New Technicians Lack Skills, Fleets Find as Demand Grows

Panelists at Fleet Maintenance Forum, 2018 MATS
Panelists (from left) Arrants, Shafer, Clemons, Morvilius and Cigala discus the state of truck technicians during the Mobil Delvac Fleet Maintenance Forum on March 21 in Louisville, Ky. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — More technicians will be needed soon, nearly 77,000 more by 2026. However, plenty of students are in the pipeline. But questions remain about their ability to meet real-world needs in a shop, and about how to keep them once hired, experts said.

Graduates from private schools focused on technician training number about 5,600 each year, while publicly funded schools graduate about 5,100 more, said George Arrants, chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council’s SuperTech competition.

That’s about 85,000 graduates in the next eight years, he said.

“Really, it’s a shortage of qualified applicants” able to do basic procedures on fleet equipment, Arrants said at the Mobil Delvac 2018 Fleet Maintenance Forum at the Mid-America Trucking Show.

Some of that stems from the type of training delivered at some schools, he added. “Teachers teach what they know.”

Demand for more technicians — 50% of which is replacement-driven as workers retire or are promoted — comes as the nation’s economy is running at nearly full employment, sales of increasingly complex Class 8 trucks are surging and the industry’s mantra is uptime.

Fleets are telling ExxonMobil that students are coming out of schools not properly trained on basic functions such as preventive maintenance or properly lubricating equipment, said Paul Cigala, a commercial vehicle lubricants engineer with ExxonMobil.

“They are looking to us for proper training [of new technicians] and ideas about how to help with processes in the shops,” he said.

Students come in wanting to rebuild diesel engines, but that is not what’s needed from them, said Ken Shafer, director of maintenance and tank cleaning for Superior Carriers. The bulk hauler is based in Oak Brook, Ill.

Mike Morvilius, vice president of maintenance for Moore Transport, agreed.


Arrants by John Sommers II for Transport Topics

There are gaps in what students fresh from school can actually do “despite a good resume,” he said.

Moore Transport is an auto hauler based in Richardson, Texas.

Industry involvement in supporting schools is crucial, said Jerry Clemons, coordinator of the automotive/diesel technology program at Elizabethtown (Ky.) Community & Technical College, about 50 miles south of here.

“Businesses support us with donations of components, trucks, trailers, tools, computers,” he said, adding, they provide input on the curriculum, too.

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About 60% of his students line up jobs before they graduate. In total, about 30% of the graduates go some place other than an over-the-road trucking company, he said.

Sometimes, hiring requires intuition and trust, backed up by clear expectations. In fact, once the graduates come knocking for a job, it may be better if human resources steps aside, Morvilius said.

Instead, he has hired applicants based on his feeling for how they presented themselves in interviews, including owning up to some earlier miscues that may not have passed the initial criteria an HR department sets up.

“We all have a past and something happened in that past, whether it is good, bad or indifferent. I try to look at the person, look at the paper, call them in and have a conversation,” he said, adding he has been successful with this open-minded approach that also holds them accountable for meeting his expectations.

Simply put, his hires join the “family in our shop,” he said.

Workers spend more time at work each day than they do actively engaging with their spouses and children, so Morvilius tries to get that family to come at times and interact with the workplace family — wives come in and make a home-cooked meal, teenagers clean trucks and get paid for it.

“We try to involve the family as much as possible,” Morvilius said.

Shafer said Superior encourages terminal managers to get to know employees on a personal level. “Not so much, ‘what are you working on, right now?’ ”

Pay is not as important as a clean, safe environment, Arrants said, and millennials — many of whom come from divorced or single-parent families — especially, want to feel like they are a part of a larger family.

Separately, Darry Stuart, CEO of the Wrentham, Mass.-based DWS Fleet Management Services, reached at his office, said he did not believe there was a shortage of technicians, either.

He described the situation instead as technician churn, much like what occurs with over-the-road truck drivers fleet-hopping.

“We don’t do a good job of keeping them,” Stuart said. “I think there is a misalignment of how we treat them, take care of them, supervise them, coach them, nurture and guide them.”

But up to 70% of technicians leave, he said, because they don’t know when they will earn more and what they have to do to qualify for raises, he said.

For Morvilius, it comes down to having a new hire show up ready to work.

“We can teach them anything they want to learn,” he said.