March 7, 2016 3:45 AM, EST

Execs Retool Industry Message to Attract Younger Technicians

John Sommers II for TT

This story appears in the March 7 print edition of Transport Topics.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The key to solving the trucking industry’s shortage of qualified technicians lies in developing the workers of tomorrow rather than recruiting from the shrinking pool of experienced technicians, maintenance executives and business leaders said.

“There’s not an existing force to go out there and draw from,” Kenneth Calhoun, vice president of customer relations at Truck Centers of Arkansas, said here at the annual meeting of the Technology & Maintenance Council. “If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to grow your own. You plant the seed early, and you nurture it along the way.”

Calhoun said his company established an apprentice program that combines instructor-led training with mentoring in the shop. Graduates of that program, which began in 2009, now represent more than half of the company’s technician staff, he said.

George Arrants, director of recruiting and training for WheelTime Network, also called for the industry to focus on training new technicians at a time when many baby boomers are retiring at an alarming rate, creating a vacuum in the workforce.

“If you’re looking for experienced technicians, they don’t exist,” Arrants said. “Stop looking for them. They’re exiting the workforce. We have to find another way.”

Arrants, who also is chairman for the TMC SuperTech competition, estimated that the United States graduates more than 10,000 new medium- and heavy-duty truck technicians every year, but many of them lack the skill set that the industry needs.

Some of them also end up taking jobs in other industries, such as wind generation, that also employ diesel technicians.

Arrants urged fleets and maintenance providers to engage with the vocational schools in their communities to help ensure that students remain interested in the transportation sector and develop the skills they will need when they graduate.

Homer Hogg, manager of technical development at TravelCenters of America, said major maintenance providers compete to hire the top training-school graduates, but other applicants lack essential skills.

Hogg said his company trains its technicians on advanced troubleshooting techniques but cannot start from the ground up.

“They must have the basics,” he said. “I cannot take a technician who has skills that are 15 years old.”

That’s especially important, given how quickly truck technology is evolving.

Hogg said the industry must partner with educators to address students’ skill gaps.

“All of us are going to have to step up and do that,” he said.

Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, said too few students are aware of career opportunities available in vocational fields such as transportation, manufacturing and construction.

“For far too long, parents, business and political leaders and educators have told students that in order to be successful and attain the American dream, you must — not should, but must — go to college and obtain a four-year baccalaureate degree,” he said.

Meanwhile, millions of jobs are going unfilled in the U.S. economy, yet millions of people remain unemployed, said Zook, who attributed that disparity to a skills gap.

To address this problem, the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce has launched its “Be Pro. Be Proud.” outreach campaign, which is working to share information on careers in vocational fields, including transportation.

At TMC, the organization showcased its Be Pro Mobile Unit, a 40-foot expandable trailer with hands-on simulators designed to give students a taste of what a vocational profession could be like.

Zook said shop classes are disappearing in high schools, vocational schools have turned into community colleges and technical training has become almost an afterthought.

Today, fewer than a third of parents would readily choose a technical occupation for their son or daughter, even though technical careers can pay higher wages than many professions that require bachelor’s degrees, he said.

Dave Williams, who recently retired from a management role at Verizon’s fleet operations, also said the industry should work to improve the public perception of truck-maintenance careers. The problem often occurs around the dinner table, where a student expresses interest in becoming a technician but the parents disapprove, Williams said.

“I think we need to elevate the profession,” he said.

Calhoun, of Truck Centers of Arkansas, agreed that today’s students have no idea that lucrative job opportunities exist in transportation and maintenance.

His company has partnered with its local school district to raise awareness about this career path among grade-school students, he said.

One key message is that modern truck technicians work with advanced technologies and diagnostics. Calhoun pointed to the vehicles and systems on display in the TMC conference exhibit hall as an example.

“We are STEM,” he said. “Everything down on that floor has to do with science, technology, engineering and math in practical application.”