By Barbara Trainin Blank
A severe shortage in diesel mechanics is predicted by industry experts, as baby boomers--who make up a large percentage of diesel technicians still in the field--reach retirement age between 2010 and 2030. It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of current diesel mechanics will retire when the economy improves.
Back in 2004, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that there were 606,000 diesel technicians, including bus, truck, heavy-duty and farm equipment mechanics.
At the time, the department estimated that mechanic shops would need an additional 205,000 diesel technicians to fill new positions and to replace positions of workers who retire or change fields. The situation is similar with general auto mechanics.
Of course, at least for the moment, the shortage seems distant: Many mechanics are out of work because of all the dealerships that closed during the recession, which hit the automobile industry hard.
According to Lance Winslow, as quoted in an ezine article, the elimination of dealerships put more than a quarter of a million mechanics on the streets. "However," he wrote, "this is only temporary, and it's something we need to think about".
The need for technicians is not being met by vocational educational programs.
"We're only graduating about 35,000 technicians, total, in this country a year," said Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence in Leesburg, Va., as quoted by Mindy Long in Transport Topics Online. ). That number includes auto, collision and diesel mechanics. Molla estimated that only about 10 percent of these graduates are diesel and truck technicians.
Wyoming Technical Institute in Laramie, Wyo, one of the largest diesel programs in the country, graduates only about 600 diesel technicians a year, after nine months of training.
One result is inevitable if the predicted shortage takes place, according to George Arrants, business development manager at Cengage Learning, Inc., in Florence Ky. (as quoted by Long). "If we don't have a large number of auto and diesel technicians, the cost of repair is going to go up".
An additional reason for the shortfall in mechanics is technically minded younger people who might have entered mechanical fields in the past today tend to prefer to be gamers or computer techs, rather than "get dirty".
Some young people are motivated by money: they're avoiding the trades in general and mechanics in particular because they believe they can eventually earn more by having a college degree, even if some blue-collar positions offer higher starting pay than college graduates receive.
For now, the pay has not kept pace with the economy or even with the increase in auto-repair costs. In addition, becoming an auto mechanic doesn't have the social status it did 30 or 50 years ago, even though more is required now of mechanics technologically.
Mechanics who are continuing in their respective fields may see a bright side in the shortage, however. According to Jean M. McLean of the Birmingham News not having enough technicians means job security for auto technicians.
Doug Melton, who owns Melton Automotive in Alabaster, estimates that the demand for auto professionals means that talented workers can earn $40,000 a year as soon as they get out of school. Those wages could double with added experience. In the long run, despite all the variables working against young people entering the mechanic fields, the shortage may mean higher salaries and more of them being attracted to technician work.
Another reason for the good salaries is that today's cars and trucks are heavily technological and becoming increasingly complicated all the time. Advanced computer skills will be increasingly needed to work on new hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles coming off the assembly lines. That means fewer would-be do-it-yourselfers are likely to emerge confident when a car needs repairs. But at the moment,very few auto mechanics currently are able to work on them, either.
As training needs intensify, the status of diesel and auto mechanics may increase as well. Working on the cars of the future requires more education than it used to -- maybe something just short of a computer degree in college.