The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that around 28,000 diesel technician positions will be created annually until 2030. The problem? Trades schools aren’t producing anywhere near that number.
TechForce Foundation’s 2022 Transportation Technician Supply and Demand Report shows 3.8 open positions for every available diesel technician. While strong demand for skills often serves as a benefit for laborers, too much demand creates strain. This puts existing professionals at an increased risk for burnout as they must complete additional work to keep up. The shortage also contributes to supply chain delays. Fewer technicians result in longer maintenance wait times, impacting drivers’ time spent on the road and ultimately leading to longer shipping times.
This shortage is a direct result of the decades-long decline in trade schools, also known as Career and Technical Education (CTE). Once presented to high school students as an alternative to college, trade schools have all but disappeared from guidance counselor offices. The reasons behind the trade school decline are numerous and complex, but it essentially comes down to a long battle with cultural stigma.
There was a time when college degrees weren’t a prerequisite to well-paying jobs. But as technology advanced, so did the necessary skills of workers. By the 1970s, finding a decent job with only a high school education was getting harder, so schools started pushing students to pursue college after graduation. As a result, enrollment in trade electives like shop class dropped and became prime targets when schools faced budget cuts. By the 1990s, vocational education was largely viewed as the option for poor-performing students who weren’t cut out for university life.
These factors created the environment we live in, where students have little to no exposure to trades and are often actively discouraged from pursuing a trade profession by their teachers, parents and society. It’s easy to see how these factors led to a skilled-labor shortage.
Fortunately, there has been a spike in trade school enrollment in recent years as high schoolers look to avoid student debt and earn skills rather than degrees. While this is great to see, trade industries must also do their part as vocational education advocates.
At Werner, we’re tackling the technician shortage head-on by increasing our efforts to expose high school students to careers in the trade fields. We attend numerous career day fairs and talk with students all over the country about career possibilities within the transportation industry. This past summer, we held an internship program at our Omaha headquarters, where high school students worked alongside our mechanics for the summer. They obtained hands-on experience, learned what they do (or don’t) want from their future career and earned money. After the program ended at the start of the new school year, we maintained three of our program participants part-time. Several other participants expressed interest in continuing work in similar fields, like automotive and heavy machinery.
In addition, our work with the DOD SkillBridge program offers service members the opportunity to gain experience in civilian employment as they transition out of active duty. We currently have an individual in the program who is expected to start full-time civilian employment in February.
At the end of the day, trade schools and other vocational programs are responsible for training the workforce that will build tomorrow’s infrastructure. Students and others entering the workforce need to know that there are important, viable career options outside college and amassing student loan debt. While the conversation around trades may slowly be changing, the truth is it needs to speed up, and businesses like Werner and other trade organizations can lend a helping hand.