Why isn't our educational system promoting the trades?

There are two chief challenges faced by the independent parts and service industry. One is adopting the new technology that has been integrated into powertrains and other commercial vehicle systems over the past 10 to 12 years.

The other is finding workers, and that is what I want to focus on in this column.

Unfortunately, the talent pool available for vehicle service work has declined markedly over the past decade or so. Fewer people are choosing the trades as a career path.

Consequently, we have a low supply/high demand situation for workers.

For the foreseeable future, this bodes well for anyone that chooses a trade in the industry as a career path. Low supply/high demand situations always result in favor of the individual, both in terms of job security and income.

Recurring Theme

I have the opportunity to run the largest trade association in the heavy duty parts supplier industry. Within our organization we have several executive discussion groups, referred to as business forums and councils.

Each is tailored to address the concerns of the various elements of executive and leadership issues within the supplier community. The groups meet periodically and discuss the industry and operational issues that keep them up at night.

A recurring theme in these groups over the past few meetings has been a lack talent to staff the various technical, mechanical and staff level positions in our member’s firms.

These positions are the engines of their company’s growth plans.

They need people that can run sophisticated manufacturing systems; design, test and validate new products; analyze market attractiveness; etc.

All suppliers face the same basic problem as companies in the parts and repair industry: finding available talent, entry level or experienced, for today’s advanced manufacturing environment.

There is a well-documented and rapidly developing void of available people in the commercial vehicle parts and service industry. Finding good, raw talent, or people with five to 10 years of experience in the more technical professions, such as diesel technicians, parts and service professionals, is becoming more and more difficult with time.

Educational System

With all of the emphasis on higher education as a must for success, we have excluded many fields that need well-trained, educated and skilled people. Servicing a diesel truck today requires highly-trained experts that are constantly updating their skills and knowledge.

The same holds true for today’s advanced manufacturing and business environments.

There are a set of issues that exist that are somewhat responsible for the shortages. One of these is our education system.

Do the people making curriculum decisions really understand the needs of private industry? Do they understand the rapid pace of technological change taking place in manufacturing or vehicle repairs?

Do they know that a body shop repairman or a diesel technician has the same, if not better, earning power than most positions performed in office conditions? Do they know what the training requirements need to be for service, repair or factory workers of the future?

Do any of us in industry leadership spend any time trying to work with educators to help them gain a better understanding of how industry really works? Do any of us work to teach, sponsor or support vocational education at the high school and community college level?

All of these questions have the same answer: either “sometimes” or “no,” with “no” the usual answer.

While a few business people have taken it upon themselves to work extensively with high schools, technical/community colleges and universities, it is not nearly enough to have an impact on the national output. If we expect a state or federal agency to be the driving force behind a change, pull up a chair because it’s going to be awhile.

Yet, we seem to have little trouble as a country in issuing H1B visas to foreign nationals to fill the gap in people to work in the trades. That is not right.

Your Involvement

Culturally, families work and save to send their kids off to careers with greater possibilities than their parents, often by sending them to community colleges and universities.

When our kids enroll, we need to help guide them to select course work and majors that will provide them with the best ability to compete in today’s workplace for rewarding careers.

In reviewing the study majors of many of the kids that graduated with my oldest daughter last year, it is evident that there was not a lot of time spent in that endeavor.

When there are so many possibilities for future employment in great careers, why would some of the kids end up majoring in studies for professions that do not really exist, such as Spanish Literature?

Moreover, the day is long gone where a two- or four-year degree was insurance for a good career, although it still helps.

Look at your local education system as an engine to assist in the long-term remedy for the current problem with staffing issues. This issue will not go away on its own.

Your involvement and active participation is what is required to make the changes necessary to get people interested in choosing a trade as a career path.

Think of what could happen to the health and well-being of our industry without a good pool of talented to draw upon. The consequences could be disastrous.

Do you want to be partially responsible for this?

Tim Kraus is the president and chief operating officer (COO) of the Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association (HDMA). Prior to joining HDMA, he served in various executive positions with heavy duty industry parts manufacturers. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association exclusively serves as the industry voice of the commercial vehicle product manufacturers. It is a market segment affiliate of the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA). www.hdma.org.