Technician Shortage? Grow Your Own Techs!
Tonight, Learning Without Scars is proud to introduce readers to our new guest writer, Steven Johnson. In his debut post, he writes about a crucial issue we are facing: Technician Shortage? Grow Your Own Techs!
Steven Johnson retired from Associated Equipment Distributors in 2020 as Vice President of Academic Accreditation. While there, he grew the number of AED Accredited college programs to forty, and established AED Recognition of equipment programs for high schools. These include CAT ThinkBIG, John Deere Construction and Forestry and Komatsu ACT technical college programs. A robust online technical assessment and system were also created to measure students’ technical knowledge prior to matriculation and upon graduation. Established in 1919, AED is an international trade association based in Schaumburg, IL, representing over 500 construction equipment distributors, manufacturers and industry-service firms in North America. Established in 1991 and directed by AED members, The AED Foundation addresses
school partnerships, career promotion and research in the industry. This includes AED Foundation Accreditation of college diesel-equipment technology programs. Steve earned his MBA degree from Northern Illinois University. Prior to AED, he was Director of Marketing & Customer Service at I-CAR, a large not-for-profit collision industry training organization. Before ICAR, he was Director of Marketing and Manager, Market Analysis & Planning at Chicago Rawhide, a business unit of AB SKF, a global bearings manufacturer based in Sweden. Steve is currently an independent contractor and advisor to Learning Without Scars.
Technician Shortage? Grow Your Own Techs!
It’s an issue that has challenged the equipment industry for many years. That is, “Where do I find qualified technicians to hire?” Commonly, many employers have approached the problem by luring technicians from their competitors with money and other incentives. While that has worked for some, in many cases, it turns into a vicious cycle of who will pay the next $2.00 per hour more and instability in the local workforce. Sometimes the grass seems greener on the other side, however, I’ve heard of techs who went back to their original employer, even though they were paid less, because of the odious conditions “where the grass seemed greener.”
Dealers have also lured technicians from other industries or hired inexperienced technicians and used on-the-job training to bring them up to speed. That can also cause problems. Absorption rates can fall as experienced techs spend time overseeing the work of the inexperienced. In some cases, that can mean less money for the experienced techs depending on how they are paid. This is a form of growing one’s own techs, but it can take a long time to train these people to the level of an experienced shop or field tech, maybe 6 – 8 years. There are many excellent 2-year technical college programs in equipment technology. These schools allow a dealer to hire someone who can rapidly grow as a working technician. The issue here is that the schools currently do not even come close to supplying the numbers needed by the industry.
Therefore, I return to the topic of “growing your own techs.” I define this as establishing a full program for identifying and educating candidates who have the potential to be solid technicians. Here is what that looks like:
- Efforts start by dealers working with high school, or even middle school students. That may sound a bit early but consider that today’s technicians must be good in mathematics and science. I heard one involved person say that a pre-engineering type of high school education is the ideal. Students like that often have made initial career decisions early on in high school, or even middle school. Parents often have already discussed their views on careers with their children by then. And parents often are the most important decision- influencers.
This means getting the word out early on the excellent careers in our industry, talking with the students, parents, high school career counselors and other decision influencers. Employers can present at middle school and high school career days, start “diesel” clubs at the schools, provide guest lecturers, host career days at their dealerships, and develop career materials to be handed out at such events. All of this helps, in turn, to change the old all too common misrepresentation of the “grease monkey” to the correct image of “the high-tech professional technician.” And each time a student decides on an equipment tech career, it’s an image success story.
- Employers should support the students who made a decision to educate themselves in equipment technology. This includes scholarships, loans, helping with tool purchases, summer or work/study employment and mentoring. Finances can be a real barrier to entering the field. We all know that an initial good tool set can run up to $30,000 or more. Not everyone has the money to finance a college education either. Get creative. For example, one way of handling a student loan is for the employer to forgive that loan after three years employment at the dealership.
- Establish solid relationships with your local high schools and technical colleges. Offer to help with teaching resources and guest lectures on technology. Offer technical training to the instructors. One of the most important things is to serve on the schools’ Advisory Boards. This is a good way to help schools improve in the ways you see are needed. It is vital for forming long-term, positive local and school relationships. By “being there,” you demonstrate your commitment to students and schools. By “being there,” one may also identify promising students to recruit for your dealership, provide assistance, and mentor in the above ways.
- Support and hire from the technical colleges in both good times and bad times. It leaves kind of a sour taste in one’s mouth if during the bad times, you are nowhere to be seen, and in the good times, you show up asking, “Where are my techs?” Put yourself in their shoes. Even in the bad times, there are ways to support these programs; the last thing you want to see is them no longer in existence.
One final thought here. Shoot for the long term. If you start working with middle school students, it could be eight years before you hire them. From high school, it could be six years. However, one you establish a managed stream of graduating students at each level, you will be controlling your own tech destiny by “growing your own techs.”