Mobil Delvac panel discusses what fleets need to do to deal with tech shortage

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There’s a lot of concern these days about the growing driver shortage. And it’s a valid concern. But there is another area where the supply of qualified labor looks to be falling behind the growing demand that also has fleet executives worried.

As much as drivers are needed to keep the wheels turning, those wheels won’t even get out on the road without technicians.

Back in March, Mobil Delvac held its 2018 Fleet Maintenance Forum in Louisville, Kentucky, the evening before the start of the Mid-America Trucking Show. The panel discussion was led by George Arrants, director of training and recruitment for the WheelTime Network and chairman  of the American Trucking Associations’ Technology and Maintenance Council Super Tech Competition and the Future Technicians Skills Competition.

The discussion was titled, “Facing the Technician Shortage: How to Recruit and Retain Top Talent.” Arrants opened the discussion by challenging the premise that there truly is a technician shortage, showing that the raw numbers don’t bear that out. A 2014 survey showed there were 263,900 diesel technicians at the time and projected that by 2024 the industry will need to have 291,500. Allowing for the number of technicians expected to leave the profession for one reason or another, it’s estimated the industry will need to come up with 76,900 new technicians in that 10-year span.

Meanwhile, technician programs at public and private schools are churning out an average of 10,700 graduates a year. “Do the math,” Arrants said — there shouldn’t be a shortage.

So, what’s the problem? He and his fellow panelists proposed there isn’t so much a shortage of technicians as much as they are being squandered.

Arrants said at events like this he likes to ask fleet representatives if it is really a shortage of applicants that’s the problem or of qualified applicants.

“And nearly 90 percent of them say, ‘we have a shortage of qualified applicants,’” he said.

He and his fellow panelists suggested that fleets need to look at their definition of “qualified,” and how they determine who meets that definition. Too many companies have come to rely on formulas and computerized algorithms in the application process, Arrants said.

Panelist Mike Morvilius, vice president of maintenance for Moore Transport, agreed. When Moore Transport opened, he had no problem finding people, he said. But when he started to have to replace a few, he could place an ad and after a month he wouldn’t see a single candidate. He went down to the human resources department and found out that, yes, there had been applicants, but they’d all been rejected for not meeting the hiring criteria.

“I’ve never been a big fan of ‘criteria,’” Morvilius said — very few of us go through life with a spotless record. From that point on, he insisted all applications have to cross his desk. Since then he’s hired some of his best people.

Arrants suggested fleet executives submit their own resumés to see if they could get hired at their own companies, and “if you can’t even get out of the system, there’s a problem.”

Speaking of criteria, Arrants added, if you’re the type who insists on years of experience, consider this: “If you start with entry-level technicians, the only bad habits they’ll have are the ones you teach them.”

One of the most common comebacks Arrants hears is these new guys come out of the schools knowing nothing except how to rebuild engines. That’s a valid complaint, he said. “I’m sorry, but there’s not a company I know that’s going to let a 19-year-old work on a $60,000 engine.”

ExxonMobil CVL applications engineer Paul Cigala works with fleets across the country to develop their maintenance programs, and hears the same complaint. “You have your entry level who’s probably changing oil, greasing, maybe some lighting/electrical work.” But too many entry-level technicians are coming out of school untrained in these areas.

This is a national problem with a local solution, Arrants said. And that local solution, Mr. and Ms. Fleet Owner, is you. If you don’t like what the technician programs at your local schools are churning out, let them know what skills you need and offer your expertise and assistance.

“You have to get involved,” Arrants said. “Industry has to drive the train.”

Panelist Jerry Clemons, automotive and diesel technology program coordinator at Elizabethtown (Kentucky) Community and Technical College, can hold up is school as an example.

“We have a very strong relationship with industry and have had for many years,” he said. The school conducts advisory committee meetings twice a year in which members of the industry are invited to provide feedback about the program. Local companies also help with donations of components, and even trucks and trailers.

The curriculum is set up to give the students a wide range of knowledge, Clemons said. “Our students are in high demand and we don’t get any feedback that they are not ready for the industry teaching them what we teach,” Clemons said.

More schools and companies are developing internships programs as part of their relationships, Clemons said. He’s also found local employers will hire promising students part-time while they’re finishing school.

“The companies that are doing that are not having a problem,” Arrants said. They’re getting first crack at the best prospects before they graduate.

But as so many trucking companies know all too well, getting employees in the door is one thing, holding onto them is another.

This is particularly true with entry-level employees, Arrants added. “I tell people, we eat our young,” he said. “We take them out, first day on the job, throw them out in the shop and expect them to be productive.

“Sometimes we’ll ask these kids to do a job, and they do it different than we do it. Then we think it’s wrong and we call them idiots or say, ‘I can’t believe you graduated from this school’ or whatever,” and so a lot of them quit.

Older generations like to complain that millennials are too sensitive, they feel entitled, they’re lazy. But “we created them,” Arrants said, “We’ve been giving them trophies for coming in last place since they were 6 years old when we should have been saying, ‘pick another sport.’”

But if you take this generation at face value and work with them, and you might be pleasantly surprised, he added.

“We forget, at one point we were ‘those darned teenagers,’” Arrants said, and just like our parents’ generation found out, there comes a time when youth must be served.

In 2000, baby boomers represented nearly half of the nation’s workforce. Today, baby boomers and Generation Xers combined make up less than half the workforce. Generation Y, the millennials — they’re the majority of your workforce now.

Arrants advises his fellow “gray hairs or no hairs” to accept that today’s young adults didn’t have the experiences his generation did growing up.

“We turned wrenches as a kid,” Arrants said. Guys grew up in the driveway, working on their bikes, then on some beater of a car. Not anymore.

“When I taught 20 years ago, a kid knew what a Phillips screwdriver was, or a straight blade or whatever. Nowadays, we have to teach these kids what a screwdriver is, and that a torque bit is not a ‘star thing.’”

There’s nothing you can assume they know, Arrants said. But don’t assume they can’t learn it. As always, it’s a matter of knowing how to motivate employees.

When it comes to employee satisfaction, the whole work-life balance equation has changed, Arrants said, and that applies to time on the clock, as well.

“One of my quotes is, do you treat your employees like your children or like your grandchildren?” he said. Fewer kids grow up in traditional, stable homes these days, Arrants said. Young workers value a clean, safe work environment and a sense that they’re part of a work family.

Creating this sense of inclusion needs to start right at the beginning, Arrants said. He strongly suggests companies have designated mentors to show new people the ropes, both on the job and within the company culture.

If the new technicians coming out of school seem a bit deficient, the panelists suggested, bear in mind that with the speed at which trucking technology is evolving, so is the definition of “qualified applicant.” The kids coming out of school today are generally a lot faster adopting new technology than their graybeard counterparts, Arrants said.

“These kids have great skills,” he said. They may not be the skills of 20 or 30 years ago but that may be a good thing. While your older workers may have to show the newbies the right wrench to use, these kids may help demystify the latest electronic innovations to reluctant old-timers.

As technology changes, so does the definition of “qualified,” Cigala pointed out.

The training never really ends for technicians to keep up with changing times.

“Some people think, ‘if you train them, they will leave,’” Arrants said. “But if you don’t train them, they may stay. Think about that.”

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