This August, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) will still hold its annual Technician Skills Competition, though due to the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, it will be held remotely. The event is part of the heavy-duty trucking market leader’s yearly $20 million investment in technician training and development.
Like usual, a written exam was administered to about 1,000 vehicle and engine technicians in early June. The 28 top-scoring technicians will now take the hands-on portion at Freightliner and Western Star dealerships and Detroit distributors in the U.S. and Canada instead of traveling to DTNA’s Portland, Ore., headquarters.
Judges will rely on computers and video to evaluate the challengers’ skills as they progress through the various work stations and how quickly they can troubleshoot problems. The two-day competition is slated for Aug. 11-12, with a virtual awards ceremony following on Aug. 13.
“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have made us more aware than ever of the importance and indispensability of our technicians and service network,” said Admir Kreso, general manager of Dealer Service for DTNA. “As our vehicles become increasingly complex, it is critical that we support the development and innovation of our technicians so that they can be on the cutting edge. Technicians truly drive the Uptime Revolution for our customers, and they are a big part of why DTNA leads the industry.”
“I think what Daimler is doing with this is absolutely the right way to go, given the circumstances that we're in now,” said Kenneth Calhoun, general chair of the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council. TMC hold its National Technician Skills Competition at the annual SuperTech meeting. The meeting will be virtual, but the skills competition was canceled.
Calhoun accrued 24 years working in DTNA’s dealer and distributor network, noting the company previously spearheaded initiatives in online training and augmented reality. Freightliner is also a sponsor of Be Pro Be Proud, an Arkansas program to introduce students to advanced technologies used in the trades via a traveling trailer.
He acknowledged that going fully virtual, as in donning virtual reality goggles and using digitally rendered assets as opposed to real trucks, is a long way off, as it is too difficult to simulate variables seen in a real shop, such as a frozen bolt a mechanic must figure out how to loosen.
For the interim, though, Calhoun believed this Zoom-style approach does offer some advantages, one is opening the competition to technicians who ordinarily could not be spared from their shop. The technician shortage is very real, after all.
“Sometimes convincing the service manager to let one of his top tech's disappear for a couple of days usually was a heavy lift,” Calhoun recalled. “The first question I would usually get asked is, ‘Who are we charging that labor to?’”
Calhoun said this led to some very qualified individuals not competing.
Another major positive is that these technicians will be recorded while basically holding a tutorial on the right way to perform maintenance tasks in the most efficient way.
“Efficiency is always a hot topic in dealerships,” Calhoun said. Dealerships could theoretically use this virtual competition to identify and emulate optimal workflows.
“So we can bring up the efficiency or the rest of our techs to that top level,” he said. “That translates immediately into revenue.”
One caveat Calhoun had was losing the in-person camaraderie and networking associated with in-person skills competitions.
“There is so much value to have that interaction with the people that we know and respect and care about the thing,” Calhoun said. “One of the side effects of the in-person competitions is that we see the technicians keeping in touch with each other throughout the year and leaning on each other when they run into big problems.”
As with everything in 2020, it's not certain how this will play out. The T-1 connections used at the dealerships should help sidestep the latency issues remote workers often endure, but judging a worker on a screen as opposed to standing beside them could prove challenging. In any event, it will should be a valuable learning lesson, not just for DTNA, but for the entire trucking service industry.
"I think it's something we've got to pay attention to," Calhoun concluded.