The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that by 2022, the commercial trucking sector will need approximately 67,000 highly trained technicians and 75,000 more diesel engine professionals. In other words, more than 100,000 truck technician/specialist jobs, which relates to capabilities necessary to achieve the status of a school bus technician specialist, will be open and in need of filling this year. This issue has been building for the better part of a decade, even before the impact of COVID-19 and school bus transportation operations cutbacks have been felt, and all signs lead us to believe the problem will worsen.
The shortage may be exasperated by desperate municipal bus fleets, bus dealers that service our school bus fleets and major commercial truck fleets poaching school bus technicians to fill technician vacancies in their dealership or fleet repair centers. The problem in hiring replacement technicians is that many new technicians are not arriving with the skills they need for entry-level service work. Because truck and bus technician retention will soon be such a big issue for fleet managers, it is imperative that you consider new strategies and modify training techniques, like the following to keep your top performers and attract a new generation of technicians.
Improve Your Shop Training, Tools & Working Conditions
One reason the trucking and bus industry is short on entry-level diesel service technicians is that people see working on fleets as a dirty job. That may have been true 15 years ago but not today. Engine work is much less greasy, and integrated chassis and school bus bodies are becoming more sophisticated. The advent of zero-emission vehicles will result in technician duties focusing more on diagnostic and replacement than repair.
Update your shop condition and invest in your technician’s technical capability with modern equipment, such as:
- Work bays for dedicated functions (preventive maintenance inspection, brakes, suspension, electronic) and with specific advanced diagnostic tools. These items can make a technician’s job cleaner and more efficient.
- School bus manufacturer and aftermarket supplier-based training courses. They offer your technicians hands-on training targeted to the type of equipment your district or company purchases.
- Develop in-house apprentice training programs that boost technicians’ skills to journeyman technician levels to support fleet operations.
- Adopt a recognition program such as the Automotive Service Excellence school bus certification, or a statewide mechanic trade group membership.
- Integrate fleet management software. This technology tool can help shop supervision and the technician track repairs, schedule maintenance, and improve the performance of the entire shop.
These tools, recognition and training initiatives will allow teams to work more cohesively, helping to ensure that everyone is pulling their weight. Young technicians coming from vocational training centers, expect a modern team approach and well-equipped workplace. As buses continue to get more complicated, a technician and their tools must become equally advanced. Having the right training and tools improves workflow and keeps your team on the cutting edge as innovations reach your school bus fleet. Use your industry trade publications, web sessions, association seminars, and conferences to benchmark your operational practices and improve your technician’s skill.
Fleet Maintenance Offers Multiple Career Paths
Many young technicians do not realize what opportunities are out there. It is up to you to have frequent discussions with your technicians on opportunities that can develop in your transportation company and school district. In nearly every industry, opportunities for growth keep employees engaged. This is especially true in school bus fleet maintenance management.
Encourage Individual Growth
While reviewing this year’s School Transportation New’s Garage Star nominations, it was most interesting to find that many of them received vocational educational training from the very school system they now work for. What better way to build a competent work force than from within the school community. Many of the nominated management-level professionals started out as entry-level technicians right out of a school district technical education program. Some even on a workday co-op, half day in school half in the shop. It is apparent from the nomination commentary that these individuals will be more likely to remain loyal to the transportation department that offered them the career opportunity.
Millennial and Generation Z technicians have a hunger for advancement. When these team members get passed over for promotions, it may cause them to look for a new job. By setting clear expectations from the very start, you can let your team members know what it takes to succeed at your district/company. It is always a good idea to focus on promoting from within, rather than seeking outside hires.
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You can reduce your risk of staff turnover and improve your chances of technician retention by making opportunities readily available to your new and current team members rather than outside hires. This makes it vital to give new educational opportunities to current employees. Many technicians say they would take a job in a different industry if the new company promised to train them.
Using experienced staff within your district/company create a training program that contributes to individual professional development that crosses functional roles within the transportation department. This would give technicians the chance to learn new skills both technical and human resources. Doing this can help fill in your transportation department skills gap while also recognizing the employees that are willing and able to advance within your district/company. It also keeps your staff ahead of the curve as new management and technical innovations crop up.
It is also critical to realize that solving the technician shortage starts with new hires. A recent ASE survey revealed 42 percent of new technicians leave trucking within two years. We do not have school bus technician turnover statistics, but it may be near the trucking number. Only you know the hardship in your district finding talented staff.
As managers, recognize the gap between technicians arriving with a trade school education and your expectations for new technicians. In the past, it was relatively easy to hold out for applicants with skills ready to put to work. By hiring trainees with fundamental knowledge and providing the right training on what a new technician needs to meet your department work practice, policy and procedure expectations early on can make new hires feel more prepared and keep promising recruits engaged. Stay close to your workforce, understand your market goes beyond school busing, and compensate employees fairly for their skillsets. In the school bus transportation industry, some of your most important employees for you, and for your children, are the technicians that keep our school buses up and running.
Editor’s Note: Pudlewski recently updated a previous article he wrote for the February 2021 edition of School Transportation News magazine as the technician shortage isn’t going away.
Pudlewski is the technical editor for School Transportation News and a member of the National School Transportation Association Hall of Fame. He retired from Laidlaw in 2008 as vice president of procurement and maintenance.