Rush Enterprises | Fossum Studios
A Rush technician trying to diagnose his way to the top spot in at the 2022 Rush Rodeo.

Maintenance Kombat: Tackling the tech shortage with skills competitions

Oct. 19, 2023
In a competitive market for technicians, internal competitions have proven a great tool for recruiting, training, and retention.

There’s a battle for resources going on the vehicle repair space, and for some fleets and shops, it could be to the death (of their business). According to TechForce Foundation’s 2022 Transportation Technician Supply & Demand Report, post-secondary graduates declined across the board in 2021: automotive (-11.8%); diesel (-2.6%), and collision (-0.4%). The COVID-19 shutdown likely played a large role, but overall diesel and collision were down a combined 17% over the last five years, the report found.

Combined with demand increasing from Baby Boomers and even some Gen Xer’s ageing out, this lack in supply will create even more competition. TechForce estimates that demand for new vehicle repair techs will hit 900,000 through 2026. Several other trades are also in high demand. The American Welding Society said between 2023 and 2027, the U.S. will have a shortage of 360,000 welders, while TechForce predicted the aviation industry will need 78,000 entry-level techs between last year and 2026.

This all means competition for good young technicians could get ugly—and soon.

See also: Game On: Gamifying the shop

Rush Enterprises, employs more than more than 3,200+ technicians at its 200+ Rush Truck Care Centers, and a while back realized they had to prepare "for the exodus of the older generations,” noted Victor Cummings, Rush VP of service operations. They found a balance by hiring more lower level techs and training them to reach the highest tier, Level 5.

Now, 70% of its technicians fall in the Millennial or Gen Z (born in 1981 or later), with a fairly even distribution across the five levels. "Those are pretty overwhelming numbers, if you go back to where we were several years ago," Cummings said. Boomers only comprise 28% of its top-level techs, he noted.

To remain competitive in the field, Rush has also devoted a great deal of training resources to its annual internal skills content, the Rush Rodeo. Leadership identifies what areas the maintenance teams need to work on, and those are the focus of that year’s event.

The top 10% of the 2,000 leasing, parts, sales and service employees ventured to San Antonio last year for the 17th Rodeo, where Rush gave away $300,000 in cash and prizes.

“The rush rodeo has been a motivator for years,” said Javier Gonzales, director of service at Rush, who added it’s a great tool to attract new hires as well. “It allows our employees to showcase their talent, but also earn prizes and money.”

With so much on the line, technicians spend a lot of time studying up to earn the right to compete. And they learn even more from other top techs there.

“They go back to their home dealers with knowledge that they didn't have prior to the rodeo,” Gonzales said, adding that those who didn’t win double down on deficiencies and “come in with more hunger the following year.”

Penske Truck Leasing, which has nearly 11,000 techs, also puts on a skills competition called the National Tech Showdown every other year with the same intent.  Sixteen finalists, out of the company’s 1,623 who tried out in district and regional contests, were invited to Team Penske Race Shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, all vying for the top prize of $25,000. Each finalist took home at least $2,000, and all were invited to the Indianapolis 500 in 2024.

“I think that people want to be like [the finalists], and that then enables our training to even kick into to a higher gear,” explained Art Vallely, Penske Leasing president. “Once they see this, there's a momentum created, and [other Penske technicians] aspire to get involved.”

While a high-stakes competition, the Showdown 2023 winner, Tommy Bass, said it’s teamwork that helped him win.

See also: WrenchWay webinar reflects on tech shortage challenges

“I wouldn't be here without the basics, and I wouldn't be here without people that took the time to teach me what I know,” Bass said.

One of those mentors was Sal Boemia, Bass’s area maintenance manager in the South Central Area.

“When I came into the industry, there were far more technicians than there were jobs,” said Sal Boemia, who started in the 1980s. “Now, it's the opposite. There are no techs out there, so you really need to build your own.”

Penske’s rival, Ryder, has hosted a Top Tech Skills Competition since 2002. This summer in Detroit, Cody Morris, a T4 technician in charge, from Kentucky, won the top spot and $50,000 prize. He beat out nine other finalists, and about 2,500 Ryder techs overall.

Chris Barnett, a two-time Ryder Top Tech and TMCSuperTech Grand Champion, helped mentor him.

"Working with those smarter guys like that, it just rubs off,” Morris said. "It’s their questions on some of the stuff I don't see every day that helps to keep me on top of different things.”