Getting involved with SkillsUSA is a great way to attract some of the best future mechanics. The organization hosts competitions (like the one shown above) where contestants show off their knowledge and skills. Photo: SkillsUSA
Getting involved with SkillsUSA is a great way to attract some of the best future mechanics. The organization hosts competitions (like the one shown above) where contestants show off their knowledge and skills. Photo: SkillsUSA

The mechanics trade is shrinking. Fewer young people are entering this essential skilled trade, while older mechanics are retiring.

Part of the problem is our secondary school system. There's too much emphasis on four-year colleges at the expense of vocational education. If a guidance counselor finds a student with little or no interest in academic pursuits, one who would rather be tinkering with his car, you'd expect the counselor to guide the student toward vocational training at a trade school or community college.

But if the student tells his parents that he's been advised not to go to university, the parents often berate the principal for not properly motivating and preparing the student for a “real career.” Then the principal dresses down the counselor, who becomes reluctant to guide other students into trades that suit them.

Never mind that people who are skilled with their hands often make as much or more than those with master's degrees. Or that vocational tuition may be one-tenth that of academic degrees. And never mind that the young person enjoys working with his or her hands.

You can help change that mind-set while ensuring staffing needs are met on an ongoing basis. Work with secondary schools, in conjunction with community colleges, to promote manual arts training. Support national organizations and use them as a fertile recruiting ground.

RECRUIT STUDENTS AND SCHOOLS

Meet with guidance counselors and industrial arts faculty members. Stress the necessity of having a strong cadre of maintenance professionals to keep our economy running. Tell them that, just like other career paths, mechanics require ongoing training in many disciplines. Mention the earning power that skilled mechanics have. Compare the costs of obtaining a post-secondary education at a university with one at a community college or trade school.

Significant income starts from two to six years sooner in industrial arts. Taking time and tuition loan repayment into account, a discounted cash flow analysis shows the mechanic ahead of the college graduate until around age 50. (A discounted cash flow analysis takes into account the present value of money: At 5% interest on a loan, the value of $100 today is $100, but if you have to wait a year for it, it is only worth $95 today.) Add in the uncertainty of job stability that's exacerbated during economic downturns, and a maintenance career path becomes even more attractive.

To attract future employees, set up internships and tuition reimbursement programs in your shop. If unionized, coordinate with union leaders to make sure they see this as a tie-in with their own apprenticeship programs and an opportunity for mutual benefit.

An excellent way to identify and attract the best and brightest is to get involved with SkillsUSA (www.skillsusa.org), a nonprofit group that supports industrial and manual arts training in almost 100 careers. One of its most comprehensive programs is diesel equipment technology.

The organization's local, state, and national competitions have contestants cycle through 14 testing stations involving engines, electronics, wiring chassis, drive train, hydraulic systems, brakes, and more. Sponsorship opportunities abound. For very little cost, you can provide vehicles, volunteer judges, meals, or materials. What better way to make a positive impact on future candidates?

ONCE YOU GET THEM, KEEP THEM

Studies prove that recognition is more important than pay in creating job satisfaction. Recognition based on competition and achievement is quite effective. Technician competitions are growing in popularity, as witnessed by the increases in entrants in the Technology and Maintenance Council's (TMC) annual Super-Tech skills and knowledge competition (tmc.truckline.com).

TMC has more than a dozen public works departments as members, from cities to state highway departments.

Qualification for SuperTech starts with a written test. Those who qualify to move on compete at 14 hands-on workstations during the two-day contest. Entrants may be selected through state trucking associations or large fleet competitions, but public works departments may enter employees directly through TMC. Entrants must be TMC members, but there are technician memberships available for as little as $100.

For the past few years, I've been privileged to be a juror for the Technician of the Year award, presented at Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week and sponsored by Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC, Dayton Parts LLC, Haldex, Mahle GmbH, and SKF. To enter, a supervisor must fill out an extensive nomination form describing the contestant's work history, training, and contributions to his or her operation and community.

Not all recognition needs be on a national scale. You can create department wide competitions to motivate and recognize outstanding achievers. The best programs recognize everyone who participates, and award improvement as well as achievement.

By establishing recruiting, recognition, and motivation programs, you'll ensure that your equipment is properly maintained — and remains that way when other operations are scrambling to staff their shops.

— Paul Abelson (truckwriter@anet.com) is a former director of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Association, a board member of Truck Writers of North America, and active in the Society of Automotive Engineers.