Diesel technician shortage holds at critical mass

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 675 views 

The diesel technician shortage has reached “critical mass,” and it won’t be resolved anytime soon, industry experts say.

Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates 76,900 job openings for diesel technicians through 2024.

In Arkansas, Kenneth Calhoun, vice president of customer relations at Truck Centers of Arkansas in North Little Rock, sees the need for more than 10,000 technicians as a result of growth, and to replace those who are retiring from the field.

Collectively, about 40% of diesel technicians in the United States are 50 years or older, “with a quite a few looking to retire in the next few years,” Calhoun said.

In Northwest Arkansas, Kent Chambers, chairman of the diesel and truck technology program at Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale, said probably 30 journeyman technicians could find jobs “today.” These are technicians who have four to five years of experience after graduating from a program like the one offered at the post-secondary school.

NTI, which is a state agency, is doing its best to place successful new technicians into good-paying jobs.

Its diesel technician program, which underwent a $900,000 expansion two years ago, has been at capacity for the past five years, Chambers said. It has 38 students in the program.

Annually, between 15 and 20 students graduate from the 18-month program.

The program is so popular that school instructors interview prospective students to select which applicants will be accepted into the program. Instructors choose the ones they think will be the most likely to succeed.

“Our program is based upon ASE areas for employment,” Chambers said.

The estimated cost for a student is about $6,500, which includes tuition, fees and books.

“It’s an inexpensive way to start off a career,” he said.

Melissa Pianalto, vice president of instruction at NTI, said education costs are specific to each student.

The school offers financial aid, such as federal grants, but does not give loans.

Blake Robertson, president of NTI, said the school is exploring ways to offer scholarships through the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery.

Nationwide, median pay for diesel service technicians and mechanics was $21.40 per hour or $44,520 annually in 2015, according to the Department of Labor.

Average earnings for entry-level technicians who graduate from NTI’s program “are running in the $15 per hour range,” Pianalto said.

Seasoned technicians earn between upper $20 and $30 per hour, Chambers said.

“Our goal is to train an entry-level technician,” Chambers said. “We will teach them the basics.”


‘Critical Mass’

Calhoun, who serves on the Technology and Maintenance Council for national trade association American Trucking Associations, said the shortage has reached “critical mass.”

In the past five years, he’s seen a “shift in attitude coming from the industry … We’ve got to do something significant.”

He doesn’t see the problem going away anytime soon.

“I will have long retired and don’t plan on retiring anytime soon,” he said. But he would expect the nationwide shortage to be resolved in 15 years.

Companies such as J.B. Hunt Transport, USA Truck, Wal-Mart Stores, Tyson Foods and McKee Foods aren’t immune to the shortage.

“Each and every one of these entities has an opening,” he said.

The shortage has been brewing for generations.

The past three generations have been told the only path to success has been to go to college, he said. But 72% of those on the path don’t have a four-year degree six years later.

To complicate matters, environmental regulations have impacted the industry, especially regarding semitrailer emissions. Starting in 2002, “the EPA [Environmental Protections Agency] got very, very involved in our business,” he said.

To comply with regulations, manufacturers had to “soup up our computers,” Calhoun said.

They have added about 20 sensors and 10 actuators to engines and installed two fuel injectors into the exhaust system.

By January 2007, Calhoun said if a semitrailer was “blowing black smoke, it’s either older than 2007 or its diesel particulate filter is broken.”

In 2010, manufacturers added a supplemental catalytic converter to cut down on nitrous oxide emissions.

Also, safety features in trucks started to become used as far back as 2004. This includes collision mitigation software, which uses technology such as forward looking radar and lane departure warning systems.

With all the new technology and systems added to control emissions, technicians are spending more and more time diagnosing issues related to these devices.

Those aren’t the only challenges to the shortage. Calhoun explained the industry is suffering from “kind of an ugly image problem.”

People see semitrailers as “dangerous things on the highway,” but this is not accurate, he said. They think of the “black smoke” coming from them, which also isn’t accurate. And, they think of people “slogging over a hot engine.”

But, he said, technicians, such as those at Truck Centers of Arkansas, spend much of their time using computers to diagnose issues in semitrailers commonly related to their “ancillary systems.”

“It is not the same environment that it was 20 years ago,” Calhoun said.


Finding Solutions

Calhoun has been working to address the shortage through the Be Pro Be Proud campaign, which promotes careers such as diesel technicians. He’s also reaching out to schools to ensure their curriculum is aligned with what companies in the industry are looking for in technicians.

Calhoun is a founding member of the Technician Curriculum Advisory Committee for the Arkansas Trucking Association. The committee, which started in June, will soon conduct audits of post-secondary schools, such as NTI, to determine how well they are preparing its students for careers as technicians.

The committee is developing the questions it plans to ask the schools in the audits. Once the audit is completed, a report will show the areas of concern.

The committee wants to encourage schools to become accredited through the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation. NATEF is the only certified body for medium- and heavy-duty technicians, including diesel technicians.

In the Be Pro Be Proud campaign, Calhoun is working with the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce to encourage people to become not only diesel technicians but also welders, plumbers and electricians. The campaign’s exhibit is a trailer pulled by a big rig provided by Truck Centers of Arkansas. “Think high-end horse show vehicle,” Calhoun said describing the semitrailer.

Since the campaign launched in March, 7,000 students have gone through the exhibit and 3,000 would like to know more information, he said.

While interest in the industry is strong, NTI looks to grow its diesel and truck technology program to train the next generation of technicians.

Two years ago, it invested $900,000 to expand the program and double the size of the shop to 12,000 square feet. Yet, the program remains at capacity.

NTI has room to grow, but it lacks money to expand.

“We’re in competition for the funds,” Robertson said.

He said the school is operating at the same general revenue level it was 10 years ago. Its annual general revenue of $3.7 million includes student tuition and fees.

About 80% of the school’s expenses go to employee salaries. Other expenses such as supplies and tools are purchased as needed over the years.

Chambers said the school depends a lot on the industry to donate equipment for students to work on.

“We’re constantly looking to our friends in the transportation industry,” Robertson said.

A $5 million donation would be a good start to expand, he said.

Robertson would like to see twice as many students in the diesel technician program.

Pianalto explained she’d only want to expand the program without a loss in quality.

“I’ll never take expansion over quality,” she said.

Pianalto regards the work of technicians akin to that of healthcare professionals.

“It’s a different type of life-saving,” she said.