Bob Jennings Sr. has a nose for trouble. It's a talent he's refined during a 40-year career as a mechanic, truck driver, tour bus operator and general manager for a Ford dealership. Currently, Jennings is the service manager for Central Motor Co., a truck dealership in Springfield, Va., where he supervises a staff of 23 mechanics and two shop foremen.

In all that time, Jennings says he has rarely been stumped by a vehicle problem. But he has been stumped by a different kind of problem: the growing shortage of qualified heavy-truck technicians. “It's a cutthroat market out there for technicians,” he says. “There aren't many candidates available with the right skills, so recruiting and keeping the ones you have gets tougher every day.”

To emphasize that point, Dick Reed, operations manager for the Nashville Auto-Diesel College (NADC), says that the school's 1,200 diesel technician students typically have four to six job offers apiece.

Jim Uffer, president of N.J.-based dealership Truck Tech, and a board member of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), says the problem is not going away anytime soon. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 1998 there were 254,820 people employed as truck, bus and diesel engine technicians,” says Uffer. “BLS projects that by the year 2008, the number of jobs will increase to 279,790.”

These numbers might not tell the whole story. ATA's Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) says that in the next four years, the automotive and trucking industries will need 600,000 new maintenance personnel.

IMAGE PROBLEMS

One factor that may be crimping the supply of new blood to the technician pool is the job's negative public perception. “Although the image of a truck technician is improving, I think that by and large the industry still suffers from the impression that vehicle repair is an unrewarding vocation,” says Uffer.

“In reality, though, it's a job that requires analytical thinking, problem-solving skills and technical comprehension,” adds Jim Martin, president of Henry E. Martin and Sons, a truck dealer based in Lancaster, Pa., and an ASE board member. “Technicians must complete extensive technical course work, obtain on-the-job experience, and continuous educational refreshers to stay current with today's technology.”

“People need more computer-based skills than they did in the past; most of the general public is oblivious to that fact,” says Uffer. “The aptitude of an entry-level technician today needs to be higher than what would have been acceptable in the past. Electronic and computerized systems are prolific on today's heavy-duty vehicles, and they'll continue to increase in both numbers and complexity.”

That fact may be the very catalyst that can help change the public's perception of truck technicians. “The average person has some exposure to computers in their daily life,” Uffer says. “They realize how complex computers are, and that it takes a highly trained specialist to fix them when they don't work properly. They hold these specialists in very high regard. If the industry can successfully communicate the parallels between computer technicians and vehicle technicians, the image of today's truck technician will surely benefit.”

Martin makes the point that while grease and grime is still part of the job, monetary rewards are escalating rapidly. “It is not unusual to see technicians earn $60,000 salaries today,” he says. “This will only increase as the respect, and the shortages, increase.”

SKILL SET

Many industry professionals are concerned about the discrepancy between the public's image of truck technicians and the skills needed to do the job. “Image is an issue. Kids don't think highly of being a truck technician. It's not glamorous; it's the job of last resort,” says Mark Curry, vp-dealer relations for Volvo Trucks North America. “What they don't understand is that the problem solving required to maintain today's sophisticated vehicles involves a complex set of skills, including math, logic and computers. That's why the kids getting into the technician field can't be just the ones who aren't going on to college.”

NADC's Reed agrees. “Technicians need a different level of knowledge today. Electronics and computers control engines, transmissions and fuel systems — almost everything on a truck,” he explains. “With the old mechanical systems, you could literally ‘see’ components and problems. Now many of those problems are invisible because they're inside a computer.”

“What looks like an engine problem may actually be a transmission problem because the electronic control modules (ECMs) aren't communicating properly,” says Central Motor's Jennings. Such problems are becoming more commonplace because of the different manufacturers involved.

“Truck electronics don't work the way those in cars do,” he explains. “For a car, Ford builds the engine, transmission, etc., so everything has the same ECM. With a truck, you might have Caterpillar engines, Eaton transmissions, Bendix brakes, Kenworth chassis, etc. Each component can have a different manufacturer and, consequently, a different ECM. That's why being a truck technician is a lot more complicated than most people realize.”

According to Kurt Hornicek, a medium- and heavy-duty vehicle specialist for ASE, “the high technology used in today's trucks has increased the skill demands on both present and future technicians.” As evidence, he points out that the industry has requested the development of three more ASE medium/heavy-duty truck tests in the past five years, bringing to seven the number of specialty areas ASE master truck technicians need for certification.

THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

Hornicek believes that solving the truck technician shortage will require a combination of long- and short-term solutions. “One of the best ways is to become involved in the local school system and recruit for the industry, as well as provide support for technology training programs,” he says. “Some companies are developing recruitment tools to educate young adults, parents and counselors about the rewards of a career as a truck technician.” And since keeping these programs up to date costs money, schools need industry involvement and support more than ever.

Many OEMs are heeding that advice as they try to develop technicians for their dealer networks as well as their customers. Kenworth, for example, has formed a partnership with NADC. According to Randy Jones, Kenworth's dealer training manager, “there's no doubt that much of the profitability of truck dealerships and fleets can be tied to the performance of technicians. That's why we launched an initiative with technical colleges like NADC to create a pool of entry-level technicians that are familiar with and qualified to service our products.”

Volvo is in the midst of establishing its own technician recruitment and training program for its Canadian subsidiary. In partnership with Centennial College of Ottawa, Volvo has developed a six-month program that provides 32 weeks of classroom learning and four weeks of hands-on experience. After completing the course, students spend two years in an apprenticeship program with a Volvo dealer before becoming full-fledged technicians. “We're trying to ‘grow our own’ technicians,” says Volvo's Curry. Volvo would like to bring this program to the U.S. within the next two years.

For the past 12 years, Volvo has also had a partnership with a vocational school in Salt Lake City. But the OEM is concerned because the overall number of diesel technician programs in the U.S. is dropping. “Take our home state of North Carolina, for example,” Curry says. “Twenty years ago we had 40 diesel technician programs. Today we have just 13. With fewer schools and fewer students, we get fewer technicians.”

William Nash, a technical services manager for ZF Meritor, is also concerned about the dwindling number of vocational schools and truck technician programs. “On the whole, the educational choices are pretty poor; in many parts of the country there aren't any diesel training programs.

“The key to having good schools is having strong industry involvement,” Nash continues. “Local school boards, for example, want to send kids to college, not vocational schools. We need to get more industry members on school boards to help open people's eyes to what the technician professional is really like.”

Uffer says that although low pay, minimal training and image are all part of the problem, a poor image is the hardest part to fix. The market itself will take care of the other two. “As the technician shortage becomes more acute, pay rates are certain to rise,” he explains. “This increase in wages will require employers to get greater efficiency from their technicians. More comprehensive training will become a primary factor in achieving those efficiency gains.”

“People also need to realize that the technicians who maintain and repair these trucks deserve higher pay, better training and more respect.”

Chevron's image initiative

It's up to the industry as a whole to change the public's negative perception of truck technicians. Chevron has responded to this challenge by creating a “Diesel Technician of the Month” award program.

”For many of our customers, the shortage of qualified technicians is worse than the driver shortage,” says Mike Dargento, senior marketing manager for Chevron's commercial lubricants division. “Being a technician can sometimes be a thankless job, but it's always a very vital job. We launched this recognition program to let diesel technicians know how much we value them, as well as to show potential recruits how important the technician's job is.”

The award program is open to all companies in the trucking industry that employ diesel technicians, not just Chevron customers.

Here's how it works. A supervisor or co-worker nominates someone they consider to be a “model” technician — someone who is highly skilled, a team player and a mentor, for example. Chevron then sends the nominee an aptitude test. Based on the test results and the recommendations of supervisors/co-workers, Chevron's panel of judges decides who becomes the diesel technician of the month.

The winner is profiled in a national magazine advertisement sponsored by Chevron. In addition, they receive a jacket, a plaque, TMC's two-volume set of Recommended Practices (a $500 value) and $2,000 worth of training or aptitude testing.

“Technicians don't get a lot of recognition; a lot of their work is behind the scenes,” Dargento points out. “This program is part of an effort to create a more positive impression in the public eye — not only in terms of how valuable a good technician is, but in terms of what it takes to become a good one.”

What it takes

What are the skills and attitudes that separate the best technicians from the rest? Here are what ASA board member Jim Uffer considers some critical traits:

  • Uncompromising determination. Top technicians have a burning desire to find out why something doesn't work, and what's needed to correct it. They take ownership of the problem at hand.

  • A methodical approach to problem solving and diagnostic routines.

  • The ability to interpret and analyze technical information.

  • Positive mental attitude and patience. Sometimes, results do not always meet expectations. Patience and a positive attitude enable technicians to stay focused till they solve the problem.

  • The self-confidence that comes from pride in their successes.

  • Personal satisfaction for a job well done. When award-winning technicians are asked what they like about their job, they frequently respond that they like it for the personal satisfaction they get out of solving a tough problem, one that others were unable to solve. That's a good thing, because sometimes it's the only recognition they get.