from the military and that is appealing.”

At the other end of the spectrum are enrollees who have no natural aptitude. “We have students coming in who have never turned a wrench in their life,” Clark says.

“Like, which end of the screwdriver do I use?” Speights jokes.

Technician pay varies by location, segment

A top-credentialed technician graduating from the Elizabethtown (Ky.) Community and Technical College can earn upwards of $17 per hour, says Jerry Clemons, program coordinator. With average overtime, he says, that equates to roughly $40,000 annually. But quick learners can rapidly up their earnings, he says, pointing to a 2010 graduate of his program who recently relocated to Austin, Texas, with a pay package that hit $75,000 last year. “This is as vibrant of an environment for our students as I’ve seen here,” Clemons says, looking back on his 15 years with the school.

Income for diesel engine specialists ranges widely, from about $26,820 for the lower 10 percent of earners to about $63,250 for the top 10 percent, with an average of about $42,000, according to a 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Average pay in the truck transportation industry was slightly lower, at $38,250.

But pay varies considerably by geographic region. Al Clark, diesel tech instructor at Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore., says students in his area generally earn “lower than the trend,” starting out in the “middle teens (dollar per hour rate)” and then breaking into the $20s “pretty quick,” he says. The high quality of life in the Eugene-area enables employers to offer lower pay rates to technicians unwilling to relocate, he says.

“If our guys will go north, up into Portland or Seattle – or even into California – they can literally start in the low $20s (per hour?),” he says.