Cover Story: From pliers to PCs

The technician shortage is at historic levels, causing growing pressures throughout all areas of the trucking industry. Service departments are understaffed, bays have more trucks than there are technicians to attend to them, and the resulting increased time-to-repair means loss of customer productivity – and satisfaction.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

The labor market soon will see a mass exodus of workers throughout most every industry as the baby boomer generation – nearly 83 million strong, according to the 2000 U.S. Census – phases into retirement. That accounts for an estimated one-third of the U.S. workforce.

Trucking already is mired in fierce job-market competition to keep existing employees and attract new talent for nearly all occupations, from front office to manufacturing, and from behind the wheel to under the hood. That competition will grow exponentially in the coming years as every industry struggles to fill positions from a markedly smaller pool of available talent.

The workforce of tomorrow will have more career choices than ever. Making sure new entrants consider careers as heavy-duty truck technicians will require an industrywide effort with unprecedented cooperation and resources.

And it begins with changing the image from who the truck mechanic of yesteryear was to who today’s truck technician is.

New Roles, New Rules
The truck technician’s role is changing, and with it the skills required to do the job in an increasingly tech-savvy environment. Yet the perception of the mechanic as a job of last resort – dirty, unglamorous and unsophisticated – persists. This negative stereotype further compounds a technician shortage that is estimated to be at least 15,000 workers short of meeting the approximately 28 million maintenance and repair labor hours expected to be outsourced this year, according to MacKay & Company.

“The general public still assumes that technicians are grease monkeys, and that’s just not true anymore,” says Peter Girard, a diesel instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Canby, Minn.

The role today’s technicians play has changed considerably from 20 years ago. New engine technologies and advanced diagnostic tools and equipment have precipitated a new identity for the heavy-duty truck technician, one that requires a whole new set of skills.

Laptops and stand-alone PCs have become as commonplace in the shop as toolboxes. It’s not uncommon to see a technician under a truck with a laptop in one hand and a wrench in the other.

And since computers are ubiquitous among youth, associating high-tech with service tech can be an appealing message.

Technicians today use laptop computers for diagnostics and to troubleshoot problems, “compared to years ago when you actually had to listen to the engine and try to figure it out for yourself,” says Girard. “Today technicians must sit down and do computer diagnostics,” he adds.

Billy Sergent, a diesel instructor in the College of Technologies at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, Ohio, agrees. He teaches courses on everything from basic preventive maintenance to advanced diesel electronic operation and diagnosis.

“We include training in the latest technologies such as automated transmissions, diesel engines with some of the latest exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) systems, and discussions of biodiesel, synthetic fuels and much more.”

Make an Early Impression
As the technician’s role evolves, so must the industry’s efforts to change its image, leaving proactive garages searching for new and creative ways to find, hire and keep quality technicians. Success will require not only delivering the right message, but at the right time, experts say.

The biggest problem starts before students even get to the vocational school or diesel program level, Girard says.

“A lot of schools are looking at budget cuts, and the first programs that get cut are the auto or industrial programs, so a lot of high school kids don’t even realize they have the ability or interest in being a technician,” he says.

To combat this problem, the industry needs to self promote at a grass-roots level, targeting junior high and high school students. “No longer can we put our heads in the sand and think they will come looking for us,” says Guy Warpness, WyoTech president of the school’s Laramie, Wyo., campus.

Letting students in this age group know “how cool trucks are,” may steer them down the truck technician path when it comes time to make a career choice, says Dave Dettman, a diesel program instructor at St. Louis Community College. There are 18 people taking Dettman’s diesel course, and although he could handle double that if two sessions were offered, “the enrollment is just not there,” he says, adding that that’s why a “new attitude is necessary.”

Girard says he visits high schools and invites students to his college for a firsthand look at what a technician career entails and the opportunities it offers.

While this strategy requires time and commitment, the more people who get involved with junior high and high schools, the easier it will become, Warpness says.

“The trucking industry has many tentacles spread throughout the nation – we can make a difference,” says Lee Long, manager of fleet services at Southeastern Freight Lines in West Columbia, S.C., and chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council’s (TMC) Professional Technician Development Committee (PTDC).

Employers can extend those relationships by offering internships and getting involved on advisory committees and school boards. Steve Hitch, a supervisor in the Global Manpower Development department at Caterpillar says the benefits of an internship are a “two-way discovery” because the student gains hands-on experience and becomes aware of the job’s complexities and rewards. Meanwhile, the employer can observe the student’s progress and work ethic while considering offering a position after the student graduates.

Being willing to hire students right out of school can broaden your recruitment pool. Employers sometimes forget that it’s their responsibility to train their employees, says Bonne Karim, vehicle training manager for the U.S. Postal Service at the National Center for Employee Development. This may mean opening the door to a slightly less skilled and experienced technician, but one that has room to grow into a vital member of your service team.

“You’ve got to be willing to hire him as an entry-level tech, and then train him to suit your needs,” she says.

Many entry-level technicians become discouraged because the industry wants “qualified” techs to enter their workforce, Long says.

“People expect these kids to know the coefficient of friction between the oil ring and the cylinder wall when they have just completed their training,” he says. “We need to make sure that we do not throw the new kid to the lions, but train him and nurture him so we can develop these younger techs. In the end, we will find the rewards of our efforts.”

All’s Fair in Finding and Recruiting
Exhibiting at career fairs is a good way to recruit entry-level technicians.

Joel Moran, human resources manager at McDevitt Trucks in Manchester, N.H., scopes out technician hopefuls at college job fairs. “I’ll visit some technical schools, and try to target those students from our area, so that when they come home after graduation, they may be more likely to come work for us,” he says. It pays to advertise, too, he says.

“We’ve actually received phone calls from interested technicians who saw our banner” posted at a local school.

When he attends career fairs, Moran comes armed with packets of information about his company, as well as applications and a key chain with the company’s logo on it “so that hopefully the students will remember us.”

Long cites success with visiting military job fairs.

“With the military background, the technician has had a structured environment which can lead to a dedicated employee who will be there when needed the most,” he says. Associates who are former military are some of the “most confident, loyal employees.”

Bringing potential technicians to your facility is another avenue to explore.

Hitch suggests holding an open house and inviting not just students, but their parents and school guidance counselors. A typical format includes hosting a cookout, followed by a tour of the facility and a presentation on the career opportunities available to truck technicians.

Including parents allows them to see the sophistication of the equipment used in the shop, and to hear about the skills necessary to succeed in diesel repair and the comfortable living it can provide. It’s another touch point for reaching students with the right message, at the right time. “You’ve got to engage all the way,” Hitch says.

Engaging guidance counselors is a goal of the TMC’s PTDC. Karim, PTDC vice chairperson, says that because some schools get evaluated on the percentage of students who go on to four-year colleges, guidance counselors may refrain from advocating a career as a service technician.

That’s why the PTDC board invited guidance counselors to attend the TMC meeting in February. The goal, she says, was to get them to understand what goes into truck repair and the skills that are necessary. “We showed them the show floor, and they got to see heavy components up close and personal,” she says.

Such innovative approaches can help sow the seeds of a future generation of technicians. “If you do the same old things the same old way, you’re going to get the same old results,” says Hitch.

Give Now, Get Later
If resources don’t permit visits to schools and career fairs, there are other ways to promote your business to students in vocational programs.

Offering local technical colleges tools, used trucks or components to complement their curriculum builds community goodwill, gets your business in front of future employees and may also provide a tax advantage.

Warpness says WyoTech leases used trucks from dealerships so “our students get to see real-world problems.” The school supplies students with tools while enrolled, and at graduation they can buy tools from Snap-on at a discounted rate.

Smaller schools such as St. Louis Community College rely on local businesses to get the equipment they need. “I visit local leasing companies, dealerships and shops and let them know we’re here and want to supply them with technicians, but we need the appropriate equipment to do so,” Dettman says.

Almost all of the equipment used in Dettman’s classrooms is donated. While the school prefers students have some basic tools when they begin the program, donations help those students who can’t afford the minimum $500 investment to decently stock a toolbox.

Moran says donations are vital to the schools’ survival and the quality of technicians they graduate. “Some students are not getting the hands-on experience they need,” he says. “The schools always ask for help, like trucks or engines to work on,” but it’s up to the local businesses to actually come to their aid.

Providing equipment, training materials and a curriculum can be an extensive and expensive undertaking without the support of local businesses, Long says.

“If you’ve got a junked truck in the back of your shop collecting dust, why not donate it so students can tear down the engine block and put it back together?”

Retention Is Better than Cure
“Technicians are the backbone of many businesses,” says Tom Folmar, president of the Association Of Diesel Specialists (ADS). That’s why keeping the technicians you have is as important as attracting new ones. But that can be difficult because they can throw a dart at a map of the U.S. and find employment within 50 miles of where it lands, Warpness says. Their options are limitless; yours are not. “Today, technicians will pull their toolboxes across the street for an extra fifty cents an hour,” he says.

Knowing that has led many shops to do whatever it takes to keep their technicians happy and, hopefully, content with their employment.

“Creativity is key,” says Long. “Things that you may think are impossible are within reach, if you put your brainstorming skills to work.”

Retention strategies include offering competitive benefit packages with retirement plans, educational reimbursement and tool allowances. Bryan Hansen, secretary/treasurer of Page Brake Warehouse in Salt Lake City, Utah, says once his company gets technicians on board, they do what they can to keep them, including, “staying competitive when it comes to things like pay scale.”

Investing in technician training is another proven tactic. Employers willing to make the investment will find technicians eager to learn, Long says. When training is offered, “it is a horse race to get signed up first,” he says.

Long compares continuing education to a wheel turning on the interstate. When the road is first paved the ride is smooth, but as time goes by, you have to lay down a new layer.

“That is exactly what this industry is like,” he says. The equipment technicians trained on five to six years ago is becoming obsolete, so you must involve and expose them to what’s new now. “Training is worth its weight in gold,” Long adds.

Compare what you spend to recruit and retain your associates to the cost of turnover, pre-employment expenses and equipment not repaired expediently or up to customer expectations, Long says.

You may find that providing improved benefits and training is not only cost effective, it may be financially irresponsible to not do so.

Finding ways to recognize and reward technicians also can improve retention. “I’ve heard from fleets who have noticed a morale change in their technicians after they’ve participated in technician skills competitions and have gotten some recognition for it,” Warpness says.

However, when it comes to things like facilities, it’s difficult to compete. Because truck dealers have been so aggressive in building state-of-the-art facilities within the past eight to 10 years, Hansen says it’s been tough to entice people to come work for him.

“Dealers offer the world to their technicians in order to attract them and then not to lose them – that’s what we’re up against,” he adds. In order to keep up, Hansen says distributors have to invest “a whole bunch of money if we’re going to join that arena and attract these guys.”

Portrait of the Technician as a Young Man
Levi Smith, a second-year student in the diesel program at the University of Northwestern Ohio, Lima, Ohio, is the kind of budding technician most shops would be eager to bring on board. Originally from Churubusco, Ind., Smith chose to go into the diesel/agricultural equipment field because he grew up around tractors, farm equipment and heavy trucks.

“Once I started taking classes I became fascinated by the engine and how air systems work in a truck,” Smith says. “I think it is really neat how we can control engines with computers and electronics for diagnosis and for engine protection, and I really enjoy diagnosing air system problems and understanding how the system works.”

Smith got real-world experience by working part-time at a Kenworth dealership on Fridays and Saturdays. He did so because he knew he had “to get hands-on experience and go to school at the same time,” he says.

To find people like Smith who are enthusiastic and excited to come to work for you, get in touch with vo-tech schools or colleges in your area. For ideas, visit for a list of schools certified by the National Automobile Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF). Although the list does not include every diesel program across the U.S., it is a starting point.

Heavy-duty Technicians, Higher Level Pay
This chart represents data from the U.S. Department Of Labor’s Bureau Of Labor Statistics, and presents the hourly earnings of diesel technicians versus those of automotive technicians. Despite lower wages, automotive repair still remains a more popular field than truck repair. According to the latest published statistics:

  • Median hourly earnings of bus and truck technicians and diesel engine specialists, including incentive pay, is $17.20. The middle 50 percent earn between $13.73 and $21.13 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $11.19, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $25.67 an hour.
  • Median hourly earnings of automotive service technicians and mechanics, including commission, were $15.60. The middle 50 percent earn between $11.31 and $20.75 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $8.70, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $26.22 per hour.

Enthusiastic self-starter with strong work ethic. Must be skilled in reading comprehension, math and science. Must possess superior critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Advanced computer proficiency necessary. Customer relation skills and ability to work with management round out the ideal candidate.

The job description could be for a number of occupations – IT support, researcher, educator or retail manager. But it also details the mandatory skill set for today’s heavy-duty truck technician.

While that is likely little surprise to anyone who runs a shop, it widens the eyes of youth who may give being a technician little consideration when contemplating a career. Today’s technicians need to be jacks-of-all-trades. They need to interact with customers, solve problems – both mechanical and interpersonal – and they need to be part detective and part scientist.

Case in point: The National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) outlines criteria that a service technician should be proficient in, including language arts, communications, mathematics and science.

Whether it’s calculating gear ratios, understanding the physics behind an electrical system problem, pacifying an angry customer or precisely applying knowledge from a service manual, the required skill set for service technicians is as demanding and diverse as most any profession.

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