When the transportation and logistics industry talks of a technology gap, there’s usually one in particular that comes to mind: the shortage of qualified heavy-duty trucking technicians.
This is the persistent bind on cost-effective maintenance and vehicle performance. It’s not just the shortfall in raw numbers of skilled people to turn wrenches today, but also the growing wedge in the skills of tomorrow, as fleets adopt alternative vehicles and digitize core maintenance processes.
But that isn’t the only tech gap. A second one is the fragmented view into asset conditions and maintenance schedules that many fleets have today. Collision avoidance, autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles are advancing the trucking industry toward more efficient, sustainable, and predictable operations. So far, maintenance hasn’t seen a comparable improvement from the introduction of new technology.
Many systems of record for tracking work orders and vehicles are manual and can’t provide automated fleet-wide visibility. This blind spot in fleet management often makes existing challenges with the technician gap more challenging and expensive. But similar to the introduction of other new technologies, digital fleet maintenance solutions offer data-backed support for better decision making.
By addressing the second tech gap with fleet-wide monitoring, fleets can mitigate the impact of the first tech gap and improve maintenance efficiency.
Tech Gaps by the Numbers
The shortage of qualified technicians continues to pain trucking companies, and the reasons why remain largely unchanged. Like the shortage of drivers, the short supply of techs is in part the result of cultural attitudes. Many young people see technician work as an undesirable job. Even younger workers who break into the role are less likely to stay for a long period of time. A recent Automotive Service Excellence survey found that 42% of new technicians leave trucking within their first two years.
For years now, the industry has struggled to attract, retain, and train technicians at replacement rates. The other major demographic trend — the so-called silver tsunami of retiring workers — is catching up with the industry. Some 110,000 heavy-duty truck techs working today are set to retire by 2030.
Given the generational turnover, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the industry would need to backfill 67,000 roles by 2024. Moreover, to accommodate growing freight demand, the trucking industry would need an additional 75,000 new diesel technicians.
Those estimates predate the pandemic. Due to the disruption of the past year, many technicians have decided to leave the industry sooner than expected. An August 2020 report from TechForce Foundation, a technician advocacy group, indicates a deeper shortage. New vehicle technician roles outmatched the supply of graduates from technician training programs by three to one in 2020.
For the average fleet, understaffing is costly. Just one unfilled technician position costs $1,200 daily across extended downtime, truck underperformance, and customer-service issues.
Emerging technologies like hydrogen-powered and electric vehicles are all complicating the first tech gap. Fundamental skills for any technician — general mechanical ability, proficiency in diagnostics, and fleet software and problem-solving skills — are now just the starting point.
Many heavy-duty trucking technicians will soon need to master electrical systems. Of particular importance is knowing how to properly decommission and disconnect high-voltage electrical systems before beginning work on the vehicle. While not every technician will need to be skilled in these new technologies initially, scaling training across the industry presents another significant obstacle down the road.
A Digital Fleet-Management Solution
Insight into operations at the technician, shop, and asset levels are critical to shore up technician capabilities and the separate systems of record that many carriers have in place today. With a consolidated view, fleet managers have the oversight necessary to promote best practices, both with a new generation of technicians and with the new skills to maintain emerging vehicle technologies.
With different performance outcomes between repair shops attributable to proper staffing, having a digital fleet-management solution in place promotes productivity. Bolstered by predictive analytics, these tools can make up for under-resourced maintenance teams.
And with more efficient shops ensuring greater vehicle availability, fleets can address another significant challenge to operational excellence and customer satisfaction: the driver shortage. Maximizing mileage is a formula for decreasing driver turnover.
With no end to the technician gap in sight, carriers must benchmark progress on technician productivity as a step toward standardizing best practices and gaining data-backed visibility into fleet management. In an age where companies must do more with less, digital fleet management solutions are key drivers of technician efficiency and vehicle availability.
Braden Pastalaniec is vice president of transportation and logistics for Uptake, an industrial AI and analytics provider.
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