As the need for trucking grows and baby boomers ready themselves for retirement, the industry faces a severe shortage of diesel technicians.
March 2018, TruckingInfo.com – Feature
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the trucking industry will need an estimated 67,000 new technicians and 75,000 diesel engine specialists by 2022. Photo: Ryder
On any given day, in any given year, Penske Truck Leasing has a truck maintenance workforce of 8,100. In 2017, the company added 2,200 diesel techs to accommodate growth, and the Pennsylvania-headquartered firm is expecting to add 2,500 more for the same reason in 2018. As of today, the company has 800 openings for diesel techs in the United States, Canada and parts of Mexico — a combination of new hires and open positions due to retirements and turnover.
This is the face of the diesel technician shortage in 2018, and it’s only going to get worse, predicts Gregg Mangione, senior vice president of maintenance for Penske.
His prediction echoes that of the American Transportation Research Institute’s Top Industry Issues report, released in October 2017. Though the industry has trained much of its focus on the shortage of qualified truck drivers, another shortfall exists — the industry needs more diesel technicians. Though this issue ranked last among the 13 challenges identified in the ATRI report, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Trucking will require an estimated 67,000 new technicians as well as 75,000 new diesel engine specialists by 2022.
Mangione says the issue has been building for the better part of a decade, even before trucking emerged from the impacts of the Great Recession. He attributes the growing need for technicians — at least in part — to the increasing complexity of heavy-duty trucks to meet ever-more stringent diesel emission requirements. Jay Duca, diesel technology instructor at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wisconsin, agrees. Beyond the technology needed to meet emissions mandates, he says, today’s trucks also often have high-tech systems for collision avoidance, lane deviation, smart cruising, terrain mapping and fuel management, further adding to their complexity.
At Penske, these advances have led to tremendous growth, as trucking companies, frustrated by the expenses of trying to maintain this ever-changing technology, outsource more fleet maintenance. Trucking also has exploded in recent years as consumer demand for home delivery of goods has increased, putting more high-tech vehicles on the road. This, too, has increased demand for technicians.
“Today’s trucks are basically rolling computers,” Mangione says. “The labor on these more complicated trucks has not gone down. It has only increased as their complexity has increased.”
Ron Schwartz, director of staffing for Penske, says while these factors have multiplied demand for diesel technicians, the technician talent pool that companies can draw from is shrinking. He explains potential candidates often lack the needed skillset to deliver maintenance on these technologically advanced computers on wheels. This factor has led many companies — Penske included—to develop in-house training programs that boost technicians’ skills to required levels.
Factor in issues like the retirement of seasoned diesel techs from the baby boomer generation, a stigma toward the field in general, and a lack of employee retention, and the problem grows.
Patrick Pendergast, group director of talent acquisition at Ryder System, reports the transportation company has a growing need for technicians across its 800 U.S. locations. He explains Ryder employs approximately 7,000 technicians across the United States and has up to 200 openings at any given time.
“One of our more popular customer offerings is our maintenance program, so we have definitely seen and felt the shortage,” he says. “And I think it’s going to get worse, because the industry is facing a couple of challenges. One, there are not as many new entrants coming into the profession, and two, you have a group of technicians getting ready to retire. These two things combined have led to the shortage becoming more acute.”
He adds that some areas of the country are feeling the pinch more than others. Larger transportation hubs, such as Atlanta, Baltimore and Indianapolis, for example, “have tighter demand on diesel technicians in general,” he says. “But in almost every market we are in, we have had difficulty finding the amount of, or the level of, skills we need.”
The ATRI respondents also indicated a desire to improve technician training and placement through greater collaboration between motor carriers and tech schools.
Though Fox Valley Technical College is seeing greater interest in its driver and diesel technician training programs, as well as considerable growth in transportation industry partnerships, Duca reports more is needed to keep pace with demand. FVTC uses a program called Wisconsin TechConnect, a job placement program where employers post positions. Students have access to that service, and Duca says he’s seen as many as 25 postings a month, “just for diesel technicians in Wisconsin.”
Though the college has more than 100 students in its diesel tech program at any given time, they are scooped up by industry partners as soon as they graduate. That’s good for students and the college, but not so favorable for companies that lack these partnerships and the relationships they can foster with prospective new hires.
Students in the FVTC diesel tech program typically have jobs before they graduate with local employers, who partner with the school to offer program guidance, equipment and more. “We have a few employers in the area who sponsor students and even pay their tuition,” Duca says. “That’s both good and bad. This is not a cake walk of a program; it’s not shop class in high school. The demands of school and the job can be a lot [if their job is full time.]”
Encouraging more women – who make up less than 4% of the workers in maintenance and technician fields — to become technicians may be one way for companies to bridge the technician gap. Photo: Today’s Trucking
As demand skyrockets, Duca reports the number of students should, too. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to the job. “Nobody ever says, ‘When my son grows up, I hope he can be a mechanic,’” he explains. “There is still this perception among parents that says, ‘Well, he can’t do anything else, so he may as well be a mechanic.’”
But, he adds, “Today, they are not mechanics, they are diesel technicians, and we are in dire need of a societal shift from that mentality.”
In Duca’s mind, this transformation must begin at the truck shop itself, which is often viewed as a “dirty dungeon, unsafe and hazardous work environment.” In the past, and even in some shops today, he admits this assumption can be accurate. “People need to see that they can make this a career,” he says, adding it’s hard to see it that way “if shops are dirty and outdated.
“We’ve seen more and more employers addressing this perception,” he says. “They now have clean, well-lit facilities, and offer competitive salaries and benefits. But society’s idea of the dirty diesel mechanic must change as well.”
Jake Rudisill, general manager of leasing and maintenance of Schilli NationaLease with The Schilli Companies, agrees. He says the shortage of drivers and technicians goes hand in hand, and the fact that fewer people are going to trade schools is part of the issue.
He maintains the gold standard is getting a four-year college degree as opposed to a two-year associates degree or certificate from a trade school.
“High schools and four-year institutions market four-year degrees with a much higher standard than they used to,” he says. “So, you see more of the younger generation going into four-year degree programs, whether it’s for accounting, health care or law enforcement, and fewer young people going toward a certificate degree from a trade school.”
Rudisill says the industry needs to change the view that a diesel technician is a dead-end job, and show that it’s “a competitive, and higher compensatory career.”
He explains careers in medicine are often glorified, while a career in transportation is not. “One of the larger problems we have in the transportation industry is glorifying what we do. It’s not life-saving every day, like the medical industry, but it’s equally important, and we need to do a better job of showing that,” he says.
Ryder, Schilli, Penske, tech colleges like FVTC, and others in the trucking industry are hard at work to alter these assumptions through greater awareness. Many people do not understand what’s involved with being a diesel technician, and that needs to change, they say.
“The first thing we do when a truck comes into the shop is plug in a computer,” says Pendergast. “Technicians need to know what the diagnostics look like, what the engine is telling them, before they turn a wrench.”
Ryder builds upon technology’s appeal by hosting an annual technician competition that pits internal employees against each other in a series of different diagnostic and repair-type scenarios. The company promotes the competition to the public, allowing others to see the job’s appeal. Internally, the competition has shown that the skillset for diesel technicians continues to grow.
“We are seeing a lot of younger technicians top the list [in this competition],” Pendergast says. “As technology becomes more prevalent in trucks, these younger technicians are finding an edge. They can really harness the technology side and do very well in these competitions.”
Ryder taps into this knowledge as it promotes the field in high schools. “We tell them it’s not the same job it was a decade ago,” he says, noting the company also works to alter the perception that once you become a technician, you will always be a technician. Pendergast explains people can take these skills in many different directions, from management to recruiting, training or human resources.
“You don’t have to be a technician for the rest of the life if you don’t want to be,” he says.
The first skill today’s technicians require is a soft skill, says Duca, who explains that a technician needs to be a people person and able to communicate well. “The technician’s role is to solve someone else’s problem, which is difficult to do unless you can communicate with people and understand their problem,” he says. “It also translates into being able to work with other employees.”
Then, the technology on trucks requires a technician who is willing to take on new challenges; not every problem a truck has will be easily diagnosed, Duca explains. “They need to be willing to take on challenges the average person does not want to approach,” he says. “With all the electronics we’re using, for example, just being able to face problems without getting frustrated is an issue.”
Those interested in computer technology are prime candidates for today’s technicians, and more and more companies are recognizing this. A technician, Duca says, can easily spend up to half of his or her time connected to a computer to diagnose and/or correct an engine problem.
States Mangione, “There are jobs out there if they want to do a full engine build, but there is tremendous technology on today’s trucks. You still have to turn a wrench, but you have a computer in hand as much as a wrench.”
Long before they turn a wrench, technicians plug trucks into computers to diagnose and/or correct the problem. Photo: Penske
In 2017, Doug White, then general chairman of the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, said the technician shortage is going to get “catastrophically” worse, in part because it is challenging to attract young people to the field.
“We can’t fix it tomorrow. It’s going to take long-term work,” White said, adding that the industry needs to start recruiting students in grammar schools “because by the time they’ve completed two years of high school, we’ve lost them.”
The question becomes then: How can an industry behind the 8-ball when it comes to the number of technicians it needs, identify and target the right candidates for the job?
FVTC employs a recruiting truck that is outfitted with a variety of the latest trucking technologies. The college takes this truck to area middle schools and high schools to promote the idea that the career has changed and is what you make of it.
Duca explains, “We lose our grip [in terms of this being viewed as a viable career] in elementary school. In elementary school, we see a good representation of all the fields until fourth or fifth grade, when careers such as diesel technician stop being aggressively promoted.” He explains FVTC is hard at work to change the tide by partnering with guidance counselors and inviting them, and students, to come see its program in action.
Schwartz says they look for mechanically inclined and tech savvy individuals, and market to them via websites and videos. Penske and Ryder both partner with SkillsUSA, an organization that brings together students, teachers and industry to develop a skilled workforce by promoting skilled trades. Likewise, the companies build awareness through national competitions; trade school support, where they help guide the curriculum, offering training programs and donating equipment; and through marketing efforts at high schools and in the military.
“We have approximately 100 tech school partnerships,” says Schwartz. “We don’t just go to the school’s job fairs, we have a presence there. Penske leaders help steer curriculum and bring real world happenings to the schools.”
He adds that trucking technology can be dated at schools, which can be a challenge to companies like Penske, which use the latest and greatest in truck technology. So Penske employs trainers to visit the company’s tech-school partners and offer a selection of courses. In these courses, students learn about cutting-edge technology as well as more about Penske. The program gives students a better sense of the technology on trucks, while aiding the company in identifying students they may want to bring onboard.
Schilli offers a tiered training program once technicians are hired, but on the recruiting side, shop managers and personnel partnered to develop a secondary program for mechanics’ helpers. This program allows individuals with little to no diesel tech experience to work for several months as mechanics’ helpers. These employees help technicians with documentation, cleaning up the shop, getting parts, and basic maintenance, to get a better feel for what the job entails. Students come to the program from high schools and trade schools as well as through word of mouth.
According to Rudisill, the company currently has nearly 80 seasoned technicians, some of whom have been with the company for nearly 30 years and who combined offer more than 900 years of experience. As these individuals near retirement, the company has had to revamp its recruiting efforts and has made a concerted effort through the mechanics’ helper program to draw workers in early.
“The program helps promote the job, the career and the industry,” he says. “We are bringing in people who don’t have the tools or the skillsets, into an entry-level position, where they can gain experience, and figure out if the career is for them.”
Schilli has created a mechanics helper program to give those, who may be interested in a career as a diesel technician, an idea of what the job entails. Photo: Schilli
With the BLS predicting that employment of diesel service technicians and mechanics is projected to grow by 12% from 2014 to 2024, and the American Society for Training and Development reporting that 77 million baby boomers are slated to retire over the next 20 years, with only 46 million new workers set to replace them, the deck is stacked against the transportation industry.
However, when the odds are not in your favor, it is time to change the odds. When it comes to attracting diesel technicians, this means going after less traditional categories of workers, including women and military veterans.
According to BLS statics, women make up less than 4% of the workers in maintenance and technician fields, making them a viable target for any recruiting efforts. This is an area ripe for growth, notes Duca, who explains the FVTC program has just two female students currently. Though FVTC’s recruiting efforts do not target men and women differently, the college does host a Girls Tech School Camp every summer. Duca says some of the diesel tech program’s female students have come to FVTC after attending that camp.
Female technicians can have an advantage because they have smaller hands that can access tighter spaces, but industry leaders agree that more attention needs to be paid toward getting them to sign up in the first place.
“We have seen an increase in female technicians at schools,” says Mangione, noting that Penske maintains a Women in Leadership group to help mentor and guide new female technicians.
Ryder also sees females as a good fit for open technician positions, and its efforts to attract more women to the field include partnerships with the Techforce Foundation, where they give out scholarships to women.
“This is a very rewarding career that can go in many different directions for both men and women,” Pendergast says. “We need to work to grow their interest.”
The company also participated in a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) special called Changing Gears, which aired in 2017. The show chronicled several high school students as they tried to figure out what they wanted to do upon graduation. Several Ryder employees were interviewed for that show, and some were female technicians. “It was a great way to broaden that conversation beyond the thinking that this is a man’s job only. Because it most definitely is not,” Pendergast says.
Ryder has also developed partnerships with the military to gain access to veterans as they leave military service. “We have put programs in place to incent them into coming to work for us,” he says. “From there, they can take their career in a number of different ways by learning the trade and spending some time on shop floors.”
All recruitment efforts are for naught, however, if the industry fails to retain the employees it attracts. “Retention is a challenge for everybody,” says Mangione. “There is no silver bullet to retention, but from a leadership and management standpoint, you need to stay close to your workforce, understand your market, and compensate employees fairly for their skillsets. In the transportation industry, some of our most important employees for us, and for our customers, are the technicians that keep our trucks up and running.”
Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, who writes about a variety of topics including the supply chain and logistics.