March 3, 2016 2:59 PM, EST

Training, Outreach Key to Solving Technician Shortage, Maintenance Execs Say

John Sommers II for Transport Topics
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The trucking industry has struggled for years to find enough qualified technicians to keep the nation’s commercial vehicles moving, but the key to solving that problem 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, Calhoun said.

George Arrants, director of recruiting and training for the WheelTime network, said the education and training that young people receive today does not match what the industry needs.

At the same time, 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.”

He urged fleets and maintenance providers to engage with vocational schools in their communities to ensure that students remain interested in the transportation field and learn the skills they will need when they graduate.

Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, said too few students are aware of the career opportunities available in technical fields.

“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 career opportunities in vocational fields, including transportation and truck technicians.

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.