Q&A on the Trucking Technician Shortage

There has been much ink spilled and keystrokes dedicated the growing shortage of truck drivers. Often overlooked, however, are the increasing challenges the trucking industry is faced with when it comes to attracting and retaining heavy-duty technicians, which also affects carriers productivity by limiting their ability to repair, maintain and get equipment back on ten road.

The following are some excepts of a CCJ magazine Q&A with Ken Calhoun, of  Truck Centers of Arkansas. Through his work with the Technology and Maintenance Council, Calhoun has emerged as a leading voice calling for fundamental change in how the trucking industry recruits, trains, promotes and retains technicians.

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CCJ: I’ve heard some very alarming things about the technician crisis in the course of researching this story. How bad is the issue in your opinion?

Ken Calhoun: Well, I’m glad you’re covering the story. But I think you’re a little late to the party. I think we hit full-blown “Crisis Mode” five years ago. And only now are people slowly starting to realize how bad things are.

It’s a complex issue: The rate the industry has had to keep up with changes in technology – most of which has been implemented by the EPA – has driven levels of complexity into trucks today that is just unreal. I’m a reasonably intelligent man. But when I pull the tech manuals out today to try and resolve an issue, it’s a chore just to read the headlines and first five or six lines of text to extract the information I need. Since 1998, the learning curve in this industry hasn’t just steepened. It’s gone vertical.

CCJ: You’re an advocate of “Developing your Bench” when it comes to technicians. Can you explain that philosophy?

Calhoun: First, you have realize that now, as our industry has become a global one, it has vastly limited a fleet’s talent pool in terms of hiring a technician that’s already in the field.

Say you’ve got a technician at my competitor across the street who is disgruntled and wants to leave. In the old days, he’d be a prime candidate to recruit. But today, I would have to spend the same amount of time and money to retrain him on our brand and technology as I would to train somebody just coming out of tech school. Our products are so different, and structured and designed so differently a technician today is severely limited in the systems he can work on with a new brand without going back to school.

Worse, there’s a certain level of chaos in the industry among the OEMs designing the equipment…

What all this means for a fleet is that the days of poaching talent are over. You have to bring people into your organization, train them, and then retain them. The first step, obviously, is creating an apprenticeship program to identify and track talented newcomers. Fleets have always done this, to a degree. But a much fancier approach is required today. And you have to be realistic. Once you find talent, you can expect a 50 percent washout rate from any group of students you decide to work with. And that has held true for us.

The key to this is finding partners that can provide you with a steady stream of talent. And for us, that has been the biggest challenge. I’ve been lobbying my bosses to take an EPA ’10 compliant truck and donate it to a partner school. And saying to that school, “Here’s the truck, the diagnostic suite, and the sign-on passwords to look at the diagnostic codes. Take it and use it to educate your students. And in return, give me the first shot at your best students and know that I’ll take 12 graduates a year into my business. Because that’s the number of new technicians I need to keep just one facility up and running each year.

CCJ: Technical schools just don’t have the money to get the latest hardware to teach with, do they?

Calhoun: They’re 15 years behind the curve right now. I provided an engine to one of our vocational schools here in Little Rock 17 years ago. And they’re still training with that same engine today. And they’re in better shape than most schools. I’ve gone into schools recently and seen students working on old Detroit two-cycle engines. That training is useless today, beyond very basic instruction on diesel engine theory.

CCJ: But the kids are still going to the schools. That’s a positive, right?

Calhoun: Yeah. But we also have to start reaching out to those kids at a much earlier age. Both the kids and their parents. We need to be talking to kids and their parents when they’re in junior high school and telling them there is real earning potential for technicians in this industry. We need to think long-term. Instead, we’re always in panic mode because we need technicians and it’s all about short-term, instant gratification.


Read the full interview here

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