Educators have a lesson plan to lessen the tech shortage

David Cullen Headshot

If you’re in trucking, you know there is an entrenched shortage of qualified diesel mechanics and other medium/heavy-truck technicians. Study after study keeps confirming this dismal trend.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of diesel service technicians and mechanics is expected to grow 4% from 2021 to 2031. The agency holds that, despite limited employment growth, about 28,500 openings for diesel technicians and mechanics are projected on average for each year of this decade. “Most of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire,” per BLS.

Another sign of the times is the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) tagging the diesel technician shortage as a top research priority for 2023. According to ATRI, trucking’s challenge in recruiting and retaining technicians is “often cited as being as critical as the driver shortage.” 

ATRI will work with government and industry stakeholders to identify the factors underlying the shortage, including mapping career attributes to workforce needs, and assessing high school-level vocational training availability, industry recruitment practices, and competing career opportunities.

Arguably, the canaries in this coal mine are the public and private school educators whose programs educate and train mechanics and techs to take up and thrive in careers in truck fleet, truck lessor, and truck dealer maintenance operations.

While serving the present need of students and employers, the unique position of these professors and administrators at the center of the action allows them to see what’s coming perhaps faster than anyone.

Pressing issue

“The state [of Wisconsin] is facing a pressing issue. This shortage poses a significant challenge for businesses and industries that depend on diesel engines and equipment to function efficiently,” Joe Berhausen, department chair— Diesel Technology, at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) in Appleton WI, told CCJ.  FVTC is part of the Wisconsin Technical College System, which consists of 16 public technical colleges administered by the state.

He said trucking is “dealing with a technician shortage for at least the past 20 years that I’ve been teaching here. However, never to the extent of what we’ve been experiencing over the past five to eight years. Prior to 2015, we would typically see new student enrollments of 50 to 60 for our fall term; today we typically see 25 to 30 new students.”

In Bellingham, Washington, Diesel Technology Instructor Marshall Link of Bellingham Technical College, a public state college, told CCJ that enrollment is up, but clarifies how that fits in with the regional ebb and flow of the national tech shortage.

“Enrollment is up for 2023 by 38% compared to 2018,” said Link, “thanks in part due to program expansion. There is a shortage of diesel techs within the industry as a whole, although the immediate demand seems to be slightly less stifling than a year or two ago.

“It feels as though people have done some relocating and markets are beginning to stabilize a bit,” he continues. “That said, many shops have been running want ads for techs or are watching the bulk of their workforce near retirement.”

At San Diego Miramar College, part of the public San Diego Community College District, current enrollment is steady, having returned to pre-Covid levels. “We were down during the Covid years, 2020 to 2021, but we have rebounded since then with the lifting of restrictions and by being fully face-to-face,” Gene Choe, professor of diesel technology and department chair, told CCJ.

Enroll vs. complete

“Our introduction to diesel technology course is over-full this semester, however our completion rate has gone down in the past three years,” he continues. He attributes that drop to employers that are no longer needing to wait for students to graduate. “They are entering the workforce after even one or two semesters of schooling; our program is typically two years or four semesters to complete for a full-time student. They work part time, but eventually the money is too good, and they go to full time.”

Choe said this usually happens in times of high employment. “Many of these same students return for a degree when things slow down.  Due to the cyclical nature of the trucking and the heavy equipment industry, we are busiest when the booms end as employees are laid off and students lack opportunities for employment. That’s when former students return to complete their degrees.”

He is hearing other concerns in conversations with industry partners. “They are calling me every week looking for graduates to fill their journeyman level positions. They are losing their highly experienced technicians to other states or retirement.” He explains that “journey-level technicians are not moving into San Diego (or California for that matter) from other states. It just does not make financial sense. Why come to San Diego to buy a $1,000,000 starter home? 

“Many of my graduates have also left for states like Texas and Florida,” he adds. “With rent prices so high and home buying out of reach, they are leaving for similar wages in lower-cost areas.” Choe notes that recently many shops have raised their starting wage to over $30.00 an hour. “Even with this raise, it is still difficult to get started.  Those that are staying are those with family ties. Those without are leaving without hesitation.”

Sweetening the pot

Bellingham’s Link advises that employers have begun “to really sweeten the pot for new techs, and seasoned techs alike. They are offering relocation bonuses. They have ‘toolbox programs’ where a new tech can earn a toolbox and tools in a given period of time with the company. The box is often provided upfront, which dramatically lessens the cost of getting into the industry. And there are other employers that are offering scholarships or tuition reimbursement programs. Almost all are also offering some type of retirement program.”

Acquiring tools is an issue all by itself. “The tool requirement for new technicians has always been a barrier,” said Choe ay San Diego Miramar. “Many simply cannot afford a complete set of quality tools in their first few years. Employers have adapted by investing in basic tool sets for the new employee, with the caveat that they will own them after one or two years of employment.”

FVTC’s Berhausen reports that “many employers are forming partnerships with the school’s diesel program by offering scholarships, tuition reimbursement, and signing bonuses. Additionally, they are providing students jobs with flexible work hours around school sessions or cooperative learning opportunities so the students can earn while they learn. Employers are also attending recruiting events and partnering with high schools as well.”

Choe said that San Diego Miramar works closely with industry partners that offer formal or informal apprenticeship opportunities for students. “These employers value the student's education and encourage their completions. They pair them with mentors and also work around the school’s schedule. “I can't think of a better learning practice than to pair their schooling with real-life work experience. It gives meaning and value to what they learn in class.”

Soft skills, too

He points out that the Miramar program also stresses the “soft skills that employers are demanding. My students punch in on a time clock for class. They are penalized for showing up late or missing class. We work on resumes and interview skills. We talk about ethics as a technician. We offer many third-party certifications.  We stress the value of being reliable and owning up to mistakes, and the employers seem to value this.” 

Coursework from school to school can vary and may qualify techs to enroll in more specific programs offered by truck engine suppliers and truck makers. “UTI offers a 45-week diesel technician training program,” Tracy Lorenz, president of Universal Technical Institute’s UTI Division, tells CCJ. “Graduates can then enroll in the Cummins Diesel Engine and Daimler Trucks Finish First programs or apply to the Peterbilt Technician Institute program. These three programs are each 12 weeks long and allow students to earn the credentials necessary to work on these vehicles.”

She adds that “Cummins has offered employment to selected students prior to starting the program. In addition, select Daimler dealerships offer tuition and tool reimbursement to Finish First graduates as part of their job offers and Peterbilt pays the full tuition for UTI diesel graduates chosen for their program.”

The private educational institute also offers a “Summer Ignite” program for high schoolers at campuses nationwide. Lorenz said this free, three-week program includes the same introductory technician course that new UTI students take, “letting high school juniors explore a career in the auto/diesel field. Those students who successfully complete the program can have the course credit applied to their transcripts if they enroll at UTI after graduating from high school.”

Link said Bellingham offers many events on campus throughout the year. “We hold scheduled ‘tour days’ for high schools and middle schools. There are ‘info nights’ aimed at specific subjects, and our Navigators hold smaller scheduled tours as requested. We’ve also begun holding career fairs on campus open to all students and the public.”

Pay to play

San Diego Miramar’s Choe said that “employers are having problems finding top level experienced technicians and there has not been a good effort to grow young technicians.” So, now that the older generation is retiring, there are not enough experienced technicians available to step up.

“With that shortage, wages have gone up,” he said. “California's minimum wage is now $15.50 an hour. Labor law dictates that employees that bring their own tools to the job must start at double the state minimum ($31.00). Even with this increase, it is still difficult to attract experienced technicians.

“I think employers are stuck in thinking that if they hire a technician for $31, they should have five years minimum experience and should be able to step in immediately,” Choe adds. “I don't think they realize that this is the entry-level wage now, and their expectations need to account for that.”

David Cullen has been exclusively covering the trucking industry for top-tier media platforms for more than 40 years. David is known for his award-winning coverage of legislative and regulatory issues and other business matters that impact truck fleets. He resides with his wife and family in Connecticut. Reach him at [email protected].