Although trucking is undergoing rapid advancements in technology, Jeff Harris, the new general chairman of American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council, said the industry needs to get “back to the basics” when it comes to repairing equipment amid a massive industry shortage of technicians.
Harris, vice president of maintenance at USA Truck, took over as TMC’s 2018-19 general chairman and treasurer March 7 during a reception and banquet at the council’s annual meeting in Atlanta.
In an interview with Transport Topics before the start of TMC’s largest annual gathering, Harris said he decided “right out of high school” that he wanted to get into trucking and truck maintenance.
“I was fascinated with big trucks, semi-rigs, and that’s just what I decided to do,” he said.
In 1988, Harris attended what was then known as Nashville Auto Diesel College in Nashville, Tenn. He was inducted into its hall of fame in 2012 for his contributions to the industry. “That was pretty cool,” he said.
Harris said he’s been in the trucking industry for 29 years. He recalled that 14 days after he graduated from NADC, he was hired by M.S. Carriers in Memphis, Tenn. Harris started out as an entry-level technician. “First full-time job I ever had,” he said.
But at that time, the job went by a different name. “We were still mechanics back then,” Harris quipped.
During his time with TMC, he served three years as chairman of the Cab and Controls study group. He had to give that up when he was elected to the TMC board of directors. This past year, he served as the council’s vice chairman and chairman of meetings.
Harris succeeds Glen McDonald, maintenance director for Memphis-based Ozark Motor Lines, as TMC’s general chairman.
“It takes a lot of hard work and commitment to first get involved, but then to run a study group, be recognized and ultimately voted by your peers to the chairmanship. Jeff has done all of that,” McDonald told Transport Topics, noting he and Harris have similar backgrounds, both starting their careers in Memphis. McDonald added that TMC is grateful to Harris for his commitment. “We wish him the best,” McDonald said.
Harris has been with Van Buren, Ark.-based USA Truck as vice president of maintenance for about six months. Before that, he was a regional director of maintenance at Swift Transportation.
“I was 29 years in the same building, and then came on board here at USA Truck in September,” he said. “This is the second building I’ve ever worked in.”
He spent 13 years at M.S. Carriers, which was acquired by Swift in 2001.
Harris said USA Truck operates 1,422 tractors and 5,600 trailers. The company ranks No. 70 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.
Harris oversees five repair facilities and 95 employees in the maintenance department. Most are truck and trailer technicians.
“If you’re a technician, you’re going to be able to work on both,” he said.
The accelerated growth of technology is the biggest change he’s seen over his nearly three decades in the industry, Harris said. “It’s just ever-evolving and you have to stay on top of it, or you will fall behind extremely fast.”
However, getting back to the basics is what he views as one of the industry’s opportunities. Many people in trucking today focus on all the new technology “when there’s things like brake systems that really haven’t had a foundation change in years,” Harris said. “You don’t want to overlook the basics when it comes to repairs just because you’re focusing on all the latest and greatest technology.”
He reflected that when he started in 1988, engines weren’t yet electronically controlled. “Now today, all engines are electronically controlled,” he said. “Automated transmissions are into play. Telematics. Transmitting fault code information through e-mails are out there today.”
Add to these the safety aspects of trucking, including collision mitigation and lane departure systems, Harris said, noting the future of the industry is platooning and autonomous vehicles.
He noted that questions come in from technicians and drivers. For a driver today with a new tractor, “nine times out of 10, it’s got some type of new technology that he or she is not familiar with,” he said.
The technician shortage is a massive, massive piece to our problem. It’s getting these young people into the industry. That is the big goal.
As for some of the headwinds facing the industry, Harris said one of the greatest challenges is hiring technicians with the experience to make repairs involving new technology.
And what must be done about it?
“It’s reaching out to the young folks. It’s reaching out to them while they’re in high school and sparking that interest to get into this industry,” he said.
The industry also needs to participate in career days at high schools, he said, adding that more advertising on television and in social media needs to be done.
There’s little understanding about today’s truck technicians, Harris said. “The days of just getting filthy, nasty, greasy — the old terms of like a ‘grease monkey’ mechanic have gone away,” he said. “Today, we are paperless in our technology with our repair orders. We’re using computers to troubleshoot and diagnose equipment issues.”
As for his goals as TMC chairman, some are to build on the initiatives that his predecessors, including McDonald, have put in place.
“The technician shortage is a massive, massive piece to our problem,” Harris said. “It’s getting these young people into the industry. That is the big goal.” And for technicians in the field, it’s “getting back to the basics when it comes to basic repairing equipment,” he added.
TMC Executive Director Robert Braswell said, “Jeff has been a model TMC member and an example of the type of professional standard our council strives to set.”
Meanwhile, the industry’s technician shortage soon may be reduced by one. Harris said his 18-year-old son, Gavin, a recent high school graduate, is looking to follow in his career footsteps. “He’s fixing to get into the trucking industry as a technician himself.”
“He’s heard me talk about it for years,” Harris said. “That’s what he says he wants to do.”