High demand for diesel techs
Shortage most acute in big-pickup markets; it's 'brain surgery' of service
If Steve Harris could find three diesel mechanics to work in the service department of Sioux Falls Ford in Sioux Falls, S.D., he would hire them now.
"Everybody's hurting for good qualified diesel technicians," he says.
The shortage of diesel mechanics is acute for dealerships where the oil and gas industry is booming or, as in the case of Sioux Falls Ford, where big agriculture dominates.
But elsewhere diesel mechanics can be hard to find, too. They require extra training and perform specialized work that's increasingly sophisticated and technical.
Dealers particularly value diesel mechanics because they keep important customers happy: owners of big-ticket pickups, such as the Ford F-series Super Duty, who rely on their diesel vehicles for their livelihoods.
"Our diesel techs don't change tires," says Harris, the fixed operations manager at the dealership. "They don't do front-end work. They just work on diesel pickups."
Mike Sutton, fixed operations director of Mac Haik Chevrolet in Houston, says his service department sells a lot of diesel pickups to commercial customers.
"We do a fair amount of fleet business here. There's no question, when these vehicles come in, the only reason we have any fleet business is we work to get those vehicles out quickly. Those vehicles are money" to the dealership.
Close to 6-figure earnings
Diesel technicians are frequently the highest paid on a dealership service lane, and the money can be as good as at the kinds of computer industry jobs that seem to attract more interest from young people these days.
"These guys can easily make close to six figures. There aren't a lot of computer jobs where they can do that," says Doug LaCroix, fixed operations manager at McCombs Enterprises, which owns two Ford dealerships in San Antonio.
Lloyd Schiller, a fixed operations consultant, says: "It is a dire need in our business, especially in the Ford dealerships because Ford continues to be the No. 1 selling pickup truck.
"Automakers have some training programs they sponsor. They're noble in spirit and in purpose, but unfortunately there are not enough people coming out of these programs."
Schiller likens those technicians to medical specialists. Though diesel engines are more reliable than ever, they are also more complex, equipped with high-pressure common rail fuel injection systems, turbocharging, onboard diagnostic computers and elaborate emissions control systems.
"You pay what you need to pay to have that surgeon do the work," Schiller says. "It's brain surgery. It's not hammer and chisel and sockets. What you see is a lot of techs with their backs to the trucks with their laptops on a trolley. That's how repairs are done. It's not just replacing the component; it's updating the software."
LaCroix agrees that the profession has changed drastically.
"The grease monkeys as we knew them years ago can't survive in a modern dealership environment. You almost need to be a computer analyst because of the amount of diagnosis required. They are very complex vehicles. They have a lot more emissions [controls] on them today than what they used to have."
Another difficulty is that mechanics certified to work on one manufacturer's pickups, which can require extensive extra training courses, may not be qualified to do warranty work on others.
"A GM-certified technician doesn't do me much good. Ford doesn't carry anything over," says Harris of Sioux Falls Ford, who notes that the technology keeps changing. "Since 2002, Ford has had four different diesel engines and they're all different."
Oil fields beckon
The issue for Harris and LaCroix and other fixed operations managers is that automobile dealerships are competing with other businesses, such as agricultural equipment dealerships and oil-industry maintenance shops, for well-trained diesel mechanics.
Vic Diffee, owner of Diffee Ford-Lincoln in El Reno, Okla., says: "The oil companies are hard to compete with. They offer people pretty enticing things to work for them" to repair diesel-powered machinery and equipment.
Diffee says his dealership has boomed along with the oil patch in Oklahoma. "This little town of El Reno has got two companies building [equipment] maintenance centers. They're quite an undertaking."
The oil field boom in Oklahoma has bought a boom in sales and service business for Diffee's dealership.
The situation is a little different in San Antonio, which is not directly in the middle of oil and gas development. But the city is about 50 miles north of the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation in south Texas that is an active site of oil and gas extraction.
LaCroix says his two McCombs Ford dealerships in San Antonio have felt the indirect effect of the Eagle Ford development. To keep from losing mechanics to the oil companies working to the south, LaCroix raised the wages of several from $28 an hour to $35 within the past six months.
Baby boomers retire
Tony Molla, director of communications for the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence, which certifies mechanics, says it's not just dealerships that need diesel mechanics: "The most desperate calls I get are from medium- and heavy-truck operations looking for diesel technicians."
Molla said the ASE, as the institute is known, is urging qualified veterans exiting military service to get ASE certification to work on diesels and other technology.
There's also a generational change going on. Older, baby boomer mechanics who learned their trade when engine technology was less complex are retiring and not being replaced.
"You've got a lot of technicians going out of the business," Harris says.
LaCroix agrees, saying he has trouble finding not just diesel mechanics but also collision repair people: "People are not going into the industry anymore. Everybody's looking to have a white shirt and a computer job. It's a shame."
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.