When it comes to recruiting the next generation of diesel technicians, one large barrier stands in the way, and it takes the form of either a 50-foot truck or 3,000-pound engine.
Like many sectors, the heavy truck industry faces a shortage of workers. To attract new talent, employers are looking to high schools, but Fox Valley Technical College, which partners with area high schools to educate students, has long faced the hurdle of bringing large trucks and engines onsite to schools.
“When I want to take my heavy-duty truck diesel program courses to a high school to create a career pathway, it’s almost impossible. No high school can support the infrastructure that’s required to have our kind of machinery,” says Jay Duca, a diesel technology instructor at FVTC.
A new program the college developed with the help of a Wisconsin Technical College System Career Pathways grant helps overcome that challenge. The diesel technician course, which will debut in the 2020-21 school year, will include virtual learning objects and materials to allow students to complete 80 to 90 percent of their coursework online.
Duca, who helped develop the program, says it offers high school students a career pathway and dual credit option. It also provides a solution to heavy truck repair facilities desperately in need of skilled workers.
“What we did was look at a quicker way for us to get them an entry-level worker they could work with,” he says.
The course, which leads to a certificate, provides students foundational knowledge. Companies then hire the students with the understanding that they, along with FVTC, will need to continue the education and training process. It’s an arrangement Duca says employers were more than happy to embrace.
The hope is that students will go on to earn either a diesel equipment mechanic technical diploma or an associate degree in diesel equipment technology. FVTC is working with five high schools on the program and would like to draw at least 15 to 20 juniors and seniors. The college is partnering with the schools through the rollout and plans to work with them continuously thereafter.
Duca says the online course will look exactly like the standard course, but instead of having to travel to a lab to work with a real truck, or try to bring one onsite, students will use a virtual model. It includes 3-D video and learning objects that mimic a live setting. Students will still have to travel to FVTC to complete some hands-on safety work that needs to be done in person.
Peter Worley, an automotive instructor and youth apprenticeship coordinator for the Appleton Area School District, works at all three Appleton high schools and says the typical school year draws about three or four students into the diesel technician program. For the industry, that number isn’t nearly high enough.
“There’s such a need in all different areas of the diesel industry, from diesel to trailer repair, everything,” he says. “They are starving for good mechanics right now.”
As a member of FVTC’s diesel program advisory board, Worley hears from employers all the time about the need for workers. Many students in his automotive program classes are hired before they even finish school.
AASD’s program with FVTC will provide students an easier, more flexible path to begin learning and taking classes that can get them started on a career. Right now, for example, three of Worley’s students are completing apprenticeships with Roehl Transport in Neenah.
Mike Yost, district service manager for Penske Truck Leasing in Green Bay, completed the diesel mechanic program at FVTC in 1977 and has served on the school’s advisory board since 2004. Over the past several years, he’s seen fewer and fewer people entering the field.
Part of that paucity may stem from a lack of awareness about diesel careers as an option, Yost says. Many high school students take automotive classes, and most teachers have more expertise in the auto mechanic side, leading to less exposure.
In addition, the work of diesel technicians has gotten more specialized, Yost says. Emissions laws have made trucks more complicated and harder to fix.
For those who do pursue diesel careers, unlimited opportunities await. “It’s a long-standing career with a lot of benefits,” Yost says. “It (offers) a very good work-life balance.”
The diesel field has seen close to 100 percent employment for a long time, and the employment website Wisconsin Tech Connect lists almost 600 jobs statewide for diesel techs, Duca says.
Yost says a lot of people have migrated to the diesel side from the automotive side because it offers better benefits and pay, noting that diesel technicians do the same work as auto technicians, but on a larger scale. Work includes changing oil, hooking up computers, diagnostics and troubleshooting.
First-year workers at Penske get three weeks of vacation, and all employees receive tuition reimbursement, internal training and ample advancement opportunities. Around 80 percent of the company’s supervisors have come from jobs on the floor, Yost says.
As companies continue to struggle to find workers, all stakeholders will need to work together to get students on a career pathway, Worley says. In addition, he anticipates technology solutions like the one FVTC’s program offers will become more commonplace.
“I think it has to. To supply the industry with its needs, it has to be done,” he says.