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Trucks at Work

Battling to change educational perspective

So I chatted with Andy Stopka – VP of maintenance for NationaLease – a few days ago about one of his recent blog posts concerning how the almost universal “college for all” approach being taken by the American education system is ultimately starving the truck technician trade of potential recruits.

Indeed, it’s a major problem not just where technicians are concerned but for many other vocational trades as well – such as welding, plumbing, carpentry and (yes, it’s a skilled trade my friends, no matter what the Dept. of Labor says) truck driving.

“College is the new high school now,” Stopka (at right) told me. “Back when I came up in this business, after you got your high school diploma, you spent a few years figuring out what you wanted to do for a living. Today in many cases that now happens after kids finish college – but after they’ve incurred some pretty heavy debt.”

Himself a 30 year veteran of the truck technician field, Stopka pointed to a report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that indicates today’s “college for all” emphasis can actually keep students from viable careers paths as they enter adulthood.

“Faced with a prospect of tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt on the horizon and degrees that yield few marketable skills, many high school graduates continue to ignore alternate pathways that can have real currency in today’s labor market,” he added.

[One example is provided by Fox Valley Technical College, seen below.]

“In many ways we’ve created a monster, where high school is the new ‘middle school’ and college is the new ‘high school,’” he explained. “In a lot of ways we need our educators to reverse course, to see that ‘shop class’ is a good thing. But I don’t know how we get back to that.”

Yet it’s a shift that will be even more difficult to undertake as even parents themselves have bought into the “college for all” notion pretty strongly.   

Just look at a recent survey from the University of Phoenix – conducted by the market research firm Kelton – that polled a representative sample of 1,1019 Americans 18 or over online last November.

That survey found that many American parents are considering going to college themselves to not only help them get ahead in the workplace, but to also set a good example for their children, with parents are twice as likely as non-parents (60% compared to 30%) to consider going back to school.

Indeed, 81% of parents in the University of Phoenix’s survey said they believe a college degree is important in today's job market and that, despite today's difficult economic climate, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) parents say they will encourage their children to pursue a college degree immediately after high school – either full-time or part-time while they work.

The troublesome part of this trend is that now in many industries a college degree is now often required to obtain just bottom-level white collar jobs – work with pay scales that frequently doesn’t even come close to helping a fresh-out-college graduate retire big time student loan debt. [Click here to read more about this disturbing trend.]

By contrast, Stopka noted that the diesel technician’s job is far different than in the past as it requires far more computer skills than John Q. Public might realize.

“The advent of computerized truck engines and other equipment advances has required technicians to be educated in and adept at addressing diesel engine fundamentals, fuel injection systems, electricity and electronics, and starting and ignition systems,” he pointed out.

“According to the job search website, the current average salary for a technician is $43,000, but journeymen professionals can earn up to $57,000 at the peak of their careers – and that’s not including overtime,” Stopka said. “And with demand for qualified technicians so strong, finding a job in today’s tough economy can be amazingly easy – with candidates basically unencumbered by staggering student loan debt.”

[Returning to Fox Valley Tech, take a look at the school’s truck driver program; a program that feeds graduates to TL carrier Schneider National, among others.]

In terms of raw numbers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that the total population of truck, bus and diesel engine technicians is expected to expand from 242,200 back in 2010 to over 277,400 by 2020.

Yet that doesn’t tell the whole story, for while the agency noted those numbers indicate 35,200 new positions will open up in the technician ranks, the real job opening figure is 87,800, as BLS projects some 52,600 current techs are expected to retire – a massive draw down that’s poised to occur in just a scant seven years.

The problem is that technicians – and truck drivers for that matter – just don’t grow on trees, as the old saying goes; those positions require significant learning and training to be filled properly, which is partly why shortages are projected for technicians and truck drivers alike for the future.

“The number of young people entering the profession continues to dwindle even as the demand for qualified diesel technicians skyrockets,” Stopka pointed out.

“In the past, a lot of our technicians came from the farm; they were kids used to working on equipment and putzing around with their cars,” he added. “Today, we’ve lost a lot of those ‘putzers.’ I see the problem – I know what it is – but I just don’t know how to fix it.”

That’s why he believes the trucking industry as a whole must figure out a way to get back into the high schools in order to find ways to re-encourage such skills before kids get caught up in the “college for all” mindset.

“The diesel tech school is often manning the loneliest table on career day at a high school, but we must find a way to encourage today’s kids to look for other paths besides college; we need to encourage the skills that frankly many kids are just born with,” Stopka stressed.

It really all comes down to ongoing and effective education of young people – and maybe not-so-young people who are considering a career change – who have the aptitude and ability to move forward in transportation-related careers such as technicians and truck drivers, he added: “In the end, everyone will benefit.” 

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