Hot job: Trucking industry goes all out to recruit, train diesel techs

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Posted: Friday, December 13, 2013 12:00 am

There's been no shortage of information detailing the trucking industry's need for more drivers, but local truck dealerships also are concerned with a thin supply of a different kind.

The demand for capable diesel technicians far exceeds what is in the pipeline. Even though those workers make up more than one-third of the 475-person employee base at Omaha Truck Center Inc., company leaders would like that portion to be even larger.

So the company set out four years ago to generate its own supply.

“We realized if we didn't have enough people coming out of schools that we needed to get out and create them,” said Trey Mytty, Truck Center CEO.

On Jan. 6, the company will begin the first class of nine students enrolled in its Technician Acceleration Program, or TAP. With a new class beginning each quarter, the three-month-long educational effort will supplement the knowledge and experience of diesel mechanics coming out of tech schools.

Truck Center is one of many local companies that reported efforts — ranging from tool purchasing programs to equipment donations to local schools — to recruit and retain diesel technicians. The competition for techs is so fierce that Mytty declined to provide a TAP student for an interview for fear the student would be targeted for hire by a competitor.

Tuition reimbursement, internships and scholarships are other common incentives that attract new talent to the sector. And truck dealerships are not alone in the hunt.

Omaha-based heavy equipment dealer NMC Inc. has covered tuition for diesel technology students at Central Community College in Hastings, Neb., as long as they fulfill a two-year contract for the company. It has sponsored more than 140 students over 15 years.

Metro Community College officials counted close to 60 employers that call on its diesel technology program for potential employees. The program there has been growing steadily and currently has about 80 students. It will graduate 15 to 20 at spring commencement.

Local trucking giant Werner Enterprises Inc. sponsors internships and co-ops with colleges like MCC. It has donated diesel components like engines, transmissions and electronics to schools to better prepare students for diesel service careers.

Werner also gets in front of high school students at career day events.

“We get involved at the high school level because the more you get out there and demonstrate the opportunities, the better chance you have at turning some of these kids around,” said Scott Reed, senior vice president of maintenance at Werner.

The firm has 365 diesel technicians across the country, and Reed said it is particularly squeezed for those workers in the Southern and Southeastern United States.

He estimated that only one in five recruits has significant experience, which makes it incumbent upon firms doing the hiring to grow their workforce from within.

Truck Center values its investment in its new program at $33,000 per student. The organization recently hired a third full-time trainer who will be dedicated to the program, and each student who completes it will work with an assigned mentor.

If students work at Truck Center for two years, “tuition” for the program will be forgiven. Otherwise, it's prorated.

Like other employers, it invests in potential employees in other ways.

Programs at schools like MCC and Iowa Western Community College range from $13,000 to $20,000 or more — including tuition, room and board, and tools — and Truck Center is offering up to 12 scholarships a year worth $10,000 each to land more recruits.

Those strategies should help fill the pipeline for work-ready diesel technicians across Truck Center's 11 locations in eight markets, and fast. The “sweet spot” for each class is about 12 students, said Chad Kelsay, vice president of sales for the dealership, and each student will get six weeks of hands-on training during the program.

Company leaders anticipate that student demographics will span all ages and experience levels and are now fielding applications for other 2014 classes. Some students might never have been inside a truck before; others, like the majority of MCC students, are beginning second careers.

Upon completion, students will have earned a Freightliner chassis certification, something local tech schools don't offer.

“It's not just signing on and giving them their tools,” Kelsay said.

Retaining technicians in Truck Center service locations is a way to maximize corporate investments in them while keeping them out of competing garages.

Competition for diesel technicians is “fierce,” said Tom Berg, general manager at Kenworth of Omaha. Keeping employees up to speed with the latest certifications is an expensive proposition, too.

“To get a guy up to emissions-level certification for a Cummins diesel engine, you'll spend $20,000 over the course of a couple years to do that,” said Tim Smith, service manager at Kenworth. “Even if you've only got 10 technicians, it's pretty easy to see how much you'll spend.”

That investment does not include the scores of other certifications diesel servicers prefer.

Truck Center's Kelsay said a seasoned technician there will hold a handful of Freightliner chassis certifications along with ones for motors made by Daimler AG's Detroit Diesel Corp., Cummins Inc. and Caterpillar Inc., to name a few. There are also certifications for components including anti-lock brake systems and transmissions.

And the more certifications a technician gets, the more valuable he or she becomes.

“The shops around here are willing to pay,” Smith said.

Median annual pay reported by the U.S. Department of Labor was $40,850 in 2010, the most recent year reported. That's about how much Truck Center pays its average entry-level technician, though its most experienced technicians earn more than $70,000 annually.

Still, combating the dated image of a grease-covered mechanic with a wrench in hand is tough — especially with younger, more tech-savvy generations. What many students don't realize is that technological prowess has become among a diesel mechanic's most valuable tool.

A technician can now plug a laptop in to a modern diesel motor and limit its top-end speed, or even its total horsepower, said Tim Smith, service manager at Kenworth.

“There are almost limitless things you can do to these trucks without ever putting a wrench on them.”

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