Falling military enlistment rates have ripple effect on trucking

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Updated Jan 6, 2023
TCI Transportation veteran recruitment
“I feel that if companies give a veteran the chance that they would be impressed with what they do and how they are just looking for the opportunity to help build a strong team,” said Jimmy Howell an Air Force veteran who oversees the military veteran and services program at TCI Transportation. “They want to be challenged to be better and they want to feel that they are making a difference for the company they work for. They try to make it a better place in which to work.”
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Talk to those in the know and it’s easy to see why trucking industry titans keep pushing hard to recruit military veterans to become diesel technicians particularly at a time when competition for their skills and discipline is probably as keen as ever.

“Veterans are wired for success and bring a strong foundation of employment fundamentals and skills,” said Zach Clark, human resources manager at Daimler Trucks North America. “Vets exude critical thinking skills, unique problem-solving aptitude, and agile thinking when approaching problems or tasks.”

[Click here to download your free copy of the 2022 State of Diesel Technicians report, produced by Randall Reilly and sponsored by Shell Lubricant Solutions]

Clark, who also serves as the national chair for the Community Aiding Military within the Organization (CAMO), also pointed to another important attribute veterans bring to the table that shops long for: unbiased team building.

“They come from all walks of life and are therefore acclimated to working with people of diverse backgrounds,” said Clark, a former Marine. “They’re team players that know how to both provide direction and follow it. Vets excel at finding common ground and building relationships to get things done.”

Recruiting vets, however, is easier said than done. Ed Coull, national director of military admissions at Universal Technical Institute, travels three weeks each month to U.S. military installations to recruit servicemen and women into UTI’s technical schools.

Interest in UTI’s medium and heavy-duty diesel repair training programs is strong, Coull said, and so is the competition for the talent and skills that veterans bring. In addition to other trade schools, OEMs and a long list of companies, one of the biggest competitors is the military itself.

Transervice technician“Veterans to me are far easier to train than civilians due to the fact that they have lived in an environment of continuous training,” said Daniel O'Sulivan, a former Marine and assistant vice president of Kroger Transport Operations at Transervice.TranserviceCoull, an Air Force veteran who’s worked at UTI for the past 15 years, pointed out how all the branches of the U.S. military are falling short of their recruiting goals and are doing what they can to boost reenlistment numbers.

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“Unfortunately, in today's environment, everybody's hiring and everybody's going after the same workforce,” Coull said. “We have some installations that as of late, they're hurting. They don't want to release their folks. So they're not even allowing us on the base to make to share [recruiting information]. We are starting to receive more resistance on the installations.”

Raul Zepeda, a mobile diesel technician at Cox Automotive Fleet Servies, recalled how his plans to transition to civilian life were met with resistance. He had been undergoing chemo treatments for cancer when he told his superiors that he was looking to transition to civilian life.

“One day I had a talk with one of my sergeants and we talked for like five hours and he convinced me to stay in and give it another try. So I stayed in,” Zepeda said.

With his cancer in remission, Zepeda’s thoughts turned back to leaving the Army which he did after serving for over three years. He became an HVAC technician but after struggling to support his family, he set his sights on other work with better pay and benefits.

With experience in the Army as a truck mechanic, Zepeda posted his resume online for diesel tech positions. Cox reached out to him and soon enrolled him into their FleeTec Academy in Phoenix, Ariz.

Following graduation and an apprenticeship, Zepeda hit the road for Cox as a mobile diesel mechanic in Tennessee. He also serves as a mentor and helps Cox with their veteran recruiting efforts. Zepeda credits Cox for fostering a family-like atmosphere that’s helped him and his family to transition to his new career.

“They've definitely made it a lot easier,” Zepeda said. “I mean, that's why I love working for Cox. It's been great.”

Coull views the Army’s efforts at retaining Zepeda and other veterans as a necessary tactic to help keep their numbers up.

“Don't get me wrong. The military has a calling. They have a duty. They have a mission, and that mission is to be ready at a moment's notice and be the best of the best at what they do,” Coull said. “They have to maintain that force structure. They have to have a certain percentage of folks that are deployable at any given time.”

Appealing to veterans

Recruiting efforts among veterans is not only strained by competition, it’s also complicated by a knowledge gap. In other words, some veterans may not realize that they’re a good match for a shop.

“Overall, the majority of military technicians don’t think about skills they have learned being transferable into civilian employment, and the industry overall could do a better job to find separating veterans and letting them know that there are living wage jobs available today after military service. Part of this is because it is not easy for civilian employers to reach the separating workforce,” said Jamin Woody, director of service operations at McCandless Truck Center.

Woody, a former Marine, added that, “Recruiters are not a requirement to reach separating veterans, but because some have spent the time to understand the military’s separation systems and make the relationships with base separations, they can sometimes provide benefit.”

That benefit includes understanding military jargon. Each branch of the service has its own acronyms and other ways of communicating that are crafted for efficiency. Knowing the lingo when talking with a transitioning veteran, particularly one just leaving the military, can be a big help.

“A lot of them don't understand how to translate their military experience into the civilian world,” said Methella Green, a military recruitment coordinator at Cox with over 30 years of experience in helping service men and women transition to the private sector.

“A lot of military personnel don't know how to really sell themselves,” Green continued. “So I would suggest that [employers] find somebody who understands [military jargon] or get registered with all these different organizations to teach them how to speak the military language because that is a disconnect. They can tell you ‘I'm a petty officer,’ or ‘I'm 11 Bravo’ and you may just be looking at me like, ‘Okay, what is that?’”

Jay Rasmussen, senior vice president of admissions at Lincoln Tech, said helping veterans to understand that they have skills that will translate to a technician’s job is vital.

“The biggest part for me when I was leaving the service was that I was leaving the only full-time job I've ever had,” said Rasmussen, an Army veteran. “I think a lot of our veterans are nervous about that transition, and it makes it more difficult when you have a skillset that doesn't align.”

However, when given opportunities to train, veterans are quick to respond.

“Because [military personnel] train all the time, when they leave, they're great,” Rasmussen said. “They're great within our training environment and many of them actually will end up in leadership roles within the class just based on their nature towards leadership and directing a team to go in a certain direction and do perform a certain task.”

Shawn Nunley, vice president of training at WyoTech, said that most vets “seem to grasp the concepts of training easier” and added that training helps play an important role as they adapt to life outside the military.

“Technical training keeps them moving and their minds occupied, keeping them involved as much as possible helps with the transition from military life to a civilian lifestyle,” Nunley said. “Our 9-month programs also make it attractive for the opportunity to get into the workforce earlier. The structured 8-hour days make it a real-world learning environment which helps better prepare them for the workforce, and our veterans also add on additional courses due to veteran educational benefits that can aid them in getting into other career fields.”

Following recruitment, making veterans feel more comfortable in their new civilian roles should be an ongoing goal.

“We have a community support center for the veterans at each location,” said Kevin Clark, Cox’ senior vice president of shop operations. “And as a matter of fact, I prefer some veterans as employees as well. We afford them the opportunity to go inside our veterans lounge where we normally have a veteran on staff that works that lounge. And when they do have their individual issues, problems or concerns, we'll kind of help guide them the best we can.”