The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 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, beginning a year from now, more than 100,000 truck technician and specialist jobs, which relates to the capabilities of a school bus technician specialist, will be open and in need of filling.
Despite a majority of readers reporting in this month’s Trends survey that they are not currently short mechanics, the issue has been building for the better part of a decade, even before COVID-19 impacted school bus transportation operations through budget shortfalls and cutbacks.
Experienced technicians are retiring, and some have decided to leave the industry even earlier, due to the disruption of the virus aftermath. Job hopping has resulted. It is not uncommon for municipal bus fleets, dealers that service our school buses, and major commercial truck fleets to look to our school bus technicians to fill job vacancies.
The problem we all face in technician replacement 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 to pick up new strategies. Consider the following to keep your top performers and attract a new generation of technicians.
Improve Your Shop Training, Tools and Working Conditions
One reason the trucking and busing industry is short on entry-level diesel service technicians is because people see working on fleets as a dirty job. That may have been true 15 years ago but not today. Engine work is less greasy and integrated chassis and school bus bodies are more sophisticated.
Improve your shop condition and enhance your technician capability with modern technology, such as:
- Make available laptops and advanced diagnostic tools. These items can make a technician’s job cleaner and more efficient.
- Attend manufacturer and aftermarket supplier based training courses. They offer technicians hands-on training targeted to the equipment your organization purchases.
- Develop in-house training programs that boost technicians’ skills to required levels to support fleet operations.
- Use fleet service management software to track repairs, schedule maintenance, and improve the overall performance of the entire shop.
These tools and training initiatives will allow teams to work more cohesively, knowing that everyone is pulling their weight. Young technicians expect a modern well-equipped workplace. As buses continue to become more complicated, a technician and their tools must become equally advanced.
The right training and tools improve workflow and keep your team on the cutting edge as innovations reach your school buses. Use your industry trade publications, web sessions, association seminars, and conferences to benchmark your operational practices.
Encourage Individual Growth
In nearly every industry, opportunities for growth keep employees engaged. This is especially true in fleet maintenance management. Many management-level professionals in school bus operations started out as entry-level technicians.
Fleet maintenance has multiple paths to choose from. Many young technicians do not realize what opportunities are out there. It is up to you to engage in frequent discussions with your technicians on opportunities that can develop in your transportation company and school district.
Millennial and Generation Z technicians have a hunger for advancement. When these team members are passed over for promotions, it may cause them to look for a new job. By setting clear expectations, you can let your team members know what it takes to succeed at your district or company.
It is always a good idea to focus on promoting from within, rather than seeking outside hires. Poaching top talent in the fleet services industry is a major factor that contributes to retention issues. You can boost your 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. For instance, many technicians say they would take a job in a different industry if the new company promised to train them. Ongoing professional development gives technicians the chance to learn new skills, both technical and human resourced. You can fill in your transportation department skills gap while helping your employees advance within your 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 Automotive Service Excellence survey revealed that 42 percent of new technicians leave trucking within two years. While we do not have concrete school bus technician turnover statistics, we can infer it may be near the trucking number. Using this comparative drop-off rate highlights the need for engaging the technicians and managers in goal orientated developmental training. As managers, you need to recognize the gap between technicians arriving with a trade school education and your expectations for new technicians. The right training on what a new technician needs to meet your department practice, policy and procedure expectations early on can make new hires feel more prepared and keep promising recruits engaged.
You need to stay close to your workforce. Understand your market goes beyond school busing. Compensate employees fairly for their skillsets. Some of your most important employees for you and for your children are the technicians that keep our school buses up and running.
Robert T. Pudlewski is a member of the National School Transportation Association Hall of Fame. He is a retired vice president of fleet operations, maintenance and procurement for Laidlaw.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the February 2021 issue of School Transportation News.