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Future Hires

The techs of tomorrow are in high schools today

The shortage of qualified truck drivers is discussed on a daily basis. The same cannot be said for a shortage of technicians to service today’s trucks.

“With almost no young people entering the workforce, it can definitely be classified as a crisis,” said Kenneth Calhoun, vice chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council of American Trucking Associations.

“Diesel techs are almost as much in demand, if not more so, than drivers,” said Don Lefeve, CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association.

So much so that one technician-hungry employer recently told Bob DiFranco, technical training director at Ohio Technical College, “If you had 25 graduates ready right now, I’d take all of them.”

That reality prompted Mike Betts, CEO of the Betts Co., to do something about the dire need for technicians in California’s trucking-centric Central Valley region.

“We started talking to industry folks—truck dealers, independent shops, and truck fleets—and asked if starting a high school program made sense,” Betts told Fleet Owner. “Everybody said, ‘Absolutely. Look at the average age of mechanics here in the Valley. It’s a huge need and we’re not producing next generation folks.’ So we got together with our education leaders. There wasn’t a single high school truck program in the entire Central Valley. There was one college [agricultural] diesel program . . . and some of its graduates do enter the heavy-truck business, but they didn’t offer any ASE-specific training.”

With an investment in excess of $9 million derived from the Fresno Business Council and its educational and governmental partners, a diesel tech program is set to begin this fall at Duncan Polytechnical High School (DPHS) in Fresno, with similar programs expected to open in two nearby towns in 2019.

“Our school dates back to the mid-’80s, so you’d think we would’ve had this going a long time ago since Fresno sits along this major transportation corridor between the Bay Area and Southern California, and trucking is a major industry in our area,” said Duncan principal Jeremy Ward. “Schools all over the country are looking to partner with industry because they want graduates to have relevant and meaningful skills in areas of work demand and good pay demand. This is a great model for the rest of the country.”

Cara Jurado, Duncan’s college and career readiness coordinator, said that when the school’s roughly 9,000-sq.-ft. facility is completed, it will include two indoor truck bays and an outdoor bay, as well as an in-ground alignment pit with stadium seating around the front of the truck. The facility’s shop will have cameras and mounted television screen. When someone is underneath a truck, the work they’re doing can be viewed in the attached classroom.

Duncan’s curriculum will be taught by ASE master-certified technician Eric Rubio, who has military, industry, and educational experience. The course requires 740 hours of instruction and shop time. Juniors will spend two periods per day in the program, while seniors will spend three. More than 10 local heavy-truck shops have expressed an interest in having Duncan students work as interns so they can apply their learning in a real world setting.

“What’s really neat is that everybody in the community collaborated to make it happen,” Betts said.  “Educators aren’t going to do it unless there’s demand from the industry. There’s a lot of bureaucracy in education, which isn’t easy to deal with, so if you go it alone you’ll probably fail. The key is to design the program the way that ASE recommends and ensure that it’s dual enrollment.”

That’s also working for the program at Gentry Career Technical and Education Center in Arkansas, which began in early 2016. Gentry’s students get 12 credit hours at nearby Northwest Technical Institute while attending high school.

“We listened to our business partners about what skills our students were missing when they were applying for jobs or starting jobs,” said Brae Harper, Gentry principal. The program’s diesel tech instructor, Tyson Sontag, spends much of his time teaching instead of fixing trucks for McKee Foods, which pays his salary.

That’s the biggest example of how McKee Foods decided to be proactive about the company’s headache in finding technicians.

“I think there’s shortsightedness in the industry,” said John Williams, McKee’s corporate fleet maintenance manager. “As long as [companies] can keep their bays filled with folks, it’s not an immediate need. We’re a little more forward thinking. We’re looking five to ten years ahead to make sure that we have a pipeline in place to bring people in and keep people interested. It’s not enough, but it’s a great start.”

Williams expects the diesel tech shortage to perhaps top 100,000 by 2025, adding, “the tech schools cannot meet that demand.” Hence the move to attract younger students.

“We’ve got to paint a different image,” Williams said. “We’ve got to get them young, and we’ve got to show them there’s a future in diesel tech. I started unloading trucks and worked my way up. You go back 20, 25 years and every high school had some type of vocational-tech program. It’s hard to find one today. The desire for a trade went away, but we’ve got to have those folks.”

Christie Toland, assistant superintendent of the Gentry School District, said that she had been the only high school representative at TMC’s annual meeting for three years until she met Duncan’s Rubio earlier this year.

Toland previously spearheaded a diesel tech program at North Little Rock High in Arkansas.

“These seem to be uncharted waters,” said Toland, whose program received a boost in 2016 after local voters approved a 3.1% property tax increase that raised $2.8 million to take Gentry’s students out of an old bus garage and into a state-of-the-art facility on campus.

James Berry, fleet maintenance superintendent at McKee Foods, credited Gentry for recognizing the number of students graduating but not going to college—and then “doing something about it.”

Calhoun termed what has happened in Gentry probably the best example of “education, local government, community, state government, and industry partnering to do something significant.”

Lincoln Tech, one of the nation’s top producers of diesel technicians, partners with the nearby Bergen County (New Jersey) Public Schools, allowing high school students to use its facilities.

“Many high schools are still offering auto shop, wood shop, and metal shop, and they’re not appealing at all career-wise because of who’s teaching and because it’s very rudimentary for a short period of time every day,” said Shaun McAlmont, Lincoln Tech’s CEO from 2005-’15. “When a school district decides to make technology or the skilled trades a real career path, they do a great job at it. It’s just not that popular yet.”

Toland, who introduces students as young as fifth grade to the idea of being technicians, said such programs can be a hard sell to parents with four-year colleges on their minds for their children.

“A lot of these jobs are seen as greasy and undesirable,” McAlmont said. “You think you’re going to be holding a wrench all day long, but in your first semester at Lincoln, you take electrical systems and you’ve got to understand that piece as much as you do where the bolts are. The diagnostic/computer analysis starts before they even begin repairing trucks.”

Ohio Tech’s DiFranco noted, “Over-the-road trucks have a higher level of technology than some cars do. Our textbook has a lot of physics and chemistry. It’s a really difficult program.”

The program certifies several hundred new diesel techs every 18 months. And yet, the worker shortage continues to grow. So getting programs started on the high school level can make a difference.

“There are still elements of what we do that are mechanical,” Calhoun said. “It’s often hot in the summertime and cold in the wintertime and you’ll get grease under your fingernails at the end of the day. But the skill set has certainly had to evolve.  [Some of] our technicians will become service managers and vice presidents of maintenance. When you pack the room at TMC and ask how many people started turning wrenches, three-quarters of them raise their hand.”    


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