The shortage of diesel technicians has been getting plenty of attention lately and for good reason. Penske Leasing recently cited U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics which reports that 67,000 technicians will be needed just to replace retiring workers by 2022. It will take another 75,000 new mechanics to meet the additional demand.
2022 is just a little more than four years from now, and that has maintenance operations of all kinds looking hard at the technicians that are currently entering the job market. They will be be the experienced technicians of tomorrow.
A company called S/P2 maintains a database of resumes from tech students looking for full-time or part-time jobs or internships. According to, Kyle Holt, S/P2 president, of the students who have posted resumes so far, there are 12,000 interested in heavy-duty diesel maintenance, 30,000 interested in automotive repair, 12,000 interested in collision repair and 13,000 interested in a career in welding.
Fleet Owner recently had the opportunity to visit with Kyle Holt. He has some unique insights into the technician shortage and what really happens when new technical school graduates enter the marketplace looking for their first jobs.
FO: Just how severe does the diesel technician shortage look from your vantage point?
Holt: According to the TechForce Foundation, the annual demand for diesel technicians is about 28,300 every year. In 2016, there were 11,966 post-secondary diesel tech graduates in the U.S. That is a shortfall of 16,334. And that number assumes that one hundred percent of all the new technicians entering the industry stay, which is not the case.
Some new technicians are going to other industries such as oil, gas, construction, even retail. Trucking (and automotive) needs to do other and better things to recruit and retain entry-level technicians, including offering more apprenticeships and mentoring programs.
FO: Do new techs tend to favor jobs in automotive repair or in heavy-duty diesel maintenance?
Holt: More than twice as many people graduate from automotive repair training programs than from diesel programs. I believe, however, that the diesel industry can solve its technician shortage faster than the automotive sector can. This is, in part, because diesel shops are paying inexperienced new technicians about $18 to $22 per hour to start-- higher than the starting pay in automotive repair or collision repair. It gives diesel operations the opportunity to solve their technician shortage problem rather quickly if they are willing to recruit automotive and collision repair grads and not just diesel techs.
FO: Is starting pay the main concern for new technicians or are there other factors involved in their career choices?
Holt: Pay is certainly important, but so are other factors such as who pays for shop tools. On the automotive side, new technicians are often expected to buy their own shop tools. For instance, a new technician might make $30,000 their first year, but they could easily be expected to buy from $10,000 to $15,000 worth of tools that same year. Over the course of their careers, they can expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars on tools. In reality, young workers will simply not have the tools they need at first to get the job done and they will have to try to borrow tools from the more experienced technicians in the shop.
There are some diesel shops that do the same thing, but the practice is not widespread. A few diesel shops require their technicians to buy some of their tools, but many treat shop tools as assets on their balance sheets and provide the tools to their technicians to use. In other words, the tools belong to the company. When it comes to recruiting entry-level techs, this can represent another hiring advantage for diesel repair operations.
The aviation, oil and gas industries also provide their techs with the tools they need. No matter how tools are handled, all shops need to at least have a policy to manage tool borrowing. For instance, maybe new-hires can only borrow tools from their personal mentor, although the mentor can borrow tools from others on behalf of the new tech. Shops might also promise to reimburse tool lenders if a loaned tool is damaged or broken—something like that.
FO: Is there any diesel tech training going on at the high school level? If so, do those students have any opportunities for apprenticeships?
Holt: There are a few high school diesel tech programs, but not many. There are more automotive programs than diesel courses. When it comes to apprenticeships or even hiring, however, some businesses have a policy of not hiring anyone under the age of 18. That means they can’t bring in 16-17- year-olds for shadowing or mentoring or internship programs. Insurance coverage is often the issue.
What shop managers may not know is that high school technical students often are, or can be, covered by the school’s insurance. This offers businesses a way to get kids into the automotive or trucking industry early on ---before they are recruited elsewhere