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Fight for fleet repair technicians heats up

Oct. 31, 2023
Vehicle repair operations are also competing with other trades to lure in the next generation of workers. Some of the most successful shops are using skills competitions to motivate technicians and find their shop stars.

The fleet repair space is in a battle for human resources. More longtime vehicle technicians are hanging up their diagnostic tools as fewer are entering the vital field that keeps equipment humming out on the road. TechForce Foundation estimates the growing demand for new vehicle repair workers will reach 900,000 through 2026. 

According to TechForce's 2022 Transportation Technician Supply & Demand Report, post-secondary graduates fell across the board in 2021: automotive (-11.8%), diesel (-2.6%), and collision (-0.4%). While the pandemic likely played a role, overall diesel and collision were down 17% over the last five years, the report found.

As more Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers plan retirements, the dwindling technician pool will create even more competition as vehicle maintenance competes with other trade jobs in increasing demand. The American Welding Society, for example, said between 2023 and 2027, the U.S. will have a shortage of 360,000 welders, while TechForce predicted the aviation industry will need 78,000 entry-level techs between last year and 2026.

See also: Gamifying your shop can help your business score big

Rush Enterprises employs more than 3,200 technicians at its 200-plus Rush Truck Care Centers. The company realized it had to prepare "for the exodus of the older generations," noted Victor Cummings, Rush VP of service operations. So Rush started hiring more lower-level technicians and training them to reach the highest tier.

Now, 70% of its technicians fall in the Millennial or Gen Z generations (born in 1981 or later), with a fairly even distribution across the five levels. "Those are pretty overwhelming numbers if you go back to where we were several years ago," Cummings said. Boomers only comprise 28% of its top-level techs, he noted.

To remain competitive in the field, Rush has also devoted many training resources to its annual internal skills content, the Rush Rodeo. Leadership identifies what areas the maintenance teams need to work on, which are the focus of that year's event.

The top 10% of the 2,000 leasing, parts, sales, and service employees ventured to San Antonio last year for the 17th Rodeo, where Rush gave away $300,000 in cash and prizes.

"The rush rodeo has been a motivator for years," said Javier Gonzales, director of service at Rush, who added it's a great tool to attract new hires. "It allows our employees to showcase their talent, but also earn prizes and money."

With so much on the line, technicians spend hours studying to earn the right to compete. And they learn even more from other top techs there.

"They go back to their home dealers with the knowledge that they didn't have prior to the rodeo," Gonzales said, adding that those who didn't win double down on deficiencies and "come in with more hunger the following year."

Penske Truck Leasing, which has nearly 11,000 techs, also puts on a skills competition called the National Tech Showdown every other year with the same intent. Sixteen finalists, out of the company's 1,623 who tried out in district and regional contests, were invited to Team Penske Race Shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, all vying for the top prize of $25,000. Each finalist took home at least $2,000, and all were invited to the Indianapolis 500 in 2024.

"I think that people want to be like [the finalists] and that then enables our training to even kick into a higher gear," explained Art Vallely, Penske Leasing president. "Once they see this, there's a momentum created, and [other Penske technicians] aspire to get involved."

While a high-stakes competition, the Showdown 2023 winner, Tommy Bass, said teamwork helped him win.

See also: The fight for and against Right to Repair

"I wouldn't be here without the basics, and I wouldn't be here without people that took the time to teach me what I know," Bass said.

One of those mentors was Sal Boemia, Bass's area maintenance manager in the South Central Area.

"When I came into the industry, there were far more technicians than there were jobs," said Sal Boemia, who started in the 1980s. "Now, it's the opposite. There are no techs out there, so you really need to build your own."

Penske's rival, Ryder, has hosted a Top Tech Skills Competition since 2002. This summer in Detroit, Cody Morris, a T4 technician in charge from Kentucky, won the top spot and a $50,000 prize. He beat out nine other finalists and about 2,500 Ryder techs overall.

Chris Barnett, a two-time Ryder Top Tech and TMCSuperTech Grand Champion helped mentor him.

"Working with those smarter guys like that, it just rubs off," Morris said. "It's their questions on some of the stuff I don't see every day that helps to keep me on top of different things."

This article originally appeared on Fleet Maintenance, a FleetOwner affiliate and Endeavor Business Media publication.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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