In Search of People Power

IC Bus held a technician competition at its booth during the STN EXPO Reno in July 2019. (Photo by Taylor Hannon.)
IC Bus held a technician competition at its booth during the STN EXPO Reno in July 2019. (Photo by Taylor Hannon.)

Of the fleet managers who were polled for this month’s issue, 82 percent self-ranked their maintenance operations as good or excellent. In addition, about three-quarters of the respondents said their garage service is superior to those in neighboring districts.

However, 36 percent of readers this month also admitted that their fleet management operations and capabilities are experiencing challenges as a result of being “too old.”

For example, about one-third of respondents told us they still write down fuel usage on a clipboard, don’t perform any tracking at all, or “don’t know.” In nearly the same breath, exactly nine out of 10 readers said that they are not interested in purchasing fuel tracking software in the coming school year.

These figures remind us that despite the bevy of technological advances coming to the industry, many student transporters are still working in the relative dark ages of technological advances. This is not meant to insinuate that they are backward or slipping in their performance.

It’s merely an observation that, for all of the super users of technology that we regularly hear industry suppliers boast about, there remain many school district staffs that find themselves still working primarily with yesterday’s tools. We will report more on this situation in the September issue.

The topic also reminds me that many school districts are so busy with trying to keep their heads above water with current demands, that there is seemingly little time to move forward with the learning curves that are needed to adopt new technologies. And there is a limited number of staff members that are available to assist with the implementation.

School districts and bus companies are not only short of school bus drivers. They also lack qualified technicians, which is as bad of a problem, if not worse. The American Trucking Associations estimates that up to 200,000 technicians will be needed over the next 10 years, just to keep up with current maintenance needs.

Meanwhile, Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) says that only about 3,500 diesel technicians are graduating each year from six- to 12-month programs or with one- to two-year associate degrees.

John Tweed, president and CEO of transportation logistics company Landair, attributes the lack of technicians to several factors. In a recent blog, he pointed to an ongoing series of articles in the Commercial Carrier Journal that surmised that many in the younger generation don’t want to work with their hands—or to get “dirty.” That may be an over-generalization, but it is relevant when browsing all the job postings for more glamorous positions working with computers, or in the aviation, automotive and marine industries.

Tweed also suggested that training on obsolete equipment is contributing to the tech shortage. Thirty years ago, a trade school may have paid $2,000 for a diesel engine for its students to train on. Today, a basic diesel engine can cost in excess of $30,000. Another factor is the rise in proprietary diagnostics systems from OEMs.

Amid these statistics, where does the school bus industry expect to find tomorrow’s technicians? There are no quick and easy answers, but conversations about potential next steps continue.

Last month at the STN EXPO Reno, two workshops, in particular, touched on the importance of keeping school buses and their technicians happy. The panel discussion on “Modernizing the School Bus Garage” dealt with the physical tools that are at the disposal of school districts and bus companies that operate in the 21st century.

Attendees heard from student transporters who have hands-on experience with outfitting their garages (and obtaining the necessary funds for investment) with the latest and greatest innovations—and the accompanying training that is necessary for technicians. That training not only improves the reliability of all of their vehicles and equipment services, but that also helps keep their staff happy and engaged.

Another session discussed the ramifications of technician shortages, and strategies to turn the tide. As we’ve heard time and again, the pay is not everything. Sure, everyone needs to eat, but just as important to technicians, school bus drivers and the rest, is reporting to a workplace that is positive, encouraging and cutting edge.

How does our operation stack up? It’s a vital question to ask yourself as you read this month’s issue, and throughout the new school year.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the August issue of STN.