NASHVILLE. The numbers are stark and getting starker, with well over 100,000 medium- and heavy-duty truck technicians needed to be hired over the next decade to keep up with demand and to replace retiring workers – jobs many think will be difficult if not impossible to fill.
Yet a panel discussion here at the 2016 Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) annual meeting indicated that solving the technician shortage will require some long-term tactical changes on the part of fleet managers, particularly when it comes to getting them directly involved on an ongoing basis with their public school systems.
“This is a national problem with a local solution,” explained George Arrants, director of training and recruitment for the WheelTime Network. “What schools are teaching our kids today is not what this industry needs. But we are part of the problem. If our industry is involved in the school systems around this country, then the vocational programs won’t get closed down. Industry and education should not be two separate words; they need to be one phrase.”
Ken Calhoun, VP of customer relations at the Truck Centers of Arkansas dealership network, stressed that fleets “must engage and engage early” with their local schools, noting that his dealership not only created an in-house apprenticeship and mentoring program designed to attract high school students, but regularly gets local 8th graders to “shadow” some of the company’s shop personnel for a day to build interest in the truck-repair career.
“It’s a matter of survival; there is no existing workforce to go out and draw from. You have to grow your own technicians,” he said. “There is no such thing as ‘too early’ anymore.”
Ken Williams, a former Verizon fleet director, noted that the technician recruiting problem also begins in part around the dinner table.
“Parents still expect their kids to go to college,” he said. “And the shop classes are gone from the high schools. So we not only need to put the education piece back in, we need to show that this occupation is valued, needed, and offers opportunity. Many of us [fleet managers] started out on the shop floor before becoming VPs and directors. We need to talk about that.”
In an earlier presentation, Randy Zook, CEO for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, noted that the “college-focused” mindset of parents and educators is not delivering the expected career and salary rewards.
Zook (at right) said that out of 100 typical ninth graders in Arkansas public schools today, 86 will graduate high school with 43 entering college. But only 27 will make it through two years of college, with just 15 managing to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree within a six year timeframe.
“Those are bothersome numbers,” he stressed.
Compounding the problem is that while U.S. employment is near historic lows of 4.8%, so is the nation’s labor force participation rate at 62.4%; the lowest level in 38 years.
That in essence means millions of jobs are going unfilled but millions of available workers can’t take them. “What in the world is going on? We have a skills gap,” Zook pointed out. “People don’t have the skills required for the available jobs.”
WheelTime Arrants termed that “structural unemployment,” which highlights the growing disconnect between industry and education and is why fleet managers to get more directly involved in the schools.
“In five or six years we’re going to see something we haven’t seen since World War II: a shortage in human capital,” he noted. “We created this generation and we expect them to understand the way we think. What we need to do is understand the way they think. There are more electronics and technologies on trucks today than almost anything else that moves in this world. Our job is to educate the educators. We need to drive the [education] train so we can change the game.”