The Problem: According to a Department of Labor report, demand for diesel service technicians and mechanics is expected to grow 12% from 2014 to 2024, a pace that is faster than the average for all other occupations.
Sixty-seven thousand diesel technicians will be needed to replace retired workers, and 75,000 new technicians must be added to meet additional demand by 2022, the data show.
This severe shortage of diesel technicians has been predicted by industry experts since baby boomers, who make up 40% to 50% of heavy-duty truck technicians active today, will retire between now and 2030.
According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the industry will need about 200,000 technicians over the next 10 years just to keep up with current truck maintenance demands. U.S. schools, however, are producing only about 3,500 diesel technicians a year.
The shortage of diesel technicians has become a source of increased downtime, inefficiency, dissatisfaction among drivers and customer service problems and costs the trucking industry more than $2.5 billion a year.
Some fleets have had to invest in extra trucks so they have a few spares when trucks break down and need to be serviced. A single technician opening can cost a truck service company up to $1,200 a day in lost revenue.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), diesel technicians are in high demand across America, with approximately 242,200 technicians employed in the mechanic industry.
A major cause of this problem is that the trucking industry simply can't get enough new technicians to replace those who are retiring. The trucking industry has been led by one generation for decades, and these individuals are now aging out of the workforce and there aren't enough younger people stepping up to fill their shoes.
Not only is the retirement of baby boomers creating this problem, but freight tonnage has grown progressively since the Great Recession ended in 2009. Medium- and heavy-duty truck populations are growing and freight levels are at record highs. In addition, customer expectations have changed.
Today's economy is built on same-day, two-day and overnight shipping. Downtime has shifted from an unfortunate but accepted reality in trucking to a deal-breaking, customer-losing, intolerable cessation of business.
Perhaps the biggest reason why young people are not interested in becoming technicians is the profession is poorly perceived by people outside it.
The degrading term "grease monkey" still plagues the automotive service channel and is twice as bad in trucking, where the equipment is larger, heavier, often dirtier and perhaps scarier. It's not a sexy job, but it's a good job.
With technology changing in commercial trucks over the past 20 to 25 years, diesel mechanics have been transformed into diesel technicians. Today's heavy-duty truck technicians use electronic systems to work on trucks and use laptops to diagnose problems and adjust engine functions.
Today's typical trucks have up to 21 computer processors on them that generate over 38,000 fault codes and communicate not only with the driver but with each other. Often it takes a "total vehicle scan" to identify the root cause of a problem.
Technicians also have to have an in-depth knowledge of brakes, electrical systems, air-conditioning systems, hydraulics, transmissions, preventive maintenance and Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) inspections.
A report by TechForce Foundation, a non-profit focused on "Driving Tomorrow's Workforce of Technicians," states that the heavy-duty diesel business is expected to require nearly 30,000 truck technicians this year, as 25,000-plus positions are expected to become available due to retirements, employment changes and other factors and another 4,300 due to increased growth in truck-service technician demand.
Technicians are critical to the trucking industry. This shortage threatens trucking's ability to move freight and basically the whole infrastructure of our economy.
What's being done
Since around 2006 when the technician shortage was first recognized, service businesses throughout the industry have responded by raising technician wages and investing in equipment and training to improve productivity.
According to a 2018 survey of technicians in four industries (heavy truck, agriculture, construction and automotive) nearly 40% of heavy-duty truck technicians claimed to be earning at least $60,000 per year and nearly half of those same responders claimed to be earning more than $70,000 annually.
In addition 92% of the survey respondents stated they receive health insurance and 83% said they get paid holiday leave and have 401(k) and/or IRA opportunities through their employers. Truck technicians' pay will vary by region, but a new graduate from a diesel technician program at a technical college can earn over $40,000 annually.
Partnerships continue to be formed with OEMs, component and equipment suppliers, educational institutions and fleet operations in a joint effort to meet growing demands.
One such partnership resulted in a $9 million, state-of-the-art trades facility being built in Fresno, Calif., for high schoolers to gain workplace experience before graduation.
This facility helps students get certified to work on diesel trucks upon graduation and arms them with skills needed to work on diesel engines, suspensions and steering, brake systems, electrical and electronic systems, drivetrains, HVAC systems, and auxiliary equipment installation and repair.
There are other schools doing similar things, like the Monroe Career and Technical Institute (MCTI) in Bartonsville, Pa. However, this school is now targeting middle-school students as well as high schoolers.
It sees great advantages in reaching students earlier. It also has benefited greatly from companies like Penske Corp., which has donated equipment to the school and hires it graduates.
OEMs and truck component and equipment suppliers are partnering with vo-tech schools, too. Navistar Inc., for example, has a national technical education program that provides equipment, tools and scholarships to students.
Trucking companies also have scrutinized their own service operations and evaluated their technician compensation, benefits and training programs.
One carrier established two pay scales, one for tractors and one for trailers, and developed training programs to help technicians master new skills and increase their pay.
Each pay scale has different tiers based on skills and proficiency and each tier has a salary range to provide managers flexibility in rewarding and incentivizing technicians.
Technicians can earn increases in pay by adding to their skills and increasing their proficiency. The salary ranges within each tier also enable shop managers to reward technicians for other achievements such as high productivity, good attendance and excellent customer service.
Another company developed a certified technician program that allows technicians to continue training in order to move up from an entry-level skill set to the top level skill set.
This program gets new technicians up to speed quickly using internal materials and OEM-led training. In addition, it provides ample opportunities for professional growth and increases job satisfaction by providing a career path and skills development.
The company also supplies its technicians with computer tablets to use during service. They use these tablets to perform system diagnostics and can also pull up how-to videos, available on demand, for complex repairs. The videos are three to five minutes long and are housed in a searchable database for techs to use.
On average, it costs more than $8,000 to find and hire a tech on the shop floor. Having a person dedicated to bringing new employees on board and integrating them into the company's culture is critical.
Many fleets have initiated entry-level programs called mechanic helpers, apprenticeship or internship programs that are designed to pique interest in the trucking industry among high school students and young adults. Often these traditional career training and preparation courses are built by service centers in conjunction with a technical education partner such as a vocational-technical school.
Programs like these bring in people who may not have the tools or the skill sets to start working on trucks right away, but serve as a stepping stone to tech-level positions. They provide students with invaluable insight on the day-to-day experience of working in a diesel service shop, including common repairs, management styles, employee expectations and overall corporate culture.
In these programs, young people grab parts for technicians, clean up the work area and the shop, do parts runs, and more. They can figure out if the work is for them, are also learning the lingo of the trade, and enables the company to grow its own technicians.
Another fleet has an ambassadors program that ensures every new hire has a positive first day, first week, first month and first year. It pairs seasoned employees (ambassadors) with new hires to take them through their first day and check in at regular intervals throughout the rest of the year.
Programs like these have reduced maintenance cost per mile, improved repair turnover time, decreased the technician turnover rate and increased young people's interest in becoming technicians.
Decreasing turnover is certainly a main goal of these programs. In the technician survey conducted in 2018, 56% of the 800-plus technicians surveyed claimed they are on at least job number 2 in the last five years, and 20% said they've had three or more jobs in that time.
Technicians say they leave employers because they feel underpaid and underappreciated. They also admit that when they find an employer that treats them well, they will stick around.
Another issue is that many people don't see a career path in the truck service industry. However, the trucking industry is filled with white collar professionals who started their careers in the shop. These jobs are becoming available as baby boomers retire, so trucking's employment shortage is not limited to just the service bays. However, only 29% of heavy-truck technicians surveyed answered that they have a clear career path at their current employer. So more work needs to be done here.
What can you do?
Today a large number of commercial tire dealers has expanded into truck/trailer service that goes way beyond just tires. Many have built state-of-the-art service centers that aggressively go after commercial fleet maintenance business. Some have taken over many fleets' entire maintenance operations. If you are one of these dealers and are having trouble attracting and retaining truck service technicians, what should you do?
First, get involved with your local vocational-technical schools. Introduce yourself to local educators and express your desire to create a mutually beneficial partnership. It's important that you spend time explaining to the trade schools what you need.
Too many post-secondary programs are developed and marketed around advanced diesel diagnostics and repair, which draws interest from prospective students but has little practical value since entry-level technician don't overhaul engines but they do perform preventive maintenance and CSA inspections, which is really what they need to learn.
In our business it's also important that truck technicians learn how to inspect tires and wheels and perhaps even change them.
At a minimum, you should have your local school include the Tire Industry Association (TIA) Basic Commercial Tire Service program in its curriculum. I don't believe many schools offer this.
I do know that some of the worst scores in the Technology and Maintenance Council's (TMC) SuperTech competition are generated in the tire and wheel station, where technicians are asked to identify common out-of-service tire and wheel conditions and are required to perform basic tire/wheel installation procedures. That's because this knowledge is not provided in trade schools.
If a local school doesn't have a diesel tech program, get involved in the auto program or even the agriculture program. The deeper you can embed your operation in a local technical program, the more likely that school will produce the skill set you need and the more likely you'll be able to keep technicians long-term.
You can do this by offering assistance through donations to a school's budget or scholarship fund, donations of equipment or pledges of your time to assist the school in some way. Most educators are looking for help any way they can get it and will accept any assistance they can find. Recruit in the beginning of the school year, not the end. Don't wait for a career fair where you're one of 47 others.
Good educators also want advice and to eliminate the disconnect between industry and education. Most schools want industry to tell them what they need to do. By bringing industry into their schools, educators generate support for their programs, a way to attract students and also show their superiors that their programs are important. A lot of these instructors work in fear that if they can't find more students, their programs will be shut down.
Evaluate your company's compensation program for technicians. The best way to retain technicians overwhelmingly continues to be a strong pay structure. Consider conducting bi-annual performance reviews of your technicians to give them the potential to earn multiple raises each year. These reviews, coupled with a bonus program that rewards employees for completing elective training courses, can increase technician morale and retention. It also will create a work environment and culture in which technicians know they will be rewarded for working hard.
Don't overlook the value of providing debt relief and reimbursement for technicians, particularly young professionals still burdened by student loans and tool expenses. Consider providing a tuition reimbursement program for interns and part-time associates that pays 100% of a technician's educational expenses if they maintain a B average and stay with your company for two years after graduation. And think about helping employees cover tool expenses, a situation that is considered a barrier to entry for a lot of young technicians today. Any method that shows technicians how much they are appreciated has value.
Millennials want to be part of something good and part of a family. The importance of corporate culture cannot be underestimated and definitely impacts how long an employee stays. Developing your company's commitment to offering a top-rate service experience also helps keep technicians engaged.
Who wants to hate to go to work every day? No one, so ensure your supervisors develop a team environment in which everyone treats each other with respect and maintains a positive attitude.
One way to create this atmosphere is with a company employee-stock-ownership program (ESOP). Employees usually gain access to the ESOP during their first year and reap the benefits of the program as long as they remain employed with the company.
The work environment that millennials and Generation Z'ers expect from their employers is different from the baby boomer-developed corporate culture found in most truck service businesses. Millennials are eager to climb the corporate ladder. Many become disillusioned by long periods in a single role, and some will abandon a steady job with one employer for the potential of career advancement elsewhere.
Managing these expectations can be difficult in service operations where promotion opportunities are minimal. That is why presenting clear expectations required to earn pay increases, bonuses or access to a preferred schedule is vital.
Millennial and Generation Z technicians aren't always looking for 9-to-5 jobs. Many are willing to work longer days, nights and weekends to provide flexibility for their personal lives.
A lot of young technicians need continuing education and validation. They want to know when they are doing a job well as well as when they've done something wrong so they can learn to be better. This is where an apprenticeship program can really pay dividends.
Young people today want to know that their career has meaning and purpose. They want their jobs not only to support their families but have an impact on society and make a difference in the overall scheme of things.
Being a heavy-truck technician is a great way to not only bring home the bacon, but is vital to the health of the trucking industry upon which our whole economy is dependent.