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A Few Wrenches Short of a Toolbox

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

Type the keyword “technician” in the search engine at Monster.ca and you’ll get nearly 1,000 returns. Not all the employee-wanted ads are for heavy-duty diesel mechanics, of course, but that’s kind of the point.

Much has been made about the supposed professional truck driver shortage in Canada. On average, we here at Today’s Trucking hear about it more than perhaps any other issue — except for (lately) fuel prices and, maybe, speed limiters.

Sure, like similar industries facing a growing demographic crisis, trucking struggles to lure people away from more glamorous, higher-paying industries. But as far as signing up wanna-be truckers goes, trucking more or less competes with itself. Except for some sector-specific differences, driving a truck is pretty much just that.

Less so with the heavy-duty repair industry. Not only does this segment compete with the high-tech and skilled-trades worlds for manpower, it also has to fish in a great sea of other repair-oriented sectors — automotive, trailer, fabrication, machining, welding, HVAC, you name it.

It’s little wonder then, that the HD technician shortage is said to be more acute than even the driver dearth; and perhaps has even more significant longer-term consequences for the trucking industry as a whole.

Not only that, but in recent years, the labor gap in the mechanical repair industry has widened even further because of the rapid advancements in equipment technology, the increasing number of long-haul miles driven, and the bubble of older vehicles that owners have held onto longer since the emission regulation mandates requiring more expensive engines kicked in twice (so far) this decade.

The one advantage the mechanic industry has always had, though, is that it has an accredited apprenticeship and licensing mechanism through the provincial educational system; and therefore, a more reputable image and established pipeline to the grassroots sources, like high school shop courses and guidance councilor offices.

Still, like the driver retention and recruitment desk at your fleet, HD shops are yearning for more skilled tradesman, not just warm bodies.
 
While in Toronto for a seminar at Truck World this past April, Itamar Levine, director of maintenance for Winnipeg-based Bison Transport, told us that, simply put, they don’t build wrench wielders like they used to. Plus, long gone are the days when “the average high school drop-out could be turned into an excellent mechanic … That’s not the case anymore.”

Because of the complex and ever-changing nature of heavy equipment technology, streamlining — the so-called practice of funneling underperforming students from high school to skilled trades jobs — isn’t as dependable a strategy as it was 20 years ago, says Alan McClelland, chairperson of the Modified Apprenticeship Truck and Heavy Duty Programs at Centennial College’s School of Transportation.

“When you take a look at the rapid advancements of technology which don’t appear to be slowing down — in fact, they’re probably going to speed up — the ability for somebody to find information; interpret that [info]; figure out how something operates; apply a process; and finally, make the repair — it all requires a real broad set of skills,” he says.

“And problem-solving, communications skills, and math and science are fundamental to understand how systems operate.”

So now, he adds, the apprenticeship system needs to evolve from that streamlining approach of blindly pulling-in non-scholastic candidates, and instead do a better job of attracting more academic and technically literate people.

“We will still take people that are directed into the trade and do the very best we can with them — people who haven’t done well academically or have challenges in the system — and there will be work for them. But we also need to [consider] new strategies.”

On the flip side, older veteran fixers are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. Engines emission-control technology seems to evolve every four years; 13-speed trannies are getting bumped for automatics; and a myriad of complex ­safety and anti-collision systems all need dedicated service management.

As a result, traditional “mechanic-type work” is in some cases becoming obsolete and getting replaced with computer and diagnostic-based techniques. “With all the new technology that keeps leapfrogging, advanced training is a tremendous challenge,” says Levine. “Some of the older people in our case tend to migrate to the lower skilled jobs like clutches and oil changes.”

Bison’s service data shows that its shop spends as much time working on new vehicles in their first three years of service than it did 10 years ago — not because trucks break down more, but due to the amount of complexity in maintaining and troubleshooting new systems and components.

“The character has changed from mechanics to diagnostics like fault codes, data link communication, modules and sensors. Those things are the reason for a significant percentage of working trucks coming into our shops,” says Levine.

A typical unit in Bison’s 1,100-truck fleet, he explains, is comprised of a Volvo VN 670 with a Cummins engine, an ArvinMeritor FreedomLine autoshift transmission, an Eaton collision avoidance system, Bendix’s roll stability technology, and a Shaw Tracking package.

“I think you know where I’m going with this,” Levine muses. “This truck is a poor bastard of a child from 15 different parents; with 15 ECMs all separate from each other.”

And, adds Levine, while each piece of hardware has its own bugs, the systems themselves aren’t as big of a headache as the reliability of the network that transmits all this data — things like corrosion of wiring harnesses and battery cables.

As a result of all this technological complexity, many fleet shops have shrunk down and outsourced more of the high-skills work to franchise dealer facilities. The trouble is, OEMs have just as much trouble — if not more — in retaining qualified HD technicians. 

Regardless of which strategy fleets choose, a shop puts itself in the best position when it’s diversified. “With such a wide range of skill requirements and diverse operations, managers have to be able to look at the skills of their people and make sure they line up as much as possible with work that needs to be done,” says Centennial’s Alan McClelland, “which means the more diverse the technicians are, the more flexibility managers have in covering all their needs.”
 

A shop puts itself in the best position when it’s diversified

Though, that’s easier said than done for many small carriers whose primary expertise is in hauling freight for a decent return, rather than ensuring the shop is staffed with a balanced variety of technicians for every single type of job.

So, with fleet shops and dealers overwhelmed from the shortage of knowledgeable truck techies, it’s no wonder that a cottage industry of third-party specialty service providers has sprouted as a lower-cost alternative to losing your truck to a dealer for two weeks.

“It’s becoming more difficult a to be an expert in all systems,” says Al Tucker, director of the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association, “So people tend to drift to what they know best, which is probably a good thing.”

“When we talk about a fleet, you have 15 or 20 variations of what a fleet is. As soon as you get into the specialty stuff, all bets are off.”
Everyone’s heard of the supposed lucrative life of a Jaguar mechanic; it’s foreseeable that an expert in diesel emission control repairs, for example, could stake out a similar niche of his own. 

That said, small fleets and owner-ops, especially, need to be wary of the sort of on-call mechanic that works out of the trunk of his car and totes around a toolbox that doubles as a lunchbox. In that case, you’d be better off leaving your truck at the dealer — even if it’s for a fortnight.
 

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