Solving the Shortage of Technicians
Dr. Timothy Dell is chairman of the University of Pittsburg (Kansas) Department of Automotive Technology. Dell has served as the department's diesel and heavy Equipment coordinator for five years, and overseas the Caterpillar® ThinkBIGGER program, the only program of its kind in the US.
Looking for a way to land a heavy equipment technician in a highly competitive market? You might consider what they do outside of work. That’s right—hobbies might separate your quarry and aggregate operation from some others.
It’s that kind of untraditional thinking that makes Tim Dell, heavy equipment coordinator at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, a fresh voice when most of the rest of the world is trying the same tired methods to attract technicians.
Another approach includes Caterpillar’s ThinkBIGGER program, which trains technicians in a college setting.
Dell recently talked about the shortage of technicians—and what your operation can do about it.
Question: How bad is the shortage of diesel and heavy equipment technicians? What’s the long-term prognosis?
Answer: Most companies could use some bright new technicians. Even during this slowing economy of 2008, there are companies looking to hire technicians. In the long-term the sky is the limit, with a huge demand for technicians.
Q: Where will the new heavy equipment technicians come from?
A: Technicians come from a variety of places such as dealerships, technical schools, the military—and right off the street. Preferably the best place to find a technician would be from a technical school, because it rewards the students who have taken the initiative to invest in their future by gaining the education needed to begin a career in heavy equipment repair. In reality, technical colleges have not been able to meet industry’s demand for technicians. As a result companies have resorted to taking what they can get.
Q: Can companies that need technicians play a role in recruiting students?
A: Companies can play a vital role in recruiting technicians by engaging bright young new prospects early—for example, in their early years of high school. There are avenues that allow dealerships and others the opportunity to engage these students, including career days, FFA, 4-H, open houses, farm shows, equipment shows, drag races, equipment rodeos, and any other activity that would include the interests of mechanical minds.
In addition, companies need to engage the technical schools in a variety of ways. For example, serve on their advisory board, offer students internships, provide assistance with loaned equipment/tools and training, and simply be involved in any facet that they can. Those who need technicians simply cannot afford to be relaxed in this effort.
Q:You talk to high school students about Pittsburg State’s program. What’s the typical reaction to a career in diesel and heavy equipment?
A: Many prospects are surprised at the number and variety of jobs that exist. Many who start as automotive prospects convert over to a career in diesel and heavy equipment because the pay is often higher. Many prospects simply do not understand the career opportunities that exist in this field. If the student and/or the parent can only see the limitation of turning wrenches for a lifetime, then they might be hesitant to pursue that career.
Regarding what appeals to them, many items can entice a young man or woman into this career. I believe one of the best tools is a career plan. If you are offering a student a job, then you are missing the boat. However, if you can provide a clear plan for a long prosperous career, then you have increased your odds of recruiting that individual tremendously.
I would also use current personnel during the recruitment process. Generally there is at least one great recruiter within an organization that technically has a different full-time job, such as technical communicator, training manager, etc. This person will be most effective at recruiting new technicians if they too started their career as a technician and have now advanced to a leadership role within the organization. It is not that everyone wants to advance to those levels. However, practically everyone would like to know that those options do exist and that they are attainable and available.
Q: Why is continuing education important for heavy equipment technicians? Is their world changing that much?
A: It is imperative that all of us continue our education in this industry or we will be left behind. The diesel and heavy equipment industry is changing all the time with major paradigm shifts. For example, who would have thought that Caterpillar would introduce an electric-drive D7E dozer? Or what about all of the changing technologies used to reduce current engine emissions and future emissions? Or what about PPPC (proportional priority pressure compensated) hydraulic systems? Or joystick-controlled motor graders, like the new Cat M-Series? Clearly, industry technology is advancing at an incredible rate!
Q: Several of the areas of study are outside strictly engines and equipment. Why is it important for students to take English, speech or social science courses?
A: Soft skills provide the means for applying the technical skills. Just because we understand Ohm’s law or Pascal’s law, it still does not help a customer understand why his tractor or wheel loader is broke. However, speech communication and writing skills give technicians the avenues for effectively using their technical skills.
For example, using effective writing on a work-order can help justify a warranty claim two years later if the component has another repeat failure. Or, communication skills can allow a technician to more effectively determine the malfunction of the tractor. Without truly understanding what is wrong, it is a hopeless cause for fixing the tractor.
Q: What do graduates expect from employers? Has it changed over the years?
A: In addition to the typical fringe benefits, today’s graduates expect rewards and recognitions for their hard work. Plus, clear company communication.
Q: What can employers do to make themselves more attractive to new technicians?
A: There is no substitute for offering young people a career complete with the progression path. I also believe it is important to get to know the individual by determining what their hobbies are, and share with them the local opportunities for engaging in those hobbies. Over the last nine years, I have attempted to ask my students questions on the first day of class to get to know them, such as where they are from and what are their hobbies. The hobbies are often all alike: hunting, fishing, dirt bike riding, drag racing, ATVs, and four-wheeling.
If an employer already understood that their new recruits enjoy these types of hobbies, then they could offer the recruits information on how to participate in those hobbies. My goal would be getting the new hires integrated with others already in the organization and also incorporated within the community. If there are local hunting clubs, a drag strip, or fishing attraction, I would drive the recruit by that attraction on the same day of the interview. That seems to be the best way to get them connected to your organization and settled into their new career.
Q: What should employers look for in new hires?
A: Character, integrity, work ethic and drive. I am not a fan of ACTs and SATs. Neither do I get too concerned about a mediocre high school GPA. Why? These tests do not assess mechanical background. Ultimately these tests do not measure a student’s motivation level.
Many of our mechanically minded high school students do not know about the great career opportunities our industry offers, and thus they might be muddling along through school without a clear direction or reason to achieve. This is one more reason for getting engaged with high school freshmen and sophomores. You might be too late if you wait until they are juniors or seniors. Their parents probably have already steered them into a different career. I, too, am an example of one of those students who had a low ACT and did OK in high school. However, once I learned what the industry had to offer and found the college that could provide the career, then I became motivated and engaged. I then excelled during college and in my career in industry.
For additional information on the ThinkBig program, click here.
This material has been voluntarily provided by Tim Dell. Tim Dell is not speaking on behalf of Caterpillar, and the views or opinions expressed in this material are those of Tim Dell and may not represent the views of Caterpillar.