Motor carriers already dealing with dramatic increases in diesel and driver wage expenses are watching maintenance expenses soar.
Maintenance expenses for large fleets jumped 20 percent from 2012 to 2016 and continue to increase, according to a recent benchmarking study by the American Trucking Associations’ Technology & Maintenance Council and FleetNet America.
“The complexity of the trucks and the number of computers on them, combined with the number of specialty tools needed to work on the trucks are driving up maintenance costs,” Jim Buell, executive vice president of sales and marketing of FleetNet America, a truck maintenance provider, told Trucks.com.
The industry also is struggling to attract new, young workers who want to learn to repair sophisticated trucks equipped with advanced safety functions, complex engines and exhaust systems, said Rebecca Brewster, president and chief operating officer of the American Transportation Research Institute.
“The industry has changed over the last decade,” Tim Moore, vice president of roadside operations of FleetNet America, told Trucks.com. “Now, you not only have to know how to use a wrench, you also have to know how to operate a computer as well.”
The shortage of diesel technicians is driving up maintenance costs for trucking companies. It sometimes takes days for truck repairs to be completed. That downtime means the vehicles aren’t hauling loads.
Just the per-hour labor cost to keep Mike Card’s fleet of 500 trucks serviced, repaired and running has doubled since 2016.
“We lose money when these trucks are down, waiting sometimes for days to get the right parts, then to get the repairs done,” Card, president of Combined Transport of Central Point, Ore., told Trucks.com.
Prices for new parts to fix complex systems on new trucks are also skyrocketing, Card said.
“If you have a problem with an emissions exhaust system on one of these new trucks, it’s going to be an expensive fix,” he said.
ATRI listed the growing shortage of diesel technicians as an emerging concern in its 2017 “Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry” report.
Trucking will require 67,000 new technicians and 75,000 new diesel engine specialists to replace an aging workforce by 2022, according to the ATRI report.
“Our jobs have changed dramatically in the last 20-plus years,” said Art Wendschlag, a 25-year diesel technician from Kansas City. “There are hundreds of fault codes that we must learn in order to troubleshoot and find the source of the problem.”
Recently, Wendschlag attended the career day at a local high school to try and recruit students who might be interested in learning his trade.
“I am still waiting for my phone to ring,” he said.
Rising oil prices also are contributing to higher maintenance expenses.
“Tires, the lubricants we use, anything that uses a petroleum-based product is going up, and we are starting to see those maintenance cost increases as well,” said Randy Cornell, director of maintenance of CFI, a fleet of 1,900 trucks headquartered in Joplin, Mo.
Fortunately, freight rates have been strong and companies are able to pass these extra costs on to customers — for now.
June is expected to be a record month for the number of loads that need to be hauled on the spot freight market. They jumped 27 percent in the first week of the month compared with the previous week, according to DAT Trendlines. Loads rose 105 percent in May compared with the same month a year earlier.
This significant bump in freight is taking a toll on trucks. Moore said he’s seen a significant jump in emergency roadside repairs among his fleet customers in the last six weeks.
Trucks also broke down more frequently — every 9,136 miles — in the first quarter of this year compared with around 11,594 miles in the fourth quarter of 2017, Moore said.
“To meet operational demands, sometimes companies have to defer preventative maintenance on their trucks until they get the freight delivered because business is good right now,” Moore said.