The year 2022 may be a year of recovery for the economy, but it’s also a year of shortages for the trucking industry. Shortages of parts have delayed delivery of new trucks and maintenance of those already in the fleet, while almost every carrier has been challenged to find qualified drivers.
To those challenges, add finding — and keeping — qualified diesel technicians to keep fleets running. For decades, the trend has been to steer high school students into academic college programs, leaving many with massive student loan debt and degrees that aren’t marketable.
An October 2017 report written by Brian A. Jacob and published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization, noted that career and technical education (CTE) has been on the decline for several decades. The report cites programs that began in the 1980s and mandate courses in math, science, social studies, and foreign language for high school graduation and encourage students to obtain four-year college degrees. This push led to a decline in CTE enrollment that still exists.
Today, interest in technical programs seems to be growing, but the supply of diesel technicians hasn’t kept pace with the industry’s need.
“The ongoing shortage of diesel technicians continues, and I believe worsened during COVID and hasn’t recovered from the loss of technicians during that time,” explained JLE Industries Vice President and Divisional CFO Brian Gast. The Pennsylvania-based flatbed carrier has grown to more than 400 tractors, including independent contractors, since its founding in 2012.
“We operate in a small pond in Dunbar where our shop is located, so we may be more affected than others when looking to expand our team,” he continued. JLE depends on relationships with a network of partner dealerships throughout the Northeastern U.S.
“We have focused on partnering with dealerships who may be operating in larger geographic areas with regards to staffing, but we have still seen wait times with the bigger shops of up to a week just to get a unit looked at,” he shared. “We have reached out and set up partnerships with diesel tech schools and job fairs, used recruiters, as well as other means to bring in additional talent — but staffing still remains a challenge.”
Gast has been with JLE for a total of more than three years, starting when the company had about 45 trucks total. He left the company to serve in other industry roles before returning to JLE.
“We’re all running our fleets longer. As you run your fleet longer, they break down more and they go in shops more often,” said Covenant Logistics Senior Vice President of Maintenance and Equipment Control Dan Porterfield. “The workload has increased dramatically.”
Covenant’s primary maintenance facility is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, near the corporate headquarters, but the company also manages six satellite shops of varying sizes.
Porterfield’s team also works with tech schools and even local high schools to help students visualize a career with Covenant. One approach he takes to minimize the shortage of technicians is to make sure the ones already employed are working efficiently. His team includes “subject-matter experts (SMEs),” or technicians that have received the latest training and are available to guide and mentor other team members.
Porterfield also stressed that the relationship between operations and maintenance is important to efficient maintenance.
Gast explained how it works at JLE Industries.
“We believe that our shop, diesel technicians, and breakdown coordinators are an extension of our dispatch team, all pulling together in order to create the most positive experience for our professional flatbed talent,” he said.
Technology plays a role in solving the issue as well.
“At JLE we like to think of ourselves as a technology company that operates trucks, so we have spent a good bit of time implementing technology in the maintenance arena that ties into our operating software,” Gast explained.
“Our maintenance and dispatch software talk with each other, so that our dispatch team always knows where their unit stands in the repair process, what repairs are needed, and when they can begin to plan the next load or make the truck available so the driver can plan a load for themselves in order to maximize utilization,” he added.
At Covenant, dispatch and maintenance management systems work together closely as well, but Porterfield stressed that relationships are what makes their system work.
“That really falls back again on that group of SMEs. They have ownership of working with their accounts and their operations teams to make sure that we’re trying to stay ahead of issues,” Porterfield stated.
“The operations team is always going to be focused on ‘How do I keep my truck and my driver safe and productive?’” he continued. “And so, you’ve got to work with them to say, ‘OK, while you’re doing that, where’s my downtime and where are my opportunities?’ Let’s work together to get all of our priorities taken care of.”
That communication starts at a level higher than fleet managers and maintenance technicians, according to Gast.
“Company leadership’s job is to bring to bear the skill and talents of our technicians and maximize their potential,” he remarked. “In order to do this, we have to keep them informed and tied into the operation’s needs and bring them into the decision-making process.”
Renewed interest in tech schools could help to alleviate some of the shortage of technicians, and potentially, drivers too. According to the Family Voices: Building Pathways from Learning to Meaningful Work survey published in April 2021 by Gallup, in partnership with Carnegie Corporation of New York, 46% of parents surveyed said they hoped their child would take a path other than attending a four-year college.
At least 40% of those who preferred their child to attend college were interested in hands-on learning opportunities such as internships and apprenticeships. Of the respondents, 49% said their child entered the work force immediately after graduation from high school.
Whether the shift in educational goals is driven by news of student loan debt or by a better understanding of the successful careers that can begin in tech schools, those results may bode well for the future availability of technicians.
Until that happens, carriers will need to do all they can to maximize the efficiency of those they find.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.