Diesel technician shortage most impacts those who are ‘part of the problem’

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Updated Sep 12, 2018

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Nearly 11,000 diesel students graduate post-secondary tech programs every year.

That doesn’t sound like an ingredient for a labor shortage, yet the fact that truck fleets coast-to-coast struggle daily to fill vacancies in the repair bay and retain their best technicians is indisputable.

That’s a problem George Arrants, ASE Education Alliance manager for medium/heavy duty trucks and the chairman of TMC’s Supertech competition, says is self-inflicted.

“For the last four decades, we’ve been telling kids ‘go to college,’” says Arrants, who delivered the opening address at Isuzu’s North American technician competition in Pittston, Pennsylvania. “We forgot to create the workforce that’s going to maintain the infrastructure of our country, but Career and Technical Education is on the move. We are a service oriented nation.”


Look harder

Highly-skilled blue-collar labor is getting harder to find across practically every trade: from truck driving to truck fixing and from plumbers to welders. Students who 30 years ago may have graduated from a tech program are now walking around with four-year degrees.

What’s left behind is an unskilled labor force in search of jobs they’re not qualified for. Nearly 90-percent of employers recently surveyed by the Technology and Maintenance Council say they have a shortage of qualified applicants. But a shortage of “qualified” applicants and a general shortage of applicants are two distinct problems.

Part of the onus of turning out qualified applications falls on the trucking industry stakeholders looking to hire them, and if you don’t know the name of the decision-makers at your local trade school Arrants says you’re part of the problem.

“The people that get involved with their local schools, they don’t have this problem,” he says.

As tax paying businesses, Arrants says the trucking industry has an obligation to ensure local diesel tech programs are turning out employable students.

“It’s important that you spend time explaining to [the trade schools] what you need,” he says.

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If a local tech school doesn’t have a diesel tech program, Arrants suggests getting involved in the auto program. For schools that don’t have either he says to check out their Ag program.

“If a school doesn’t have a diesel or auto program, we’ll walk right by the [agriculture] program and it may have 300 students,” Arrants says, “and they’re involved in tractor restorations or some other mechanical program.”


Culture key to retention

But finding applicants is only half the battle. Keeping them is another fight entirely.

Getting in these local programs is important because the success rate for students hired from a school from more than 300 miles away is 20 percent.

The support system that family and friends provide new graduates as they get on their feet is underappreciated until it’s gone.

Employers also do their fair share to undermine themselves.

The expectation that a new hire should hit the shop floor with a level of expertise comparable to employees with several years of seniority, a lack of a mentoring program and a management team that doesn’t understand this generation, Arrants says, is a recipe for failure.

On average, it costs more than $8,000 to find and hire a tech on the shop floor. Having a person dedicated to on-boarding that employee – ingraining them in your culture – is critical.

“Does that kid not know what he’s doing or does he just do it different than the way you do it,” Arrants says. New techs often more closely follow a manufacturer’s recommendation or procedure – the textbook way. However, “in the real world” – where speed and uptime are of more emphasis than process – the perception may be the new employee is slow or lacking skill.

Baptizing new-hires in “your way” is an ongoing part of their career development and an important part in reducing turnover.


Understanding a new generation of worker

Tabbed as the “participation trophy” generation, Millennials have gotten a bum rap in the workplace and Arrants says it takes a willingness of the employer to learn how to manage the group.

“They only want two basic things,” he says. “They want a clean, safe work environment but, more than anything else, they want to feel like they’re part of the family. They’re very talented and they are loyal. But they expect a few things from you.”

Unlike the generations before them, Arrants says most Millennials value personal time more than money and as such may be unmotivated by overtime pay. Incentives like comp time in lieu of overtime pay, Arrants says, will become an increasingly important benefit in attracting young talent.

Competition for new tech talent is fierce and simply showing up at a career day, Arrants says, isn’t going to cut it.

“Recruit in the beginning [of the school year], not the end,” he says. “Don’t wait for a career fair where you’ll be one of 45 others. Go to the school when school starts.”

Getting involved earlier in the student’s education also helps shape their potential career path.

The deeper you can embed your operation in a local technical program, Arrants says the more likely that school will produce the skill set you need, and the more likely you’ll be able to keep them long-term.