Truck dealers and customers shared insight into the challenges they face in today’s market, including finding and retaining technicians, during ACT Research’s biannual seminar in Columbus, Indiana.
Paul Pankey, a regional general manager for Rush Enterprises, and Jodie Teuton, vice president at Kenworth of Louisiana, provided the dealer perspectives—Pankey from the sales and marketing side, and Teuton from the operations side—and Grammer Industries CEO Bart Middleton supplied their fleet customers’ perspective.
The common theme throughout the “Dealers and their customers” panel was the enduring importance of building and maintaining strong relationships across the supply chain—even in our modern technology-driven environment.
“In spite of all the technologies we use to better serve our customers, we’re still a relationship business and we’re going to continue to be,” said Teuton, who’s also the chairwoman of the American Truck Dealers.
The driver shortage—or driver pay shortage, depending on who’s framing the issue—is well-publicized, but all three panelists agreed a shortage of technicians is equally as dire.
Pankey said current industry forecasts indicate a need for 31,600 more techs by 2024 to keep up with demand and attrition.
“Today, our trade schools are graduating about 3,500 technicians who go into the heavy- and medium-duty dealer body today, and fleet technicians,” he said. “However, we have about 8,000 retirees per year.
“So we have a 4,500-technician deficit each year.”
They say it’s not a money issue, either.
Pankey and Teuton said their companies employ technicians who are making more than $100,000 per year, and still they have empty service bays.
“We’re at record highs,” Teuton said. “I’ve got techs who make more than salesmen.”
Instead, they say, the dearth of technicians is an image problem. Trucking, and particularly working on trucks, isn’t “sexy” to Millennials. As Teuton, who went to law school, points out, the national economy boasts 1.2 million lawyers—the profession her parents encouraged her to pursue—and only 250,000 vehicle techs.
“It’s a struggle for all of us,” Teuton said. “It’s a battle whether you’re the largest dealer or the average-sized truck dealer in this country.
“(But) being a lawyer, I can tell you, vehicle technicians are a lot more valuable.”
In the meantime, dealers are redoubling their efforts to educate and recruit potential technicians anywhere and everywhere possible, including high schools, trade schools and colleges, and even helping their customers, who are facing their own technician shortages, improve uptime by supplying them with technicians.
“They’re having a hard time getting technicians to help maintain their current fleets today, so we’re providing—and I’ve seen this grow exponentially—embedded techs in their facilities, and then contract maintenance with those customers as well,” Pankey said.
Sales and service
Pankey said they don’t sell trucks the way they used to either.
He said walk-in traffic has waned significantly in the last 10 years, so Rush’s sales force spends more time going out to visit customers, and because OEMs, dealers and suppliers are so interconnected, they must work together on pricing well in advance of a customer showing up at a dealer ready to buy a truck.
“I see more bodied-up equipment ready to roll than I’ve ever seen in my career, in 20 years, so we’re really ready, and that’s pretty consistent across all 11 dealer groups, with the lead times extending out, particularly on the upfitting and body manufacturers,” Pankey said. “We’re happy to try to project 12 months out what we’re going to need to stock so we can get stuff in the pipeline and have it built at the factory together.”
And because so much equipment is highly specialized and fully integrated, their sales staffs are super segmented.
“The different vocations are getting so specific, and the laws are so cumbersome to keep up with, that we’ve really had to specialize our sales force,” Pankey said.
“So we have dedicated refuse salesmen, or dedicated concrete salesmen, landscaping, moving, relocation and storage, really focused on those market segments to help provide the best piece of equipment to our customers.”
To help streamline the process, Middleton said Grammer is committed to a single truck OEM, giving them a “one-brand advantage” that provides their customers the best specification options and service channels.
“It comes down to simplification,” Middleton said. “When you’re a larger company … you may want to diversify that some, but for companies our size, really the best answer and best model is to simply have one truck.”
After the trucks are built and sold, the challenge shifts to keeping them on the road.
Rush’s answer is RushCare Service Connect Support, a “total service management” package that leverages the growing telematics industry and Rush’s proprietary communications software to keep trucks on the road and customers well-informed through the entire process, from the time it’s received to completion.
“Our customers have a 360-degree view of their trucks in our shops,” Pankey said. “They can see at any time what the status is, whether the part’s been ordered, when that part will be here, (and) if a technician is working on it.”
Odds and ends
Teuton spoke briefly about the Federal Excise Tax—the bane of the trucking industry—and ongoing efforts to repeal the burdensome and “inequitable” 12-percent tax on trucks, which the National Automobile Dealers Association says adds between $12,000 and $22,000 to the price of new heavy-duty trucks.
“The Federal Excise Tax is a disincentive to purchase new trucks,” she said. “So we can change that dynamic. We’re talking about … clean air here today, but having clean diesel out there will also change what’s going on, and so repealing the Federal Excise Tax would go a long way in spurring more new truck purchases and in turn generating cleaner air.”
Middleton said fleets aren’t basing purchasing decisions solely on new technology and telematics.
“Generally within about a year, all the OEMs gather steam into whatever new technologies are there,” he said. “They may not be the first one out of the gate with it, whether you’re with Peterbilt or International or Volvo, or Kenworth or Freightliner, but generally within a year or 18 months, they’re catching up to that technology. We’re evaluating everything on the truck from maintenance to fuel economy to idle time, etc.
“We do use telematics to keep an eye on it, but we don’t make a decision solely on, Freightliner could get an extra half-mile to the gallon.”
Teuton and Pankey also said hiring challenges aren’t limited to techs, with shortages in salespeople and support staff also causing problems.
Pankey said one familiar culprit is Amazon.
“Amazon, in many of our locations, is applying a lot of pressure on those jobs because they’re coming in and really driving wages up, which is great for those people, but it’s also making it tougher for us to get and retain support people, like parts drivers or warehouse parts pullers,” Pankey said.
“We’re starting to see greater turnover in those areas.”