Who will fix your trucks?

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For high school students in Northwest Ohio, miles of farmland offer few career opportunities. Chuck Wilson, shop foreman for R&D Express, a small trucking company in Pioneer, Ohio, says most leave for college or go to work in the farming industry, leaving his company desperate for technicians to work on its 25 trucks and 60 trailers.

“No one in this area has any interest in working on trucks,” Wilson says.

Wilson’s experience is not uncommon. With much of the trucking industry’s labor focus spent on recruiting and retaining drivers over the last five years, fleets say they now face a shrinking labor pool of technicians, losing trained mechanics to truck dealers and other careers and potential replacements to better paying vocations.

“It’s hard to find mechanics today,” says Rande Osberg, truck shop supervisor for steel company Vulcraft, in Norfolk, Neb. “Guys coming out of schools don’t want to get dirty. There are other ways for them to earn a living. If you’re talented in electronics and math, you can find a job in a number of other fields.”

Still, trucking companies and private fleets are finding ways to keep their bays staffed. But there is no silver bullet; fleets find that it often takes a combination of better pay and incentives, changes in the working environment and dogged recruiting efforts to ensure that their trucks don’t gather dust in the yard waiting for servicing.

A real problem
The U.S. government doesn’t buy the technician shortage. The U.S. Department of Labor projects a stable market for diesel technicians, with demand increasing only 10 to 20 percent through 2008. Regardless, fleets, trucking groups and engine makers say the supply of trained mechanics already is tight, and the shortage threatens to balloon as engines become more complex and aging mechanics retire.

“They’re not growing on trees,” says Jack Sukala, chairman of the Future Technician Task Force for the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations. “Our society has a lack of technician training. This is not unique to trucking. There are shortages in other technical fields – from technicians to plumbers. The shortage is very real.”

A 1995 Cummins survey suggests that prevailing wages, the image society has of the positions and hard, dirty working conditions have played a big roll in the shortage.

A survey of 187 company owners and diesel shop managers conducted by Commercial Carrier Journal just last month produced similar results. Most shops are feeling the pinch. Three-fourths said the shortage of technicians has remained the same or gotten worse during the past 12 months. Only about a quarter of fleets reported no shortage, and few – barely 4 percent – said the shortage had eased.

Owners and maintenance managers cite competition from higher paying careers as the No. 1 reason for the shortage. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the median hourly wage for truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists, including incentive pay, was $14.11 in 1998, with wages going up to more than $20 an hour.

Trucking companies pay more on average than auto repair shops, but less than school and other government entities. A beginning technician usually earns from 50 to 75 percent of what skilled workers receive, but their pay increases as they become more skilled. Most mechanics and service technicians work a standard 40-hour week, but in trucking operations they will work more hours, including hours on evenings, nights and weekends.

Although technican pay is far from low compared to many other jobs, shop managers have addtional hurdles to clear. In the CCJ survey, fleets pointed to other major recruiting hurdles, principally difficult working conditions and the perceived low social status of mechanics. Owners and shop managers also concede that the industry has done a poor job of recruiting students into the field.

Changing expectations
In CCJ’s survey, many fleets said technicians left because of unfavorable hours. John DiLuna, manager of fleet maintenance at Stop & Shop Super Markets, a large grocery store chain in the Northeast, says today’s shops need more flexible hours to help retain technicians.

“Some of your best mechanics are middle-age guys,” DiLuna says. “They have wives and families and need more flexibility. In 2001, a dad may need to visit a soccer game or a ballet. Parents want to participate.” DiLuna says that’s what his shop, which employs more than 20 technicians and works on hundreds of power units and trailers every year, tries to do.

According to CCJ’s survey, another 15 percent of shops see the primary reason technicians give for leaving is that they found the working conditions unsatisfactory or felt pressured to perform.

“Being a mechanic isn’t as glamorous as it once was,” says Todd Cotier, director of maintenance for Bangor, Maine-based Hartt Transportation, which operates 140 power units and 500 trailers. “Kids coming out of school today don’t want get dirty.”

Managers also have to build teams and manage their mechanics, DiLuna says. “The biggest challenge is how to treat them. There are a lot of pretty crude shops out there – and then there are a lot of pretty professional shops. You don’t get the turnover in professional shops that develop team work and comraderie.”

DiLuna believes that shop managers aren’t typically equipped for managing a changing workforce. Shop managers often work their way up through maintenance ranks and have little or no formal management training. Many also have little experience with the challenges faced by today’s workforce. Technicians are more diverse in ethnicity and backgrounds and are less likely to respond to antiquated management styles.

“Most shops still have a command and control model of management,” DiLuna says. “A lot of people don’t want to work under those conditions. Managers haven’t improved their creative thinking, their leadership skills or their communication skills. They haven’t improved their education.” Trucking companies rarely invest in management and communications training for their shop managers, but they should, DiLuna says.

In many cases, DiLuna believes, success depends on creating a good working culture among managers and technicians. “With cultures, you can either get bacteria or good cheese,” he says.

Stealing from each other
Although trucking fleets compete primarily with other vocations to get technicians, they compete largely with dealers and other fleets to keep them. Of fleets surveyed by CCJ, more than half said they lost mechanics to dealers or higher-paying shops.

“This is an issue of supply and demand,” says TMC’s Sukala. “If there are not that many technicians out there, then you’re going to pay more for the ones you get. You’re going to get what you pay for.” And it’s not just pay; working hours play a big role as well.

“Everyone thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence – until they get there,” says Ladd Harms, fleet maintenance manager for Prairie Farms Dairy in Peoria, Ill. Most are bolting for more money and easier hours. Dealer shops offer 8-to-5 days and 40-hour workweeks.

Hartt Transportation’s Cotier also finds dealers to be his top competitors. To stay competitive with dealerships, Cotier offers additional training, gives mechanics access to the shop after hours and gives raises based on performance. Even so, Cotier sometimes loses mechanics to dealers that don’t require them to work weekend hours.

Michael Long, fleet maintenance manager for L&H Trucking in Hanover, Penn., isn’t trying to compete with dealers anymore. Long just wants to stay competitive with other fleets. L&H Trucking’s 14 mechanics perform everything from rudimentary preventive maintenance to full-blown overhauls on 140 power units and more than 550 trailers.

“We’re getting turnover in lower entry-level PM technicians,” Long says. “But overall, our turnover is pretty low compared to the whole industry.” That’s because L&H Trucking has an aggressive pay scale and offers good benefits, including profit-sharing, and 401(k) with a company match. L&H Trucking also pays 100 percent of a technician’s health insurance.

Hartt Transportation and L&H Trucking are hardly alone. Successful fleets and dealers are combining benefits, such as tool programs, with higher pay to find and retain technicians, TMC’s Sukala says. “More aggressive programs assist technicians with tool programs.”

One-third of the fleet’s responding to the CCJ survey offer technicians non-monetary awards or benefits. Another 25 percent pay cash bonuses, and 10 percent offer preferred shifts.

Getting them early
The root cause of the technician shortage is the low value U.S. society places on trades and crafts these days, Sukala says. “Without question, the shortage is a result of little or no technical training. We’re not selling the need for trades – pure and simple.”

Sukala advocates a stronger effort to pitch careers as technicians to schools and to the public. “The thing about being a technician, is it’s a trade,” Sukala says. “Those skills are with you forever. Nobody can take that away from you. It’s valuable.”

R&D Express’s Wilson says high school students in his rural Ohio county are encouraged to go to college and aren’t even exposed to vocations like diesel mechanics. So R&D Express must get involved directly so that teenagers at least understand that there are options. With support from a state program, the company sponsors a work program for local high school students.

“We have one kid here who’s worked part time during the summer,” Wilson says. “His family wasn’t in the position to pay for his education. He worked hard for us, and the boss really liked his attitude.” So R&D Express agreed to cover a significant portion of the money if the future technician would agree to work at the company five years after graduation.”

R&D Express hasn’t solved the technician shortage through it’s high school work program, but even the one student the company is putting through vocational school will help. “I’ve got a guy who’s 64,” he says. “I’ve got to replace him. It’s a struggle.”

Sukala says TMC encourages this kind of approach. “We want our members to get involved at the middle school level.”

TMC has developed a recruiting video for students and also distributes a recruiting guide for fleets. Both are available through the organization’s website (http://tmc.truckline.com). “We have to tell future workers that we’re part of the community, and we have jobs for them,” Sukala says.

Several states have formed partnerships to improve technician recruiting. In North Carolina, a public-private partnership between companies and state officials created the North Carolina Industries for Technical Education. The organization has been successful at recruiting future workers into trade schools. Another program in Nebraska has also helped fleets there.

Smaller, less formal programs exist at individual trucking companies and vocational schools.
Hartt Transportation has been involved with local schools for 10 years, Cotier says. Most of its efforts are focused on the local junior college, where Cotier sits on a vocation advisory council. “We hire them from there, and we train them,” he says. “It’s a very good school.”

Students from the school work part time for Hartt Transportation. When they graduate, Hartt is there to provide jobs. Cotier has even helped the school establish programs with the carrier’s equipment vendors, such as Cummins, Eaton and ArvinMeritor. By steering schools toward components Hartt uses, newly minted technicians are already trained on Hartt’s trucks. “No sense in them fogging their brains up with something they’re not going to see here,” Cotier jokes.

The kind of involvement Hartt Transportation and R&D Express give to recruiting new technicians takes effort, but it pays off. “You have to knock on a door,” Sukala says. “Go to your local trade school. Go to the principal or person involved in placement. Tell them this is what I am, this is what I need. You’re very impressionable as a youth. If all you’re fed is college, then that’s what you’re going to do. All parents want their children to do better. Our profession is not telling these kids that they can do better going this route.”

The biggest hurdle seems to be that there is no single problem the trucking industry could fix to solve the shortage. It’s noteworthy that when asked what is the primary reason good technicians give for leaving their company, 32 percent of respondents in the CCJ survey chose “other.” It will take a combination of strategies keep your shop bays operating smoothly.