Living in Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times” is a phrase often attributed to Confucius, but most likely, it was originally penned by a modern day author, journalist, politician, intellectual or some other member of the chattering class that tends to want to tell us how to live.

On the surface, the phrase sounds like a nice thing to say to someone; perhaps an encouragement or well-wishing sign-off. However, it is most often intended to be a curse or wish for ill-will to befall the recipient of the phrase; a sort of “Bite me” said in gentle, Confucian terms.

We do live in interesting times though, so I suppose that may have been one of those curses that actually came true. At some point, many of us would like to live in just plain old ordinary times, but that never seems to happen. Hence the curse.

Driving all of this are the people in Washington, the financial world, organized labor and our off-shore competition. They would like us to be constantly mulling over all of their planned or imposed changes and what kind of challenges that we have to address today. That way, they can have their way with other simultaneous changes.

Some of that is good. Because things that stay the same forever tend to get stale and become ineffective before too long.

Usually we spend a fair amount of time dealing with one change at a time. When we have dozens of them coming at us, however, we tend to work our way through the biggest emergencies and then allow the rest to slide by.

We are living in an era of multiple, major changes in technology, news, information, entertainment and, most importantly, business models. Business consolidations are rapidly taking place due to changes in laws and the financial world. The Internet has forever changed how we hear news and interact with others.

Technology in our products, most specifically new trucks, has been moving at nearly blinding speed. Each day we hear about new regulatory-driven, engines, powertrains, safety systems, lighting, braking and so on. At the same time, we are hit with new regulations that make great change continue.

All of this would be a challenging enough these changes happened individually, but they are all occurring at once. That makes it “interesting.”

So, how do we address the important stuff and work around the things that don’t affect us as much? Basically, it has to do with how we feel about things. If you are resistant to change, good luck. Life is going to be “interesting” for you for a long time.

Survivors tend to be the ones that are adaptable to change. Not necessarily willing to change, but rather knowing what is needed and then having the ability to be proactive.

We will soon to see new requirements for significant changes in the fuel economy in heavy duty trucks - 40 to 50 percent improvements for up to 10 to 12 mpg for a Class 8. Is that impossible? No, not given the vast creative resources we have in this industry, with the best engineers and scientists in the world.

What about servicing these new trucks? How will the typical shop or parts provider cope with all of this new technology? What about the soon-to-be mandated electronic stability control systems for trucks? Are the average parts and service professionals prepared to deal with the vastly increased complexity of these new systems? Will your competition be prepared?

With all of the advances coming on line in the next few years, the industry needs a commitment to continuously improving our knowledge base. Training, educating and reading up on every imaginable aspect of this is essential for survival in this industry.

The light vehicle industry went through much of this in the 1980s and 1990s. For the most part that industry and its vehicles bear no resemblance to their former self. Mechanics are now white shop coat-wearing technicians in the light vehicle industry.

The average student coming out of today’s top technical schools (trade schools for old-timers like me) are recruited like star running backs in college football. Why? Because their technical knowledge levels are current and there is little up-front investment needed for updating their training.

Shops and parts professionals need to take a look at what is taking place. In what areas do the knowledge base of you and your people need to be updated? Figure it out and then put a plan in place to get going on updating right away. All of the major technical schools have night classes.

For those of you that are business owners, pay for the training and the time off to accomplish it. You can put together a contract that ties the employee and the funding to a period of employment with your firm.

If you are not the business owner, approach your boss with the above idea, or pay for it yourself. If you chose that route, you will be more marketable to other shop owners than you can imagine.

The curse of “interesting times” will not subside any time soon. Global competition and the acceleration of new technologies will only increase. Take advantage of resources - both fee-based and free. It’s amazing how much can be learned by searching for information using Google, Yahoo, Bing and other search engines.

We are all working harder and longer than in the past, and the people of this country are still the world’s innovators. Work on counting yourself as one of them.

Tim Kraus is Executive Director of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association. Prior to joining HDMA, he served as director of sales and marketing at Triseal Corp. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA) is the heavy duty market segment association of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Associations (MEMA). HDMA exclusively represents the interests and serves heavy duty product manufacturers.