Jason Swann out of the Rush Truck Center (RTC) facility in Dallas recognizes that while some “gritty” work is still required to be a truck technician – such as changing out tires, like he’s doing here – more often than not computer know-how is his go-to repair tool. “I ask for as many training classes as I can because that’s how you stay ahead of the curve in this industry,” Swann said. “The technology on trucks today just changes so fast you just can’t afford to put off training opportunities.”
Swann is usually the man to beat at RTC's annual Technician Skills Rodeo as he's won all-around grand champion honors four times. In 2014, though, while placing first in the Eaton category, he made it only to the reserve champion slot for the heavy-duty category as a whole. Still, that earned him $9,350 in cash and prizes plus a 50 cent per hour pay raise.
Many truck OEMs and dealership chains are now sponsoring “technician rodeos” not only as a way to help both attract and retain top talent but to keep improving their skill sets as well. Rush Truck Centers – a division of $3.1 billion conglomerate Rush Enterprises – has sponsored such an annual rodeo for almost a decade.
Mike Willoughby, a veteran medium-duty technician with RTC’s Oklahoma City shop, believes he knows why people like him become — and stay — technicians, despite the grease, the scraped knuckles, sweltering heat and cold, and the fast-paced technology upgrades that keep them hunched over computers rather than turning wrenches. “Repairing trucks is like a puzzle: You want to figure it out and you hate to give up,” he explained. “You also feel perpetually like the new kid, telling yourself ‘I can't WAIT to get experience, because then this job won't be so hard.’ But what you really are is a full-time student — you are always learning something new. This job will make you mad many times, but it's never boring. If you get bored, then there's something wrong.”
“The number of young people entering the profession continues to dwindle even as the demand for qualified diesel technicians skyrockets,” Andy Stopka, VP of maintenance for NationaLease, noted in an interview with Fleet Owner back in 2013. “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. 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.”
Ray Wheeling, VP of industry alliances at the Universal Technical Institute (UTI), believes a change will be needed to high school curriculums and post-graduation job focus to really create a lasting shift in the technician shortage situation. “All of UTI’s programs are rooted in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and the trucking industry has evolved significantly over the last few years and working on these types of machines requires much more than brawn,” he stressed. “Electronic diagnostics is a big area of focus now. Some engines, for example, now have more than 40 unique sensors – and techs need to understand how to diagnose the problem before they even get to the mechanical part.”
Truck OEMs are particularly focused on the vital role technicians perform in delivering uptime for customers. For example, Stephen Roy, president of Mack Trucks Inc., explained in an interview last year that Mack’s dealers invested over $300 million alone between 2011 and 2014 in new or expanded facilities, increasing the number of services bays by 40% and the ranks of dealer technicians by 50%, with one in four of every Mack dealer technicians now certified as a “Master Tech” with diagnostic and drivetrain component-focused skill sets.
“The days of the old shade tree are approaching an end [as] technicians are forced to be computer literate and most have to daily interface with some sort of electronic device daily to perform their jobs,” noted Allen Caldwell, manager of maintenance technology for trucking conglomerate First Fleet and chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council’s S.12 Study Group. “Technicians are now entering the realm of almost a surgeon or doctor. Although it may not require a college degree, the amount of training and the skills employed by technicians deems them special in their own right.”
In terms of the broader “generational shift” now affecting the U.S. workforce starts with 77 million “baby boomers” retiring over the next two decades, with only 46 million new workers set to replace them, according to numbers tracked by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). That group’s research further indicates that “Generation X” workers – born between 1965 and 1979 – typically value a strong balance between life and work, while “Generation Y” or “Millennial” workers, born between 1980 and 2000, are more technologically savvy and desire even more workplace flexibility. Do such generational “mindsets” reduce the attractiveness of pay packages where driving and repairing trucks is concerned? It’s something to ponder at the very least.