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On the Lookout

Mechanic shortages, especially for electric school buses, raise concerns and opportunities.

Douglas Francis thoroughly enjoyed his almost 40 years working on school buses. “I didn’t care about getting dirty. I loved to fix issues, to find problems,” said Francis, who retired last year as associate transportation director and head mechanic at Gaylord Community Schools in northern Michigan.

Still a member of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation board of directors, he said that almost all of the mechanics attending this summer’s conference were around his age. With waves of mechanic retirements looming, not enough new recruits are waiting to fill the slots. Districts across the country are struggling with a shortage of mechanics, as the rollout of electric school buses opens new opportunities and challenges. “It’s definitely a different ball game,” said Francis.

“These are some pretty good jobs where you don’t get filthy, you don’t get all oiled up. And then there are the people who love rolling in grease.” There is a shortage of vehicle mechanics across different sectors of the industry, putting school districts in a tight race for workers. Tony Lavezzo, fleet manager of Tahoe Truckee Unified School District in California, said his district is fully staffed because it offers competitive wages and benefits with other sectors.

“You have to make the positions you’re hiring for competitive in not only the school bus industry but in the maintenance industry as a whole,” said Lavezzo, who helped organize the California Association of School Transportation Officials Mechanics & Maintenance Supervisor Workshop held at his district last month.

“When you’re looking for mechanics, you need to make [sure] your position is competitive with either government fleets or private fleets in your area. You have to look outside at different garbage companies, trucking companies. It’s more than just being competitive with the school district down the street.”

Lavezzo added that having trained electric school bus mechanics is especially crucial as electric buses age just like internal combustion vehicles, minus the obvious. “When EV buses were first coming out, the big push was they are maintenance-free, you’re not going to have to do all this work,” he said. “But there’s always something. You have to make sure there are mechanics trained to take care of the smaller issues so you [can] limit the downtime.”

In California, free training courses for electric school bus technicians are available at multiple community colleges and on site at districts, thanks to a program funded by the California Energy Commission and developed out of Cerritos College near Los Angeles.

“The original priority was for rural areas and disadvantaged communities,” commented Jannet Malig, director of the Advanced Transportation Technology & Renewable (ATTR) Center at Cerritos College.

These same remote areas are less likely to have much training available, especially for electric vehicle. So, she spearheaded the development of a five unit module that covers topics such as high-voltage safety, EV supply equipment, and charging systems. More than 40 community college faculty statewide have been trained to offer the courses, and faculty have provided feedback to help continue honing in on the curriculum.

Employees of any California school district with electric school buses can attend the training sessions at no cost, and trainers can travel to school districts to offer the education on-site, where employees of nearby districts can also attend. Students hoping to launch careers as mechanics, meanwhile, can take the community college courses. The training is also available online. About 150 districts have participated at this report.

“This is so new to everybody, it’s a learning opportunity,” said Malig, who added she hopes the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency will fund similar programs in other states. “It’s upscaling and rescaling the technicians so they are comfortable with the new technology.

Like Francis in Michigan, she noted that school bus mechanics are an aging workforce, and the COVID-19 pandemic forced or persuaded many to retire. She said improved education and outreach could attract young workers to the trade.

“There’s this concept that school buses are dirty, your hands get gritty,” she said. “But the technology is changing so the opportunities are at a higher level. And the opportunity to work for a school district has its benefits, you are working for a government entity, you have opportunities to have a flexible schedule. If it’s promoted correctly, there will be lots of interest.”

Being a school bus mechanic is less taxing and hectic than working at a vehicle dealership, she added. And a job at a school district can help young people stay in their home communities, perhaps working at the same high school where they took an automotive class.

Francis, likewise, said he hopes electric buses and the involving digital technology will eventually attract new people to the industry, including younger people who’ve grown up with computers. He landed in the career after becoming enamored with engines in high school shop class. He added high schools, colleges and trade schools can do their part to train and encourage new mechanics to enter the field. That includes those who as in the “old days” might have tinkered with engines on their family farm, and those who come from a totally different background.

“Even the cars are different today. You don’t see young people souping up cars to make them go faster. Instead, they might put a chip in them,” mused Francis. Brittany Barrett, acting senior manager of strategy and manufacturing engagement at the World Resources Institute (WRI), noted that shortages of trained mechanics even for conventional diesel buses make the landscape even trickier for electric buses.

“It definitely is a concern and has been for a while,” she said. “There’s a lot of competition because [many] mechanics also have to have CDLs. If you have your CDL, you can make a lot more money driving a truck.”

As School Transportation News reported last month, CDL requirements have also contributed to a shortage of school bus drivers.

Barrett said school districts may be reluctant to buy electric buses if they are worried about not having the mechanics to work on them. But that should not be a stressor since conventional mechanics can receive training to work on electric buses, and OEMs and dealers typically offer training and service under warranty. Specifics of such arrangements can be negotiated during electric bus purchases.

“Dealers and OEMs are doing the basic high-voltage training that would ensure mechanics know what’s okay to touch and what’s not,” Barrett said. “And anything that requires the high-voltage training would be serviced by the dealer because buses come with warranties. Honestly, it’s more general comfort level [needed,]” she said.

WRI and its Electric School Bus Initiative is working with community colleges to develop curriculums, including Bronx Community College through a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Even though the mechanic shortage is worrisome, Barrett said, the advent of electric buses is a good option for jobseekers and a way for districts to attract new technicians.

“Electric buses allow for a cleaner work environment, a healthier work environment, not having to breath in fumes,” she concluded. “Even though [mechanic shortages are] a concern, this is an area of opportunity.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the August 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: (STN Podcast E125) Shop Talk: Cracking Open the School Bus Mechanic Shortage
Related: Unforeseen Liability: The Impact of Transportation Personnel Shortages
Related: Mississippi School Districts to Use More Electric Buses on the Road
Related: Does your school bus garage utilize the latest technology?

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