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Service Industry Urges Action to Fight Technician Shortage

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By Seth Clevenger, Staff Reporter
This story appears in the Sept. 24 print edition of Transport Topics.

PITTSBURGH — Facing the prospect of having to replace tens of thousands of technicians in the coming years, officials from the trucking and fleet maintenance industries have urged companies to work closely with educators as one way to attract new talent.

“It’s not a problem, it’s an impending crisis,” Bonne Karim, chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council’s Professional Technician Development Committee, said of the technician shortage at a Sept. 12 session here during TMC’s fall meeting.

Total employment among truck and bus mechanics and diesel engine specialists is projected to climb 14.5% to 277,400 in 2020, from 242,200 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Labor expects 87,800 job openings in this sector during the decade, with 35,200 resulting from growth and 52,600 because of workers retiring or leaving the industry.

The replacement figure is a “scary number,” said George Arrants, director of business development at Lincoln Technical Institute, which offers seven diesel programs. “Most of it is based on the aging workforce.”

Arrants is chairman of TMC’s SuperTech competition, an annual contest held in conjunction with the fall meeting to recognize top technicians and promote the profession (9-17, p. 1).
Detroit Diesel Corp. in 2010 estimated that half of its mechanics would retire by 2015, Preston Ingalls, CEO of consultancy TBR Strategies, told Transport Topics.

He cited statistics from job placement agency Manpower Inc. that found the largest worker shortage in the United States was in skilled trades such as mechanics and welders in several industries, including trucking.

That agency placed the lack of mechanics above the driver shortage.

Kevin Holland, senior manager, service training at Daimler Trucks North America, said a poll of the company’s dealers and distributors indicated DTNA’s service network will need to acquire an additional 6,400 technicians by 2020.

At the TMC session, Karim, a retired fleet training manager for the U.S. Postal Service, pointed to one Postal Service vehicle maintenance facility on the East Coast as an example of the shortage. She said the agency has never been able to hire a full complement of technicians since it opened about 14 years ago and currently is staffed at only 60%.

And the gap between the labor needed and the labor available is expected to widen, said Tim Lawrence, executive director of SkillsUSA, a national organization for students preparing for careers in technical occupations.

“It’s going to get worse unless we face it and come up with some solutions,” he said.

Some employers are addressing the shortage by partnering with schools and community colleges, and “planting those seeds early,” said Ray Wheeling, vice president of advanced training at Universal Technical Institute, which offers diesel training programs at eight of its 11 campuses.

Companies are hosting career events to showcase modern truck technology, he said. They also can use video conferences to bring their shops to the classroom and get high school students excited about the profession.

Kevin Tomlinson, director of maintenance for South Shore Transportation Co., Sandusky, Ohio, said parents sometimes push students away from the vocational field because they see it as unfulfilling, dirty and academically inferior.

“It’s a culture change. You have to make them think differently. Everybody in the industry is competing for the same individuals, and you have to let them know that those positions are out there,” Tomlinson said.

The industry must get the word out that the technician field is really not what they think it is, he said.
Lawrence, of SkillsUSA, said the companies that work with educators have a recruitment advantage.
“The employers who are inside the schools, helping build that pipeline, are the employers who are going to actually get those students,” he said.

Wheeling, of Universal Technical Institute, said the biggest challenge for technician students over the past few years has been the cost of training, coupled with their inability or reluctance to take on debt.
The companies with more ad-vanced recruiting strategies have used scholarships and sponsorships to combat this problem, he said.

Financial assistance can also take other forms. One large fleet, for example, is offering upward of $10,000 in tools after a year of employment, Wheeling said.

Assistance with tuition loans and relocation costs for new hires are other ways that companies are offering financial incentives.

Tom James, CEO of the Truck Renting and Leasing Association, said there’s “an incredible pool of potential job candidates in our military veterans.”

“You’re going to find people that have those basic employability skills, many people who already have the skills needed in the shops, and you’re going to be helping out people who have served our country,” James said.

“It’s not the answer to the shortage, but it’s a very good step in the right direction,” he added.

Senior Reporter Rip Watson contributed to this story