The trucking industry isn’t only suffering from a shortage of drivers — it also faces a shortfall of diesel technicians who keep increasingly complex heavy-duty trucks running.
For the first time, the shortage of diesel technicians showed up on the American Transportation Research Institute’s Top Industry Issues Report for 2017. It ranked last among the top 13 challenges listed by survey respondents.
“When I go to industry events now, I’m hearing about this almost as much as the driver shortage,” said Rebecca Brewster, the research institute’s president and chief operating officer.
Both labor shortages are equally problematic for the industry, said Patrick Pendergast, group director of talent acquisition at Ryder System Inc.
The diesel technician shortage is “definitely getting much more attention, and rightly so,” he said. “If the truck isn’t running then you don’t need the driver.”
Ryder has about 150 to 200 openings at any given time out of a workforce of 5,900 technicians in North America, he said.
The issue has been building for a decade, said Gregg Mangione, senior vice president of maintenance at Penske Truck Leasing. Beyond its 9,000 truck maintenance employees, Penske has openings for 900 more in North America and expects to hire another 2,000 in 2018.
“Trucks today are increasingly complicated,” Mangione said. “They are now rolling computers.”
This means trucks need more frequent, more complicated maintenance. That creates more demand for companies like Penske and Ryder, which provide outsourced maintenance services for motor carriers.
Another problem is that not enough young people are backfilling jobs left by retirees.
They have “many more competing career options pulling from the same labor pool,” and the job faces a societal stigma, Mangione said.
Companies are trying to expand the labor pool. For example, Ryder is recruiting more women to the field, a traditionally underrepresented group, Pendergast said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses several classifications for maintenance professionals, such as bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists, heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanic, automotive glass installers and repairers. None have more than 3.6 percent female employment.
Brent Redfern has been in the field for 10 years and is now a diesel instructor at Oconee Fall Line Technical College in Dublin, Georgia. He had four women in class for the first time last fall. He hopes more will come.
Employers look for female technicians, Redfern said, especially because as truck cabs shrink to save space and money, people with smaller hands can better access tighter places.
The core issue for both men and women is getting the word out and persuading them to sign up, he said.
“It’s not like there’s a shortage of jobs or the pay is short,” Redfern said. “I don’t know if the interest is really there with the upcoming workforce.”
Redfern said he has to fight the negative image of the profession in recruiting. “For so many years, to qualify as a diesel mechanic or any type of mechanic all you needed to be was breathing and walking.” With regulation, that began to change and the industry demanded more of its technicians. However, he said the stereotype lingers.
“We fight every day to change it. We try not to call ourselves ‘mechanics’ and call ourselves ‘technicians.’ It’s about getting out of the blue jeans and T-shirts and getting into uniforms.”
Pendergast said Ryder, like its competitors, is focusing on education about the career through partnerships with technical schools, industry associations and high schools because most people simply do not understand what it really means to be a technician now.
“The first thing you do is plug the truck in to see the fault code,” Pendergast said, noting that those interested in computers are prime candidates for maintenance work now.
Technicians easily spend at least 40 percent of their time on a computer, either adjusting the engine via laptop or working on the truck’s internal computer system.
Additionally, there is the broader issue of young people forgoing vocational training for four-year degrees.
“We’ve got this mindset in the U.S. that you’ve got to get a four-year degree, but then they end up at the end of that degree with debt, and perhaps not as well off as they might have been with a technical degree,” Brewster said.
High school programming looks to be the best avenue to raise interest and change that trend, Brewster said. But only about 29 percent of public high schools offer trade and industry/transportation occupational programs, according to a Department of Education study.
Penske and Ryder also offer programs to encourage employees to move into other departments, whether it’s bringing people into technician jobs or helping technicians leverage their experience into managerial or safety roles.
This shortage of technicians has shown up in carriers’ operational costs, Brewster said. The average repair and maintenance costs hit an all-time high in 2016: $0.166 cents per mile, or 10 percent of total operational costs, according to the research institute.
The need for technicians shows no sign of slowing.
Employment of diesel service technicians will grow by about 10 percent from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That would be faster than the 7 percent for all occupations and traditional vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, installers and repairers.
“I get a phone call every day from people looking for technicians,” Redfern said.