Technician shortage highlights TMC technical session

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One of the trucking industry’s biggest problems – the technician shortage – was center stage Wednesday, Sept. 12, during the second technical session at TMC’s 2012 fall meeting in Pittsburgh.

Moderated by David Foster of Southeastern Freight Lines, a six-team panel of technician educators, service managers and fleet maintenance managers gave their thoughts and advice on how to help service locations bring technicians into their business and keep them as employees.

One key, according to the panel, was eliminating the stigma of “grease monkey” when relating to diesel technicians, and letting prospective employees understand the career potential that is available in the heavy-duty trucking industry.

Kevin Tomlinson, director of maintenance for South Shore Transportation Co., said it is common for parents and school counselors to steer students away from technical trades, viewing those jobs as a downgrade over business positions and other careers.

Thomas James, president and chief executive officer of the Truck Renting and Leasing Association, said there are enough jobs available in the heavy-duty trucking technician industry to start pulling talented employees into the business once they realize that stigma is false.

“[Approximately] 40-50 percent of our technicians will retire in the next 15 years,” said James. “Positions are out there.”

When it comes to recruiting technicians, the panel’s advice was clear: Get involved with area high schools, technician schools and the community. The more information that can be provided to high school and college-aged students about potential careers, the more likely they are to inquire and give technical schools a try.

“You have to show up at the schools and be vocal,” said Homer Hogg, senior technical trainer for T/A Petro Truck Service. “You have to let the school administrators know what you are doing and how you are helping.”

According to Timothy Lawrence, executive director for Skills USA, more than 40 percent of businesses currently are struggling to fill employment vacancies, so even if a service provider takes a proactive approach, they can’t expect to fill all of their openings immediately.

Lawrence said 45 percent of students participating in Skills USA courses enter the work force after completing high school, and 36 percent move on to college. Once those students graduate, 72 percent of them enter the work force, Lawrence said.

That means it can take several years to bring students into a business. Ray Wheeling, vice president of advanced training for UTI, said interaction and assistance for those students while they are in school is a good way to make them look at a business when they decide to enter the work force.

Wheeling said partnerships with schools to bring prospective students into a business and scholarships are great, but that cannot be all that’s done. “Once you train someone, there has to be a chance for employment and incentives for your employees to stay,” he said.

The panel also said bringing in military veterans is a great way to build a technician work force. Wheeling said there currently are more than one million unemployed veterans looking for work in the United States, and a lot of those veterans have the perfect skills for this industry.

The biggest problem with hiring in the industry these days is finding people with basic employability skills, said Lawrence. Finding employees to show up on time currently is harder than finding employees who know to repair a wheel end.

Lawrence said military veterans have been trained extensively to be excellent at those specific employability skills. “That is what they’ve been taught to do,” he said.