It's not them, it's you.
Culture changes and learning to how to embrace the next generation of truck technicians is the best way to combat the industry's technician shortage.
That was the resounding message during Fleet Owner's recent Tackling the Truck Technician Shortage webinar, sponsored by Valvoline, which featured George Arrants, program director for national training and recruiting at the WheelTime Network, and Lew Flowers, president of Flowers Fleet Services, a former director of maintenance for the U.S. Postal Service, and a past chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC).
“Everybody is talking about this as a shortage,” Arrants noted. “But as an industry, do [we] have a shortage of applicants or do [we] have a shortage of qualified applicants? There are two different concerns.”
Based on surveys, he said the technician shortage is more of a qualified-applicants shortage. “If you are experiencing the same thing, this is an easier concern to address,” Arrants pointed out. “If you have a shortage of applicants, that one is a little more difficult because then we have to create the interest in the industry, put them through the education process and then put them into the workplace.”
Companies facing technician applicant shortages is a problem likely due to location and special needs. But most of the time, Arrants stressed, trucking technician shortages are about not getting qualified applicants.
Many of those applicants can become more qualified with better relationships between trucking organizations and educators, along with changing expectations and culture.
Because, based on the statistics, there should be enough potential technicians to fill the growing need for them over the coming years, Arrants pointed out.
The most recent Department of Labor figures on technicians, which include bus and truck mechanics as well as diesel engine specialists, are from 2008 to 2014. They also project the labor force increases needed 10 years out into the future from those reports, which are compiled every two years.
That labor need is then further broken down into growth (more jobs) and replacement demand (those who leave the industry). That data breaks down as follows:
- In 2008, there were 263,100 technicians, with a population of 278,000 projected in 2018, which would include 14,900 in growth and 60,400 to replace outgoing workers.
- In 2010, there were 242,200 technicians; 277,400 projected in 2020, (35,200 growth, 52,600 to replace.
- In 2012, there were 250,800 technicians; 272,500 projected in 2022 (21,600 growth, 53,500 replace).
- In 2014, there were 263,900 technicians; 295,500 projected in 2024 (31,600 growth, 45,300 replace).
“You’ll find the biggest part of the need is replacement,” Arrants said. “Now a lot of people will say the replacement issue exists because those of us who are baby boomers -- the gray-hairs and the no-hairs -- we’re exiting the workforce. And that does make a lot of sense.
“But the replacement issue also exists because these young people that are entering our industry sometimes aren’t on-boarded or moved into your companies in a positive and more comfortable way to the point where they are expected to be productive on the first day of the job,” he emphasized. “And somebody is on them pretty steadily. And they quit and go somewhere else.”
In the U.S., 11,000 medium- to heavy-duty truck technicians graduate each year from the post-secondary level, which is any level after high school. “If you multiply that by 10 years,” Arrants said, noting the Labor department statistics, “we don’t have a shortage.”
Even though the numbers don’t add up, many companies are reporting a technician shortage – and Arrants explained everyone in the industry is to blame.
On top of that, truck technician educators aren’t teaching the skills needed by the trucking industry needs. “We in the industry need to be involved in telling the educators what we in the industry need,” he pointed out.
For example, most technician schools are focused on engine repair, Arrants noted. “But those of us here in the industry know you aren’t going to put a 19-year-old on a $60,000 engine right out of the blocks,” he emphasized.
Arrants stressed the need for truck industry leaders to be involved with the schools in their area to be sure the educators know what is required: “This is a national concern with a local solution.”
He suggested that trucking companies encourage at least one employee get involved with schools in their local community. If local schools don’t have technician advisory committees, Arrants suggested motor carriers, truck dealerships and repair shops “team up” with other business partners in the area to encourage schools to form them.
“Get that shop manager to show up at a local vocational school or whatever they are doing there to get involved,” added Flowers, noting that when you get inside the schools, you’ll also start to find potential talent.
Flowers said his company is finding success by being a part of the Oklahoma Trucking Association's annual fair for technician students, which features skills demonstrations and recruitment tables. "If you feed them, they'll come -- and they'll stay," he noted.
"That's a new idea that we've tried and it seems to be working pretty well," he added – encouraging others to work with their local trucking associations.
Recognizing this is a different generation and tempering expectations, Arrants said, can also help end the technician shortage. Expecting a new hire, fresh out of school, to be productive his first week because that’s how it was in “my day,” is not reasonable, he stressed.
“We need to bring these entry-level folks into our places of business and guide them through our organization and make sure they understand your culture and what is going on in your company so there can be a loyalty fostered,” Arrants noted.
If your business has high turnover among entry-level positions, he added, it is probably not them; it’s you.
He suggested mentoring programs and understanding more about the next generation. While people can complain about millennials, Arrants pointed out that, “we created this generation… and we need to understand a little bit more about how they think to get them to stay with us long term. Because we’ll find out that those who stay with us will be very productive.”