The diesel technician trade in the era of higher-tech vehicles and the advent of electric vehicles requires more of a “new school” approach to training that focuses as much on career opportunities as it does on core advanced skill sets.
One trade school that has mastered the connection between intense training and flexible roles among different vehicle niches is the Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Tech (“FleeTec”) Academy, based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
What stands out about the institution is its ability to attract, educate, train, graduate, hire, and keep gainfully employed fleet maintenance technicians at a time when the fleet sector deals with a persistent post-pandemic shortage of specialized technicians and mechanics.
As a result, the Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services division avoids a technician shortage among the nationwide fleet clients it serves. It has hundreds of contracted customers and thousands of non-contracted customers, including Amazon, DHL, Coca-Cola, Andretti Global, Ferguson, Budget, and Home Depot. Cox Automotive Mobility employs 1,565 full-time technicians and workers, which does not include Manheim, another division of Cox, that has about 1,500 auto technicians and employees as well.
Since it was founded in 2019, FleeTec Academy has graduated 233 students from its locations in Indianapolis and Phoenix. The Indianapolis campus also has an advanced training facility, in addition to the entry-level school. FleeTec Academy has the capacity to graduate up to 160 students in 2024, and will graduate 100 by end of 2023. The total number of Cox technicians certified/trained for electric vehicles stands at 104 as of September, with a projected total of 160 by the end of the year.
Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services this summer hosted a media event at its academy that tied in with its annual Top Tech Competition, held Aug. 11, in downtown Indianapolis where many of its professional technicians and students competed in all types of problem-solving challenges for repairing multiple classes of trucks and vans spread out inside the Indianapolis Convention Center.
Competitive Training Programs Develop Wide Skills
The skills and talents on display emanate directly from the academy that has become a technician hub for Cox Automotive. Students train to be heavy-duty diesel truck technicians who gain the skills to repair diesel truck engines and medium- and light-duty trucks and trailers as well.
“They're doing more with gas engines than they ever did before,” said Terry Rivers, senior manager of vehicle services training for Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services. “So, there's a lot more gasoline engines in the heavy-duty world than there used to be.”
There are 1.75 million diesel mechanics in the U.S., falling about 300,000 short of full employment to meet current demand. To combat the upward spiral of labor costs, the FleeTec Academy pushes to raise that number through structured recruiting, training, mentorship, and on-the-job earning opportunities with pay and benefits.
“We're bringing in new people who have never done it before,” Rivers said. “Soliciting someone else's tech results in, ‘I’ll give you $1 an hour more if you come work for me. And then the company, says, I'll give you $1 an hour or more if you come back,’ and who's that cost get passed on to? The growing cost of fleet maintenance gets passed on to the customer and the fleet owner, so we wanted to combat that. And it's working.”
Through its approach, the academy has achieved a 75% retention rate based on detailed proctored tests, much higher than the national average of 50%. Last year, the academy graduated 93 students who all became ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified.
Mechanical Rigor Rules the School Day
The trainees spend four weeks in a first round of classes, then six weeks in the field applying their classroom and workshop knowledge, and then they return for six more weeks of classes and apprenticeships before being placed in full-time jobs for a minimum of two years to fulfill their educational obligations.
Their curriculum covers all mechanical aspects of fleet trucks, including steering, suspension, and electrical controls, along with engines and all the parts associated with them. “This is the foundation they'll build for the rest of their careers,” Rivers said. The academy uses a blended learning approach with an online university and hands-on instructor-led training.
In one example of how technician training has evolved, another unique aspect of the academy is a toastmaster’s approach to learning, where the students are assigned a topic, a word, or an acronym related to the curriculum, and then must research the term and present a few slides on it the next day. That engagement exercise complements the classroom instruction.
To structure the learning experience, the students follow a set daily schedule which pays off in mutual rewards, for student and company. Those students that stick with the complete educational path will get the tools they need for their career. After two years, the certified technicians are free to start their own businesses and services.
“We give them eight hours of sleep at night,” Rivers said. “We give them an hour to communicate with their families, an hour and a half to shower and change their clothes and eat after they leave the academy each day. Every minute of every day is accounted for the whole time. This can be a pain, but they are being paid while they're here. And if they stay with the company for two years, they take $20,000 worth of tools each year — the tools they'll be using throughout their apprenticeship. They're free and clear after two years of service. If we haven't done our job and [encouraged] loyalty, then shame on us if they leave after two years. But most of the time they stay on.”
Former service people in the military tend to be excellent candidates for the academy, as well as culinary students and chefs. Rivers speculates their capacity for precision and discipline are good fits for academy life.
Emerging Electric Vehicle Training
An internal combustion engine vehicle has about 10,000 moving parts while an electric vehicle has fewer than 1,000 moving parts. The fewer parts, the less wear-and-tear and maintenance.
According to industry standards, one mechanic can manage 30 power units, which translates to a ratio of one mechanic per 100 electric vehicles. That gives EVs more uptime and makes them more efficient to operate.
Academy students have done electric vehicle conversion as part of their certification.
“We converted a mobile service truck that was using about $197 a week in diesel fuel and after being converted to electric uses about $34 a week in electricity,” Rivers said. “It cost about $40,000 to $45,000 to convert the vehicle. Since it had a blown diesel engine, it would cost us about $25,000 anyway for a net cost of $20,000.” That adds up to an ROI of about two and a half years.
With fuel savings alone, let alone uptime, electric vehicles don’t break and are rarely in the shop. They don’t need air filters or fuel filters.
With the average age of vehicles in America now at 14 years, a truck can burn diesel for seven years and still have an average of seven years left, Rivers said. When you ask OEMs to manufacture a new vehicle at seven years, it generates more pollution into the atmosphere.
If you take what you've already bought, what's already been manufactured and you convert it to electric, you’re carbon neutral in about four years, Rivers said. “If you sell your vehicle and buy a new electric, you're carbon neutral in about 10 years. It's far more carbon efficient to convert what you have.”
While the technicians learn how to test EV batteries, they do not work directly at auctions. Cox Automotive includes Spiers Technology, a company it acquired in 2022, that specializes in battery testing and works with the Manheim auction locations to determine the value of EVs, Rivers said.
However, Manheim technicians competed with their counterparts from Cox Automotive at the annual Top Tech Competition. “Manheim was thrilled to have our best-in-class auto technicians competing at this year’s Top Tech event alongside some of the most elite technicians at Cox Automotive and, arguably, in the industry," said Grace Huang, President of Cox Automotive Inventory Solutions. "Our goal is to bring the highest quality reconditioning talent and services to our business, clients and the industry.”
In a related maintenance role, technicians who work for Cox may be assigned to the mobile repair service which includes a fleet of work vans and work trucks that can drive out to fleet vehicles needing repair, thereby saving time for the drivers. They handle maintenance and troubleshooting mostly for medium- and heavy-duty diesel trucks.
Top Tech Generates Fleet ROI
During a Cox executive and management roundtable, leaders detailed some of the ROI the fleet tech academy has provided for clients and company operations.
One competitive advantage the tech academy provides is it cultivates best-in-class technicians who remain loyal to Cox Automotive because of the supportive, advanced environment, the leaders said.
“Everything we do from an investment point in this business is towards our technicians, and giving them all the support, they need to create the best client experience because at the end of the day, it's not what any of us says, it's how that technician performs for that client, who depends on the technician 200%,” said Ted Coltrain, vice president of operations of Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services.
Technicians are also trained to communicate in the procedures of taking service requests, providing accurate explanations and information, and estimating the scope and timing of repairs, Coltrain said.
The Indianapolis academy also qualifies as an advanced tech training center that offers courses on electric vehicle maintenance and repair. “That’s where we're learning all the new technology happening from an industry standpoint and all the electric and gas tech changes coming down the pike.”
Building on that depth and breadth, Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services establishes career paths for its technicians, where they can branch into multiple aspects of vehicle repair, leadership, or different company roles, said Mike Dickinson, vice president of sales of Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services.
“Many of our competitors don't have a career path for technicians,” Dickinson said. “We have technicians here today who are mobile tech leaders and are leading markets for us.” Some technicians have been promoted into sales roles.
“They can come in and start as a fleet tech and see where they can go. And that's a big opportunity for us to recruit from because they have peers who have gone on to do other things. That's a unique [benefit] that we can offer in the industry.”
Dickinson described what the techs do on any given day: “Imagine going to a repair at 2 a.m. in Green Bay, Wisconsin in February, or imagine going to one at 5 p.m. in Scottsdale, Arizona. You don't know what's wrong with the truck. And you must go diagnose and fix it. You pull up and figure all that out. What these guys do is incredible to keep freight moving in the U.S. We’re proud of all 1,500 technicians who are amazing with what they do day in and day out. They’re all rock stars.”
Coltrain said the academy has reached the point where it does not lack students and fills its classes.
“Often that happens because technicians have a brother, or somebody who works in our offices has a nephew or niece,” he said. “We've really seen many young women join the industry through the fleet tech academy. They know this is an opportunity to make a nice wage and learn a skill set. I think most of the women now in our organization came through our fleet tech academy, and we’re seeing that as a big opportunity for us to continue.”
Kevin Clark, senior vice president of operations for Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services, pointed out how military servicepeople generally are among the best candidates for fleet service.
They already know the basics of military vehicles, which have some similarity to the commercial ones, and receive a toolbox they can take with them, he said. They also understand the value of getting a new set of tools upon graduating from the fleet tech academy.
The other crucial part of tech education is safety practices, especially now that engine technology is more complex than ever.
“We have to get to know that frontline employee and understand the risks they face,” said Michael Renforth, director of environment, health, and safety for Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services. “They have to know their position with safety is most important. The message is strong ownership, and all our field leaders and shopkeepers make safety a number one priority daily.”
Technicians are trained to understand the risks and protect themselves, especially on jobs out in the field. Getting to and from those jobs involves another set of safety rules for driving.
“So, it’s 2 am and they have to fix this truck,” Renforth said. “There’s another repair an hour away, so they have to get back in that vehicle and drive safely to their next destination. We focus on on-the-job safety and behind the wheel.”
Cox Mobility has invested in GPS technology drive that provides the A.I. sensors to alert drivers of any distractions. “If they pick up a phone or are distracted looking out the window, an audible voice lets them know they are driving distracted or if they are getting drowsy, a tone will sound,” Renforth said. “That’s critical for staying focused on driving.”
Technician Recruitment Challenges
While the academy nets a steady stream of students, it doesn’t happen without recruitment efforts still needed in a tight job market environment.
Hiring vehicle technicians is challenging amid low unemployment, said Arthur Lon, senior director of talent acquisition for Cox Automotive Mobility. Nationally, the diesel technician pool faces a shortage of 300,000, a 20-25% decline from the peak in 2018-19. Indeed.com, the job listings search site, so far has posted 43,780 openings for diesel technicians in 2023.
The average age for technicians now is age 55+ with many having retired or planning to in coming years.
With more delivery fleets and product shipping, fleet vehicles rack up more miles and require more technicians, although the number of jobs in warehousing and storage has decreased slightly since the peak in 2022, Lon said.
As diesel technicians remain in high demand, Cox must focus on active recruiting, resume searches on databases, and cold-calls, email, and texts to sell the opportunities they offer.
As of this summer, Cox Mobility is promoting a $22,000+ bonus/reward package for the first year as a diesel technician. Diesel tech wages start at $25.63/hr.
Technicians See High On-The-Job Satisfaction
At a roundtable of technicians, Cox employees of varying experience levels and rank shared their takeaways from front line work as technicians.
The roundtable included: Icie Hinton, trailer repair technician; Caleb Johnson, mobile technician manager; Brent Benbow, senior manager/truck maintenance; Kevin Coltrain, director/general management; Nick Homuth, manager/truck maintenance; Nicholas Rivers, trailer repair technician; and Matt Jones, manager/vehicle services training. Here are some key points about various aspects of their jobs:
Discovering Electric Vehicles
- One of the core skills needed on the technological side of EVs is learning about the updates and how to better your EV experience with battery life. Among questions explored: How long can you idle? How long can you run your AC or your heat and be logistically sound to use your vehicle in a fleet operation?
- EV battery work requires caution since the batteries can drain quickly if not monitored closely.
- EVs are still a learning process for everyone. In Indianapolis, you learn the hard way about the effects of extreme winter cold on EV batteries. Hybrids work better in the colder months. At the academy, technicians are pressure testing EVs and seeing if they are OK for fleets and preparing themselves for customer service.
- The academy experiments with doing EV conversions and testing the range while troubleshooting and figuring out all the possible malfunctions or problems.
- There will be a learning curve to electric vehicles, with technicians experiencing the same situations as customers while operating them. "We're on that journey internally and we're going to take those learnings and apply it to our business going forward,” one technician said.
- With an EV, a mechanic has to keep up with continuous updates, whereas with an engine you stay on top of more moving parts.
- A typical truck requires fluid and filter changes, and fixing wearable parts, whereas on an EV the focus is on power generation and how much power is distributed to monitor drain on the battery. EVs require more reprogramming and adjusting.
- On the question of which type of vehicle is easier to maintain, that answer still needs more data, as EVs become more accessible and spread to other parts of the country where EVs are rare or non-existent. EVs are still young.
Technician Work Life
- Diesel technicians work on trailers as well as trucks. Installations, such as liftgates, are a big part of the service.
- Technicians should be trained on all manufacturer brands and specific vehicle tracks. Overall, designs are similar, but techniques among brands may vary.
- Technicians handle all sizes of trucks, vans and cars. “We're going to work everything so you know we're looking at what the technician is willing to learn. You are a master of none but a jack of all trades to know everything and teach to the system specific to the OEM manufacturer,” one technician said.
- Often, repair technicians adapt to situations drawing on a mix of training and familiarity with the mechanics of OEM brands. “They're taking that and applying it to whatever they're looking at, and that diagnostic process they're using to be able to work on that equipment,” a supervisor said.
Rewards of a Technician Career
Several of the academy graduates now working in technical positions gave these testimonials:
- “It's a win-win. The education I got from fleet tech instructors is very informative. I didn't have to pay for it. That alone would keep me somewhere like this.”
- “A company that's willing to pour into you as much as you're pouring into them is one I would always choose over somewhere else. The leadership here really pulls you up and they can see the potential you have. They keep pulling you and pushing you toward where you don’t think you should be. That's how this company differentiates itself from other competitors because the leadership at top actually listens to people. They can see the future.”
- “There's always somewhere else you can go within the company because it’s so big. If you don't want to be a technician anymore, you can always find a different path within the company.”
- “It just speaks volumes about the company that we work for that not only are they investing in the technician, but they're investing even more to take those people and develop them into leaders. That’s my biggest reason I'm still here. I feel like this company is going places because of its attitudes toward technicians. And that could lead to being a manager one day, and we have a lot of people in senior leadership.”
- “There hasn't been a time where if we needed something for the academy, or we needed some safety, or we needed to take care of somebody, that there wasn’t help to get through the situation. I've never been told no. I've been told take care and make sure you're doing it right. It's been an amazing thing to have. If you're a technician somewhere else, you're just always an expense, you're on payroll, you're in the way, you cost money. Here, our technicians are the ones that produce the revenue. So you're treated much different than working in a dealership or a shop for somebody for free.”
- “It all depends on what you put in. If you're 40, and a go home kind of guy, you're going to be fine. But if you're the ones who are doing 50 to 60 hours a week, like most electricians and people who work in trades, the overtime really helps. I was a 50-to-60-hour week kind of technician. So yeah, a six-figure salary is not that hard to do as a technician with experience. If you really want it at this company, you work for it. There's plenty of technicians who make more than our leaders.”
- "I had my parental consent when I was 17 years old. They sent me to basic training in the summer between my junior and senior year. Then I finished my senior year and could go back to my team. It definitely got me out of the teenager causing problems stage, where I was headed, and it helped me get my head on straight for sure and helped me reach my goals. I'm still trying to get there. One day I'll be living it up like these big guys.”