NASHVILLE– The second annual technician skills Rush Truck Centers rodeo being held here is part of a multi-pronged effort by the nationwide chain of Peterbilt dealerships to encourage its techs to get more training and show appreciation for the job they do. All of those initiatives are vital, explained Mike Besson, vp for service & body shop operations, as it’s getting harder to maintain a stable technician workforce.

“We had a 60% increase in applications for this year’s rodeo vs. 2006,” he told FleetOwner. “We’re hoping this contest – added to other efforts – will build some loyalty and reduce turnover among our techs.”

The need for technicians is acute as more are retiring than can be replaced. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2012 annual demand for technicians should rise to 101,184, representing growth of 12.4% over the next decade.

“We’re trying to change the way technicians are viewed,” said Mike O’Brien, gm of the Nashville truck center. “For example, our 120,000 sq.-ft. facility here is heated and cooled to make the work environment better for our technicians. It costs $20,000 a month to heat and cool this building, but that’s just 1% of our operating expenses. It’s just good for business.”

But the rodeo is by no means a pushover, stressed Besson. About 529 Rush techs spent 10 months completing the coursework necessary to take the contest’s “entrance exam,” but only the top 60 scorers get to attend the two-day rodeo. Competing technicians are split into four divisions on the first day – Caterpillar engines, Cummins engines, Eaton components, and medium-duty trucks – from which up to 12 move on to compete in the general chassis segment on day two.

Along with jackets, belt buckles, T-shirts, and other assorted prizes, the final 12 take home at minimum a $3,000 cash prize – the top winner walks away with up to $10,000 – and get from $1 to a $1.50 an hour added to their paycheck, Besson told FleetOwner.

For the technicians, the contest is very realistic. They get 45 minutes to both diagnose and fix a problem on both days, so the time pressure means they have no room for error, said Matt Wheeler, a technician from Rush’s Oklahoma City location.

“At one point, I realized I had to wing it and go with my instincts as to what the problem might be,” Wheeler told FleetOwner. “Keeping up with all the technological changes going on in trucks – especially emission changes – is the hardest part of this job.”

“And don’t forget – you can solve the problem in 45 minutes if you’ve chosen the path from all the possible solutions,” added Ken Carter, service manager at Rush Oklahoma City, who came to lend Wheeler and two other techs in the contest moral support. “You need to make a lot of decisions in a very short amount of time, and if you go east when you should have gone west … there’s probably not enough time to recover.”