So much is written about the truck driver shortage, another shortage that has the potential to cripple the freight industry is often overlooked – diesel technicians and mechanics.
The complexity of modern tractors with all their electronic components and growing numbers of systems using artificial intelligence have made the “shade tree mechanic” almost obsolete. True, some truckers still prefer to work on their own rigs, but more and more, an out-of-service truck heads to a repair shop.
All the major truck OEMs have made significant strides in recent years to improve service levels, in some cases cutting down initial diagnosis times to mere hours from days previously, the one thing they have not overcome is the lack of technicians to do the work.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 278,800 people were employed as “diesel service technicians and mechanics” in 2016 with an average salary of $46,360 per year in 2017. The Bureau projects 9% growth in the field through 2026 as the industry adds some 26,000 jobs.
The technician shortage received mention as an “emerging issue” in the American Transportation Research Institute’s (ATRI) Top Industry Issues in 2017. ATRI estimates the industry will require 67,000 new technicians and 75,000 “diesel engine specialists” by 2022 to fill growth and retirements.
To help alleviate pressure of a technician shortage, Mack Trucks and Volvo Trucks are partnering with three colleges to develop technician training programs. The OEMs have developed the Diesel Advanced Technology Education (DATE) program to run at Jones Technical Institute in Jacksonville, FL; the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, OH; and Western Technical College in El Paso, Texas.
DATE, which begins in 2019, will feature a 500-hour program where technicians will train on powertrains, electrical and electronic systems, chassis components and software and engine diagnosis and repair. Students will work on Mack and Volvo vehicles.
“Modern truck technology offers many benefits to customers, but it also requires advanced skills for maintenance and repair,” said Roy Walton, senior manager of aftermarket training for Mack Trucks. “The DATE program will help our dealer network address the severe shortage of technicians qualified to work in this highly technical field.”
OEM-certified instructors will lead the classes and graduates will receive an associates degree in diesel mechanics as well as a DATE certification.
“The DATE program provides students with the education and skills needed to excel in a career that’s increasingly in demand,” said Matt Flynn, director of Volvo Trucks Academy. “Graduates of the program will be ready for a technician career in our dealer network, equipped with hands-on maintenance and repair training to service the advanced modern truck technologies delivering unprecedented efficiency, performance and safety benefits.”
Finding technicians for dealer networks is not the only tech shortage issue facing the industry. The need for technicians to handle light mechanical work is also growing, which is why Love’s Travel Stops has developed an apprenticeship program to help it find technicians.
Love’s, which employers over 650 technicians at its 325-plus locations, developed the one-year program in 2016 as a way to fill a shortage of technicians that runs about 100 openings on average.
“It’s unlike a trade school where you have to invest in the tools and pay for the education,” Dan Jensen, director of tire sales and service, told FreightWaves during a meeting at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville in March. “In our program, they get the tools and earn a paycheck.”
Once an apprentice finishes the program, if they remain with Love’s for an additional year, the tools they have been using will transfer from Love’s ownership to the technician. That’s a huge cost savings for young technicians. Love’s has graduated approximately 100 technicians so far and most have chosen to stay with the company, Jensen said.
All the apprentices learn light mechanical work – the same work that Love’s performs on customer vehicles – under the direction of a seasoned technician. They also receive computer-based training and train inside Love’s mobile training lab trailer.
As of March, Love’s had approximately 490 apprentices in the program spread throughout its network.