Growing up, there was little doubt Jeremy Dones would join the military. What might come after was anybody’s guess.“I always liked trucks,” he says. “It was kind of a family thing; always working on stuff and fixing things.”
After a four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry, Dones – now 26 years old – graduated from the diesel technician program at Elizabethtown (Ky.) Community and Technical College and turned his love of trucks and fixing things into a second career. Dones’ mechanical aptitude, which helped him land a job with a shipper with a fleet of Peterbilt trucks, was a natural fit in an industry he had identified as needing qualified employees.
“There’s a shortage of truck mechanics,” he says, “and it’s only going to get worse.” In fact, trucking will need as many as 200,000 technicians over the next 10 years just to keep up with current truck maintenance demands, says Phil Byrd, chairman of the American Trucking Associations and president and CEO of Bulldog Hiway Express.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, over a million jobs exist today in the auto, diesel, and collision repair industries with growth of 17 percent projected through the year 2020.
Unfortunately, only about 3,500 diesel and truck technicians enter the market through technical schools annually, according to The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. That’s not enough to keep up with current growth trends and retirement rates; 10,000 Baby Boomers (who make up 26 percent of the U.S. population) will reach retirement age every day through 2029, according to Pew Research. Add to that the fact that truck dealers are just one segment competing for those new entrants – equipment dealers, independent repair garages and fleets pull from the same pool – and the situation looks bleak, at best.
Trade schools struggle to keep up with demand
With the technician shortage making competition for graduates fierce, educators are left struggling to fill the need. “If I had twice as many graduates, I have no doubt that I can put them all to work,” says Jerry Clemons of the program he runs at Elizabethtown (Ky.) Community and Technical College, which enrolls upward of 100 students annually.
“Ever since about 2007, when the economy kind of went upside down on us, we’ve been maxed out,” Al Clark, diesel tech instructor at Lane Community College, Eugene, Ore., says of his school’s program, which has a 24-student enrollment cap. “We’ve had literally, and to this day, anywhere from 40 to 100 guys waiting to get into the program at any given time. If we could just snap our fingers and have another instructor and have the facilities to do it, yeah, it would be great.”
Demand is so great, Clark says, that many of his students are hired before they even complete the program. The market for technicians was so hot before the 2008 recession that many of his students were hired out of the classroom after barely two weeks.
“We do get a lot of guys that get a job and leave the program, and we consider that a (person who completes the program), because they got what they needed,” he says. “Or we get guys that come in … that are just trying the trade out and for whatever reason just decide to do something else.”
Speights, too, says his program has students who find their future doesn’t lie in a repair shop, but adds many of them will find employment in a dealership’s parts department, or even turn to Shelton State’s truck driving school to earn their CDL and hit the road.
Most of Speights’ students complete the program, primarily due to arrangements he’s made with local employers to hire his students but allow them to continue their coursework. “I try to deal with companies around here that will let them work after school or on the weekends,” he says. “I’ve got a couple agreements with businesses that will hire students, but encourage them to stay in school.” About 70 percent of Speights’ students find work right out of school, he says.
Speights also offers encouraging words for women looking to enter the technician force. “The sky is the limit (for females) because a lot of companies are eager to hire them,” he says.