More than 100 of the best technicians in the country gathered for the Technology and Maintenance Council's (TMC) Supertech competition at the group's recent meeting in Nashville. This was the second year that I have served as a judge for the tire and wheel portion of the event, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by the impressive display of talent.
Technicians must first complete a written exam, with only the top 80 advancing to the second round. Here they face a daunting array of hands-on mechanical challenges requiring them to render diagnoses and repairs.
Participants move from station to station, with each containing a different problem to tackle, ranging from electrical assemblies to wheel-ends. Contestants are given only a short period of time at each, making it incredibly stressful. The winner of this competition must be well schooled in all areas, since the champion is the person with the highest cumulative score.
As a former tire technician, I've always felt that the folks who maintain and repair the equipment are often overlooked and under-appreciated. It's a career that promises long hours, constantly dirty hands, sore feet and an aching back, so those who choose it are definitely part of a rare breed. And without qualified technicians, every fleet in the world would eventually come to a screeching halt.
Theoretically, trucks could be driven automatically by sensors in the road and the cab, making drivers obsolete. Ditto for dispatching and material-handling tasks. So I don't think it's too far off base to say that technicians are the most important people in any fleet. I realize that some of you are already mentally preparing scathing emails pointing out other jobs that are more important, but I seriously doubt the tractor and trailer manufacturers will ever build equipment that requires no maintenance and never breaks down.
Unfortunately, there is a well-documented technician shortage in practically every segment of the transportation industry. Between the older technicians nearing retirement and the increased emphasis on computers and electronics, it's not hard to imagine thousands of tractors and trailers rendered useless because there aren't enough people qualified to repair them. And if the industry doesn't address the shortage soon, it may be too late, because the learning curve is getting steeper by the minute.
Fleets must find a way to attract new technicians and keep them. Contrary to popular opinion, the solution probably isn't money. I believe the most important benefits fleets can offer are respect and recognition.
After seeing the pride in the faces of the spouses who were there to offer support, I'm convinced the companies that brought technicians to the TMC event will discover that it will pay dividends for years to come. These techs were the stars of the show.
And while some may see participation in the Supertech competition as a perk, I see it as am incentive for these technicians to become better at their jobs. I even overheard a few of them talking about how they were going to study harder so they'll be better prepared for next year's contest. My guess is they weren't planning to change employers any time soon.