If you have been around the transportation industry for any length of time, the phrase “technician shortage” has to be a familiar one.
Other than a brief respite during the Great Recession from 2008 into 2009, this has been the most talked about issue in the industry, bar none.
Unfortunately, many organizations in the industry, large and small, have dealt with this potential time bomb primarily with wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, but otherwise not a whole lot of action. If the adage “big companies used to eat the small, but now fast companies eat the slow” is correct, then the transportation industry is about to be served up for dinner.
So, how did the industry get to this point? There are many factors. One of the most impactful is the rallying cry we have heard for years: “Every child should go to college.” The direct result of this approach is that thousands of middle- and high-school shop programs across the country have closed their doors, as skilled-trades have become increasingly undervalued and largely forgotten. Some evidence indicates this trend is finally reversing, but it is a big and slow ship to turn around.
An unintended consequence of this is that the instructors of those programs also are not valued, so as the programs close and the instructors retire, there are fewer replacements coming up through the ranks. Why would they be? Would you?
With sparse shop programs still in existence, and the fact that vehicle owners very seldom work on their own cars anymore, another issue is created for young men and women: The lack of exposure to interactive, hands-on activities in their lives. It wasn’t that long ago that kids would work side-by-side with their fathers in driveways across America, tuning-up the car or changing oil.
But raise the hood of any new car or truck today, and it’s easy to see why that is no longer the case. Vehicle technology has surpassed the ability of most people to do much except stand back and gawk at the tightly packed maze of wires, sensors and electronic control units. With the loss of hands-on activities, we have lost hands-on learning, and the satisfaction and excitement of realizing that you actually may have a gift within your hands, a gift that fits who you are and can launch you on an in-demand, successful and rewarding career.
Of course, no conversation about the technician shortage is complete without talking about Public Enemy No. 1: the image of the technician. Dirty, poorly educated underachievers, in low-paying jobs, correct? Of course not! Today’s top technicians are clean, well-trained, technologically savvy problem solvers that can earn a very good living at what they do. But if you think the general public knows that, you are sadly mistaken. Students, parents, and educators have no idea how outdated that old image is, or how vast the opportunities are, whether you choose to remain a technician for life or climb across the career lattice of opportunity to take on the challenge of a new role and direction elsewhere in the industry.
But let’s get back to the main issue: talking versus taking action. We must take charge of our future through focused, consistent messaging and coordinated action, and it is critical that we do it together as one industry. No single organization has the voice or the financial resources to create true change on their own. It is only through the power of our collective voice and actions that we can turn the tide on our nemesis – outdated and incorrect perceptions and beliefs.
Ironically, not all of those perceptions and beliefs are within the general public; some lie deep within our own organizations. Perhaps some introspection is appropriate. While we may pay our top technicians well, do we offer competitive starting wages and benefits to attract new technicians to the industry, or are our starting wages below what other skilled trades are offering? Sadly, the answer is the latter.
Are we truly engaged with local high schools, community colleges and for-profit schools running technician training programs, or are we too busy and instead just sitting back and waiting for them to come to us? Are we functioning in a 30-day operational planning mode, putting out fires every day and never stepping back to look at the long-term strategic picture?
It is said that human capital is the only true competitive advantage in an organization, so are we therefore putting the focus on people and culture that our businesses deserve? Do we value and appreciate the people we have? Our current technicians don’t seem to think so, and they are often the ones connecting with young men and women who are considering career choices.
Finally, are we partnering with and utilizing the organizations within our industry that in one way or another help support building a sustainable pipeline of trained technicians for the future? How many resources and programs that have been developed specifically for this purpose have gone underutilized or have been ignored altogether? Unfortunately, far too many, which is irony in the extreme.
Perhaps we can agree the time for action is now, but can we also agree on who should be taking this on?
Why all of us, of course.
Greg Settle is director of national initiatives for TechForce Foundation. He is co-author of “FutureTech Success,” the foundation’s premiere campaign designed to explain the viability of technician careers.