Learn how The Diesel Queen is helping tackle the technician shortage plaguing the industry.
Episode 245: There is a real technician shortage plaguing the heavy-duty industry, and many shops and fleets are really feeling the effects of this. However, what can be done to encourage new ones to join the industry of all, and what can we do to reverse this trend?
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Transcript of Episode:
You are listening to The Heavy-Duty Parts Report. I’m your host, Jamie Irvine, and this is the show where you get expert advice about heavy-duty parts that keeps trucks and trailers on the road longer while lowering cost per mile.
Over the years, we’ve talked a fair amount about the technician’s shortage. It’s something that affects not only the repair side of the business, but also the part side of the business. And there’s been some people who have come on the show that have had different technology solutions.
But I also think that it’s very important that we talk to a wide range of people with divergent opinions and different experiences. And so I’m very excited to have Melissa The Diesel Queen on the podcast today. Melissa, welcome to The Heavy-Duty Parts Report. So glad to have you here.
I am happy to be here. The technician’s shortage, like you said, is a very real thing and it’s just getting worse. So I am excited to cover those bases with you.
Well let’s get started. First of all, let’s talk about your background as a technician. So how many years were you working with John Deere?
I had seven years with a John Deere, it was two John Deere dealerships, three actually that I worked with, but it was a total of seven years.
And I was curious, what is the thing that at first attracted you to working in the industry as a diesel technician?
I grew up around it. My father actually is a logger, so he had his own business. So I spent a lot of my time as a child in the woods and around logging equipment. He had a log truck, he had a diesel pickup and he fixed all his own stuff. And then in high school I started hanging around kids that went to the trade school in town, the trade college. And I started helping ’em work on their own stuff.
And I started helping ’em work on their project cars and project trucks. And I just fell in love with it and I’m like, well, it is either turn wrenches or train horses and there is no money in training horses. So I decided to go full-time into Wyotech, which is the school, the trade school that I went to. And I actually went for semis and I started at a semi dealership.
I worked there three months. I had a job before I even graduated. I worked there three months. They started cutting hours because they were really slow. I was one of the three new kids there that was getting my hours cut really bad. And I had just bought a house so I could not afford that. And the only dealership or the only shop in town that would hire me that was not night shift was John Deere actually. So I applied for, I don’t know how many truck shops and how many dealerships and the only place that would hire me not night shift is John Deere. And I’ve never looked back since.
That’s awesome. So I think your story is unique in some ways because of who you are and maybe the wide range of interests that you have. I know that you are involved in modeling and acting and so really those two things don’t automatically, you don’t put those two things together, diesel tech and model/actress, but your story of having an exposure to it as a child through a family connection is probably the more common part of your story. That’s what I seem to see over and over again. Unless you have that connection somehow in your family, it’s almost like the in industry and the opportunities in the industry are invisible to you.
Well, people have this really skewed image. If you don’t grow up around it, you you’d have a very skewed image of what the job actually is. I even ran into this a little bit when I was first deciding to be a mechanic. Obviously my dad’s like, hell yeah, go for it. But I did run into an issue with my mom and my stepdad. Obviously they’re always supportive of me and they love me, but they were concerned that I was not going to be making any money.
I was just going to be a greasy dirt ball that couldn’t afford to live and couldn’t afford anything and I was never going to make it anywhere with this wanting to be a diesel mechanic thing. And it’s just a phase. And I battled them pretty hard to not go to a community college and go to a trade school. I originally decided to, but it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. And now I make more than my mom.
There you go.
Once they started to realize that this is a lucrative trade and you can have a job wherever you go, and if you’re not happy with the shop you’re working at, there’s five more down the road that’ll hire you yesterday, once they realize that they were sold on it.
And I think you make a couple really good points. So one, if you’re not going to go through a four years bachelor degree if you’re not the path you’re going to take, it is possible that unless you find an industry like trucking or equipment, heavy equipment, unless you find something like that that really will pay you for expertise that you can develop, you probably are going to struggle financially.
And I think that that’s one of the really sad things about the shortage is that there’s all these people out there who don’t really know about our industry, who are struggling financially. Maybe they’re working minimum wage and they don’t really have a future, or they’re in an industry where there’s a lot of competition, therefore the prices of what you get paid are way down. And then you’ve got our industry where we’re desperate for good people, we’re looking for people and we pay really, really well.
Yeah, absolutely. When I started in this industry, I started at 17 bucks an hour was my starting wage out of college, and that was seven years ago. Now it’s more starting wages are getting close to $20 an hour for mechanics and that’s straight out of trade school. If you hire it as an apprentice, it might be a little less, but you’re still going to be way above minimum wage and pay raises, if you show up and you try hard, your pay raises will come very good.
I got $2 an hour pay raises pretty much my entire career because with the exception of Covid and stuff like that, I’ve got pretty decent pay raises is my entire career. But that’s how it is. If all you gotta do is show up and work hard, cuz like you said, this industry is desperate for people and they’re desperate for good people. And if you put in your best effort and you’re reliable, they will pay you for that. You will be compensated for that.
So let me ask you something, Melissa. And I think we need to be as real and as honest as possible. So in our industry there’s definitely a stereotype around who becomes a diesel technician and you don’t fit that stereotype at all. And I personally think that’s a really good thing because I think if we’re going to solve this problem, we’re not going to be able to just rely on the stereotypical type of guy who’s going to join our industry. We need to broaden our horizons.
But let’s be real for a minute. As you came into the industry, other than concern from your mom and your stepdad, what other barriers did you run into as you entered the industry? Did you run into any kinds of people giving you opposition? Just base it on who you are and maybe what you look like?
To be honest with you, I grew up and I worked almost my entire career in Wyoming and in Wyoming women in the trades is not a weird thing, it’s not an odd thing that’s normal. But when I was interviewing for jobs, trying to figure out where I was going to work straight outta college, obviously I went to a trade show with Wyotech that went great. I had one situation with the Caterpillar dealership actually down in Denver, Colorado that I interviewed with for their truck shop.
And they knew I was straight outta trade school. They knew that I didn’t know anything, that I’m going to be a fresh person, I have no experience. They knew that. And the guy agreed to interview me and then pretty much spent the entire interview asking me do I have experience on this, do I have experience on that?
Do I have experience on that? I’m like, I freaking told you guys, I don’t. And I feel like this is a very rare occurrence there. There’s a skewed image that men in this industry are evil to women and that’s just usually not true. This was a very rare occurrence, but I’m 90% sure he hired to that interview just to talk to me and see who I was, cuz he was curious. I don’t think he had any intentions of hiring me. So that was one of ’em. Well, I’ve also had a boss tell me, which I can get into that story later, I guess. Okay.
About, well let’s just, yeah, I’m glad that you said that. So one, you were fortunate enough to be in an area where women in the trades wasn’t as uncommon, so therefore it was more normalized. I think that’s what we have to do across the board nationally, is we have to normalize this idea that it’s not just the stereotypical technician that we need to look at. We need to look at recruiting people from different backgrounds that maybe just don’t fit the traditional mold of what we’re used to. Because to me, that’s the only way we’re going to solve this technician problem.
But I’m glad to hear that overall your experience has been relatively positive and that people have treated you with the respect that you deserve. And obviously as you’ve gained in experience, then you’re able to use that experience to the benefit of who you’ve worked for and obviously for your future goals for yourself. So that’s good to know. And I think we need to let people know that because if there are women thinking about joining the industry and they’re concerned about those issues, it’s good that we talk about them openly. You agree?
Oh yeah. And I’ve, I’ve never been a quiet voice on that particular subject because I’ve seen and heard a lot of bad things about being a woman in the industry. And a lot of it, this is going to sound kind of bad, but a lot of these women, they’re complaining because they’re an apprentice and the guy is not an apprentice and they’re getting oil changes and he’s not. And I don’t see a problem with that.
You can’t expect to be given more opportunities or better opportunities or to excel faster just because you’re a woman. You have to be able to grind just like the men. And that’s how I entered the industry. I entered the industry of I’m going to do whatever they tell me to. I’m going to do what it takes. I started on services and I did services and PDIs for John Deere for six months straight.
And I did batteries and a bunch of little jobs and then they slowly started giving me bigger jobs and then bigger jobs. And obviously as young mechanics, you mess it up. There’s a lot. And it’s not just women either. There’s a lot of kids that enter this industry that expect to be given, oh, I was in trade school for a year, I’m going to go into the industry and be doing engine rebuilds right away. And that’s just not real. If you gotta prove that you can do an oil change first right before you, before they give you everything.
My experience, Melissa was very similar, so I’m not a technician, but I started off remanufacturing parts and I mean I remember the very first three days I worked at that company, I was 18 years old and they put me on a sandblaster and just tried to break me. It was like, well, if the guy can sandblast for eight hours a day for three days straight, maybe we’ll keep him around and let him actually tear down some cores.
That was my reward. So I mean, I had to pay my dues as well. And one of my mentors and anybody who’s listened to the show of any length of time, hear me say this repeatedly, but one of my mentors said to me, how do you get 20 years experience? I was like, I don’t know. He is like, come see me in 20 years. There really isn’t a way to shortcut that growth and that knowledge transfer that happens as you start at the bottom and work your way up.
Okay. So you were willing to accept whatever task came your way. At some point, did you realize or recognize maybe there was an area of specialty that you wanted to pursue? And how did you go about doing that, if that’s the case?
So I started in the construction side. I’ve worked on the construction and ag, but the first two years was construction, solely construction. I mean, the first two years was really just me figuring out what I’m trying to do and what I wanna do and what I like to do and trying to make it without messing something up for a day. I ended up being, by the end of my career, I really specialized in the 9R tractors. When I worked on the ag side, I was given a lot of 9R tractors. If I worked at a ag dealership, I was given mostly tractors in general, large ag was my specialty in the ag dealerships and the construction dealerships. I pretty much worked on anything. The last construction dealership I worked at was a very small shop and I was the only shop mechanic actually. Oh wow.
For a long time. Plus I tried to run the shop for three months while they were trying to get a new boss and I had to work on everything. I love cylinders. I can do hydraulic cylinders really well. Engine work, I enjoy a lot. I don’t think there’s a mechanic that doesn’t enjoy engine work unless maybe your flat rate. Transmission, backhoe transmissions. I can freaking fly through backhoe, transmissions. Greater pips for their product improvements for greater hydraulics. I got a list.
But you only got there because you went through that training process. You were willing to do whatever job they gave you and you obviously learned from some really great people, correct?
Oh yeah. Obviously everybody messes up. Everybody has hard weeks, hard times, hard months. Sometimes it happens. But for the most part, the last solid four, four and a half years of my career, my bosses were not scared to give me big jobs and give me multiple jobs. I was decent. Sometimes I’ve struggled with it, but for the most part I was decent at being able to juggle one or two big jobs at a time and then a couple little ones in between ordering parts and stuff like that.
So if you got the mindset for it and you wanna try and you wanna work hard, you will climb that ladder. You just gotta, like you said, you gotta climb the ladder. There is no shortcut. There is no, I start in the industry and I’m doing engine rebuilds. Maybe you’re doing an engine rebuild with another technician that is teaching you, but you are not going to be doing all that right out of the gate.
And that’s a common misconception that I’ve seen a lot of kids have in this industry when they come into a shop is they just expect to be given all these big jobs right away. And it’s like, no, you need to be able to prove you can do an oil change right first and then we can talk about maybe giving you a little bit bigger jobs.
Okay, well we’re going to take a quick break here from our sponsors and when we get back, I’d like to talk about the next steps of your career. You got some exciting news, so we’ll talk about that in just a minute. We’ll be right back.
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We’re back from the break and before the break, Melissa, it was really good to get to know you a little bit better kind of understand the trajectory of your career. We touched on some of the core issues with trying to attract new people to the industry. You are going to really use your voice moving forward to try to help us solve this technician shortage. One of the ways that you’re doing that is through a partnership with Diesel Laptops. So could you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes. So actually this banner they made me for the Overhaul podcast that I’m actually working on right now. And one of the main points of this podcast is to really dive into all levels of technicians and all levels of the industry and really figure out where the problem is. What is the missing link here? What are we missing? Because going to high schools and talking to 500 kids doesn’t work.
We’ve been trying that. Every shop I’ve ever worked at tried that. They never got anybody out of it. What I’ve learned is I’ve interviewed about three people now and I’ve had the first girl I had on there, she is somebody that actually drove up to my shop that I worked at in Wyoming to talk to me about wanting to become a diesel tech technician. She’s 17 and she’s like a little mini me, but she’s awesome.
But she had so many good questions of what do I do? How do I handle it if I mess up and I’m really hard on myself and how do you get through this phase of, I don’t think I’m going to make it. And she had such great questions and I’ve had anywhere from her to I just got done interviewing someone yesterday with 15 years of experience.
What I’ve learned a lot is I’m trying to dig into the background of these people, which is what you did with me. What made them want to get into this industry and how can we attract more people? I actually had a kid that had no background in the industry at all. Like you were saying, the majority of mechanics are people that grew up in it or around it or no about it. Whatever. This kid had no one in his family didn’t grow up around it.
He just happened to try this class that his high school was putting on through a college for diesel mechanics and fell in love with it. And I really, I’m trying to dig into how we can create programs or maybe voices. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to use my voice to show kids that you don’t have to grow up with a logger as a father to be a diesel mechanic.
You don’t have to grow up with daddy owning a truck shop to be a diesel mechanic. And that’s kind of what me and Diesel Laptops are trying to achieve here is figuring out how we can use my social media platforms, my voice. I have a lot of followers along with everybody else, including people like yourself that already have podcasts, things like that to get that voice out there of, hey, this industry is not some dirty, greasy mean sometimes, I mean, I’m the technician that’s dirty by nine o’clock, but not this low level, low income job that people think it is. It’s you make really good money. It is good money and they want you
And it’s a career and it’s an industry that are filled with really quality people. And I think you’ve experienced that. Just like you said, you haven’t run into some of those stereotypical issues that other women run into another industries. Probably by virtue of the fact that our industry is more blue collar and is more family oriented. And there’s probably lots of dads with daughters and sisters and moms who they respect women. And so when they see a woman really trying, they want to encourage her and help her.
So as you were talking about what you’re trying to accomplish with Overhauled, one thing that came to my mind is I think we need to develop a profile for the kind of person that we would want to attract to the industry. And maybe by you and other advocates like myself working together collaboratively, we can start to build, Hey look, this is the kind of person we’re looking for and if we can make messaging that reaches that kind of person, maybe we can do a better job of attracting people to the industry.
Which I do agree with that. The one thing that I actually told Tyler in my interview with him, but I can reiterate it to you, is something that I feel very strongly about is the reason why our trades are failing, as far as kids going into it. And it is, it start does, I know I just said speaking to high schools doesn’t work. I still stand by that a little bit, but it does start in high school when I went to high school, you had to take an automotive class to graduate and you had to take either a welding or a woodworking class to graduate.
So like I told Tyler this story, I’ve been taking welding classes since late middle school cuz that’s when they started offering them. I loved it. My dad had the little pad of my test welds forever cuz he was so proud of it. But I’ve been welding in forever. So when I went to move to Laramie and saw they had a welding class, obviously I’m like, hell yeah, I’m taking that. I don’t wanna do normal classes, I wanna do all these classes. My whole senior year was pretty much those types of classes.
But because it was a requirement, there were kids in that welding class that would have never ever in their life chosen to do that class if it was not a requirement. Like I told Tyler, there was this girl and she was a sweetheart, but she was this through and through little goth girl, the tall boots, fishnet, leg thingies, skirt, fricking…
Black makeup, white hair, straight up goth girl. And she was in the welding class and she was over there running beads. Do you think she would’ve picked that as a class, as an elective ever? No. But there she is running her beads and she was actually really good at it. She was great. And that there’s tons of kids that went through that high school.
So to your point, I just wanna make sure I understand. So to your point, having a big one and done kind of presentation in a gymnasium with 500 students where they mention our industry once, that’s the thing that fails. That’s not what works. But having electives built into the course curriculum, having exposure to the industry at an early age, you feel that that’s a more successful strategy.
And then in addition to that, building digital content that will reach these young people earlier so that they can get exposed to the industry. It’s the combination of those kinds of things that you think is going to be part of a successful strategy,
Which talking to high schools, I’m not saying it doesn’t work completely or it’s complete waste, but out of 500 kids, you might have 10 that are listening to you. Maybe I had an FFA group come through the shop when I worked at the ag dealership in Cheyenne, and these are kids that are in FFA, they should be all over that. We have a giant ag tractor in the shop and I’m sitting there teaching them how to do regens and stuff on the computer. And these are fricking farm kids.
They should be all over this. And I had two guys and one girl out of the group of 25 kids that were there that actually paid attention. I pretty much just taught everything to those three. No one else paid attention.
Yeah, well you gotta go where the audience is. So Melissa, let me ask you something because maybe in addition to trying to get the messaging to young people, I also think that there’s a group of people in their twenties, maybe even as old as early thirties who are lost.
They’re lost right now, they don’t know all the social norms have been turned on their heads. We live in this crazy world that we are in now, the economics of our economy and have really been weakened over the last few years. This is not the environment, for example, that I grew up in at that age, nor is it even the environment maybe you grew up in. It’s changed that much in the last few years. So how do we reach that group of people?
That’s a great question because they are those, and I actually have brought this point up before is people that tried college, didn’t work, can’t afford college and are working for minimum wage. Those are great people to get into this industry. Those are great people and especially a lot of ’em want to work.
They wanna go out and they wanna work, but they can’t either, can’t find a job or the job they have is minimum wage and they are working, it’s just not paying their bills. One of my best friends and one of the women that I really look up to the most, she’s a freaking single mom. When she found this industry, she didn’t go to school, nothing.
She was struggling as a single mom and her grandma was a diesel mechanic actually, believe it or not, which is cool. And she decided that, hey, I wanna make some money and I wanna do good cuz I wanna provide for my daughter. So she freaking has been killing it for the last nine years as a heavy equipment mechanic cuz she just threw herself into it. And she tried hard. She showed up and she took all the training opportunities she could get and now she’s a service manager for Caterpillar. Wow. And yeah, she’s freaking awesome.
So Melissa, let me ask you something, because you made a statement that I agree with, but I think there is, nevermind misconceptions about people with different backgrounds or gender or whatever. Let’s just talk about the misconception around the fact that people, young people don’t want to work. I challenge that because I have seen, I know myself, if I was in a economic position where no matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t going to make it, I’d be pretty demotivated myself.
I don’t think it’s a lack of motivation on a lot of people’s part to want to work. It’s more of show me a path where I can actually succeed. And I think, right, somewhere in there is kind of like the golden thread that we have to pull on to be able to recruit people to our industry because we have to show them, look, this is not just your next low end job.
This is a true career with a future for you with high demand. Therefore high wages, somewhere in there. We’ve gotta get that message to those young people who are feeling lost, who are feeling a little hopeless, who don’t think that there’s an opportunity for them because they miss the university boat or they’re stuck in what they feel is a dead end job.
Well, and what I’ve touched on a couple of times in my social media is, guys, you don’t have to go to college to do this. You don’t.
Translation, you don’t need to accrue a hundred thousand dollars in debt.
And if you wanna go to college, John Deere shops will pay you to go to John Deere school and then pay you for tools. Yeah, there are so many opportunities in this industry to even if you wanted to get professional training, let’s say you didn’t wanna just throw yourself to the wolves and start as an apprentice in a shop and pray to God you make it.
Let’s say you do wanna go to a college, there are so many, especially in John Deere, because that’s where my specialty is. That’s what I know. There are so many opportunities, how many kids we had in all the shops I’ve worked in that were sponsored by our dealership where their schooling was paid for and their tools were paid for and all they had to do was work for that dealership for two years.
And there’s similar programs in the truck world too for whether it’s Cummins or it’s Pacar program there’s a Volvo Mac program I believe as well. And I think we’re also seeing the independent service channel starting to embrace the need to train people and be more involved in their development because they’re just having such a hard time finding people as well. Well, I’m excited to hear the podcast. When is the podcast officially dropping Overhaul?
It’s supposed to be early December. I have four in the bank.
Right now that I have on a hard drive that I’m working on trying to get to them for their editing people. But it’s supposed to be early December sometime.
So hopefully early December. Definitely in 2023, you’re going to be able to listen to Melissa on her podcast Overhaul. And if people want to link with you, I know you’re on a lot of different social platforms, but I think our audience follows us quite a bit on LinkedIn, so we’re just going to make sure that we include your LinkedIn link in the show notes.
It’ll also come up on the screen right now in the video version of this. And please HDPR audience, go reach out to Melissa, follow what she’s doing, the work that she’s doing is very important. Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today and share your thoughts. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation.
Yeah, this was an awesome podcast. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.