“We need to raise the profile of our business in the minds of people who may not know they can find well-paying careers as service professionals in our dealerships.” -Gary Gibson, president of Tri-State Sterling Trucks in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ryan DeLaRoi cut his teeth working on diesel engines under rather hazardous conditions: on deployment in Iraq. During his second tour in the war zone, DeLaRoi - a Corporal in the U.S. Marine Corp - repaired Humvees and other diesel-powered vehicles: sometimes in the face of sandstorms and far-deadlier bullets.
But after nearly 10 years, the Marines discharged DeLaRoi due to knee and back injuries sustained during his military service. He decided to attend the diesel mechanics program at Western Iowa Technical Institute (WIT) to enhance his technician skills gained on the battlefield, participating in a veterans-civilian workforce transition program, which helped pay for his tuition and the tools he needed for his trade.
(Once a Marine, always a Marine is how the saying goes ... but Ryan now works on civilian trucks to make a living.)
When he heard the local Peterbilt dealership in Sioux City, Iowa, was always looking for a few good technicians, DeLaRoi stopped by for a visit with its service manager, Harland Gylfe, and the 32-year-old quickly found himself - despite his minor disabilities - maintaining and repairing heavy-duty trucks for a living after graduating from WIT in December 2007.
“The working conditions are great, especially compared to working on Humvees in Iraq,” he said. “Most of my military equipment repairs were done outdoors and it was hard to keep the parts clean. Sometimes, a vehicle would break down on patrol and there was a chance I would get shot at while fixing it. This happened several times.”
Another disadvantage for war zone mechanics is the lack of power tools, which is why DeLaRoi appreciates the equipment he gets to use at the Sioux City Peterbilt dealership. “It‘s a lot better working conditions and less strain on my knee brace and back,” he said.
One reason DeLaRoi works as a heavy-duty truck technician today is that Sioux City‘s Gylfe is active on WIT‘s diesel mechanics advisory committee and hired DeLaRoi to work part-time on the evening shift while attending school.
“I find veterans make good workers; they‘re experienced, dedicated, dependable and have a strong work ethic. Ryan is another good example of a vet‘s transition to a skilled civilian worker,” Gylfe said. “He is doing a good job servicing diesel trucks and learning to do more types of maintenance and repair tasks.”
(Finding enough technicians to handle the maintenance and repair needs of the trucking industry is going to be a challenge for dealerships and fleets alike.)
Gylfe has hired many military veterans for Peterbilt‘s service department over the years as he continues to seek new pools of recruits to fill out the technician ranks at his facility. And it‘s this struggle - finding an adequate supply of techs - that he shares with much of the heavy-duty truck dealership community in the U.S. these days.
“We need to recruit qualified dealership employees, especially truck technicians, to protect the industry's long-term viability,” said Gary Gibson, president of Tri-State Sterling Trucks and the new chairman of the American Truck Dealers (ATD) division of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) during the 45th annual ATD Convention & Expo in Dallas, Texas, earlier this year. “Dealers will have their hands full as they attempt to operate profitably during these difficult times.”
George Grask, the outgoing chairman of ATD, called on dealers to take steps to protect the viability of dealerships during challenging times. “Whether it‘s the service we provide, the parts we sell, the hours we keep - we need to continue to evolve to meet the needs of our customers ... to offer the very best customer service and support,” he said.
In addition to first-rate customer service, Grask - owner of Cedar Rapids Truck Center, Cedar Rapids, Iowa - emphasized the need for dealers to keep pace with the newest technology, including proprietary engines, hybrid technology and telematics. He also called on truck dealers to continue to educate themselves on the management and leadership qualities required to run increasingly complex businesses.
(Technicians are essential -- which is why a sufficient populations is critical to the trucking industry's future.)
“The fact is our business is essential,” he stressed. “Nothing happens until a truck delivers it. In the U.S., trucks and truck dealers will continue to be a necessary and vital part of the economy.”
This is oh so true. But finding the technicians necessary to keep those trucks rolling is going to become and bigger and bigger challenge for dealerships in the months and years ahead.