As motor carriers continue to seek and retain qualified drivers, there is another personnel shortage impacting their ability to keep trucks on the road — diesel mechanics.
High school programs across the country are geared toward preparing students for four-year colleges and universities. But as college costs soar and student debt has become a political issue, more students are looking at training for trades, particularly the ones touted as “recession-proof.” The role of diesel technician and mechanic is one of those trades.
Even so, the number of new diesel technicians has failed to keep pace with industry needs.
“College is not for everyone,” said Lucas Subler, president of Ohio-based Classic Carriers. “I believe that narrative is starting to gain some traction in many areas of the country.”
Subler notes that the cost of college has deterred many high school students from looking at traditional higher education. The trades, including diesel mechanics, are an attractive alternative.
“The lure of getting kids into trades early on in life and making a great living is starting to resonate,” he said.
Of course, preparation for a trade, like preparation for college, is something that begins in high school. Subler lauds schools that are presenting trades programs through creative partnerships.
“Our high school runs an apprenticeship through its Future Farmers of America (FFA) program,” Subler said. “The FFA finds the kids that are interested in a wide variety of trades and places them with businesses in our area looking for labor.”
This “Capstone” program allows high school students to attend school part time and work part time in their chosen trade. The number of hours a student is allowed to leave school to work is determined by the student’s grade point average; this information is provided to the student’s work supervisor.
Love’s Travel Stops has presented another alternative to those wishing to become diesel technicians. Love’s recently celebrated the 300th graduate of its in-house training program, Love’s Truck Care Academy, a partnership with Speedco. The program, launched in April 2022, combines classroom instruction with hands-on experience in seven heavy-duty truck systems. Love’s program is the only accelerated diesel technician training program of its kind for beginners.
Keven Avalos, a graduate of the Love’s program, described what lured him to the diesel trade.
“My plan right after high school was going to a technical institute — a trade school for all types of mechanical classes,” Avalos said.
Unfortunately, the cost of trade school, much less college, was beyond what his family’s income could handle. Avalos’ sister, a Love’s employee, suggested he check into the program.
“(The Love’s program) helped me so much,” Avalos said. “When I went to the academy, I was leaving my family for the first time, and I was really motivated to catch on quickly. Knowing that going to school six days a week would make for a short process, I had to get on my horse and go, go, go. I learned so much.”
Avalos admits he has a long way to go but says the program has taught him to be a better mechanic.
Along with diesel mechanics, the need for technicians to maintain battery-powered vehicles is increasing as the electric vehicle (EV) segment of the trucking industry slowly grows. Community college programs, including several in California’s San Bernardino County, have pioneered programs to introduce would-be diesel mechanics to a whole new aspect of the trucking business.
San Bernardino Valley College launched its EV technician training program, funded by Volvo LIGHTS through California Climate Investments in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic truncated the original course schedule, but when the program reopened its doors, more students joined, bringing the program’s total enrollment to 26. The program can lead to a certificate or an associate degree for students who want to pursue college.
Kenny Melanchon, faculty chair of the college’s heavy- and medium-duty trucks technology program, notes that EVs’ share of the heavy-duty vehicle market is growing.
“They’re saying by 2026, all diesel buses will be gone,” he said. “They’re almost all gone now.”
The alternatives will be engines powered by compressed natural gas or electricity, and trained technicians will be needed to maintain both.
For the time being, however, most long-haul trucks are powered by diesel engines. No downturn is expected in the near future, and the need for diesel technicians will continue to grow. With numerous initiatives launched to bring new truck drivers into the industry, it’s only natural that the ratio of technicians to drivers will have to keep pace. That means new jobs and new opportunities in various areas of the trucking industry.
Subler firmly believes the need for additional diesel technicians will continue, and as technology evolves, so will the role.
“The diesel tech trade has evolved immensely over the past 30 years, and I believe it will continue to do so,” he said. “Thirty years ago, a good tech would listen to an engine and diagnose what they thought was making the noise. Today, they plug (the truck) into their laptop for a diagnosis.”
This means education and training will become more important to the mechanic profession.
“Our next generation of techs must be as good — or better — with a computer as they are with a 9/16th wrench,” Subler said. “I believe this shift to a more technological role has helped gain interest in our industry as it is not the ‘dirty old mechanic’ trade anymore.”
Since retiring from a career as an outdoor recreation professional from the State of Arkansas, Kris Rutherford has worked as a freelance writer and, with his wife, owns and publishes a small Northeast Texas newspaper, The Roxton Progress. Kris has worked as a ghostwriter and editor and has authored seven books of his own. He became interested in the trucking industry as a child in the 1970s when his family traveled the interstates twice a year between their home in Maine and their native Texas. He has been a classic country music enthusiast since the age of nine when he developed a special interest in trucking songs.