TechForce Foundation & The Tech Shortage

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Over the last few years, we’ve had a lot to say about the heavy-duty technician shortage. The current numbers remain somewhat disheartening; over half a million technicians will be needed between 2020 and 2024, but not enough new techs are coming up through the ranks to fulfill that need.

But why do we continue to face this shortage? What’s causing it?

A great deal of it comes down to how the industry is perceived by younger people and their parents across the country. We’ll go into more detail about this later on, but generally, diesel work is passed over in favor of four-year universities and more white-collar jobs.

TechForce Foundation is out to change the way diesel technicians are viewed—and what’s more, it’s out to help the diesel techs of the future receive the education they need so they can step into those roles. That’s why Fullbay Cares has partnered with them for the month of August: we believe strongly in the diesel industry, and we know that we need techs.

We sat down with Mike Pressedo, Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer, and Tina Smith, Director of National Partnerships, to learn more about TechForce Foundation and what they do, as well as how you can support their mission.

TECHFORCE: THE BEGINNING

TechForce began in 2005, when it was incorporated as the Universal Technical Institute Drive Foundation. Their entire purpose was to promote driving safety and technical training, and over the years its mission and name underwent some shifts. By 2006, it began offering grants and scholarships, as well as providing educational equipment to high schools. They received 501(c)(3) status in 2007; in that same year, they distributed more than $1 million in scholarships and grants.

The TechForce Foundation we know and love today arrived in 2016, when it officially adopted that name. They give out between $1.5-$3 million per year in scholarships, and award over one thousand such scholarships per year. Today, they work with over 80 institutions around the country, and they’re the largest provider of scholarships for post-secondary transportation technical education. “We’re talking diesel, automotive, motorcycle, marine, aviation…we also do CNC and welding,” Mike says. “We hit the whole spectrum of transportation-related fields.”

Funding sources might restrict a scholarship to just motorcycle technicians, or veterans, or automotive engineering and a brand-new offering—shop operation degrees. In short, there’s a lot of potential grants and scholarships available.

CHANGING THE WAY WE LOOK AT TECHNICIANS

Here’s the thing: scholarships are great and all, but you need people to apply for those scholarships if you want to make a difference in their lives.

Everyone has their own hunches as to why the diesel industry has struggled so much in attracting and retaining talent. Some shop owners aren’t great managers, and thus see a lot of turnover. But that’s still not fully explaining why people are avoiding the industry in the first place.

Tina and Mike spoke at length about the way the industry is perceived. Like others we’ve spoken to, they are aware of the decades-long emphasis placed on four-year universities. Numerous trades have suffered for it; there’s a consensus surrounding them: You’re not good enough for a four-year college; here, go to a two-year trade school as a consolation prize.

Along with the lionization of the four-year university comes the stigmatization of the industry in general. Look, let’s not mince words here; there’s a definite perception that diesel in general is a dirty job that doesn’t require much education and won’t do much for your finances. Parents are often part of the problem, as they’ve grown up viewing diesel as “less than.”

Tina recalls an eight-year-old boy stopping by one of TechForce’s exhibits and playing with a plastic model of an engine. She asked him if he wanted to be a diesel tech. The older man with him immediately grabbed the child and hauled him away.

“This,” she remarked to the person working with her, “is what we’re dealing with.”

There’s no question the industry needs to update its image. For every parent that doesn’t want their kid anywhere near a diesel shop, there’s also a woman wondering if she can manage the heavy equipment, or a veteran who isn’t sure they’re ready for a new career. TechForce is trying to reach everyone in those groups—and many others—by simply presenting the facts in a free, accessible way.

One of the most interesting shifts, Mike says, is that “These jobs are very high-tech now.” He goes on to add, “It’s a very secure career. It can’t be offshored. They don’t send your car or truck overseas [for repairs].”

Let’s zero in on that factoid. A lot of people these days, particularly in this economy, long for a secure job. When the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off in 2019, we all learned pretty quickly that technicians, drivers, and others in the supply chain were considered essential workers.

We know the industry’s changing. But how do we help others learn about it?

HOW CAN WE SHARE THE NEW REALITY OF TECHNICIANS?

Tina’s response to that was swift and enthusiastic: “Share our content!”

We’ve talked about social media before: it’s a powerful way to get your message in front of thousands, even millions of eyes. If someone is seeing all kinds of information about how a modern diesel technician works, even fleetingly, their subconscious is absorbing that information.

TechForce is doing its part by visiting conferences and sending its traveling exhibitions to schools, races, and other venues and events. Kids can play around with models and learn about the field, but grown-ups looking for a career change or who are just curious about the industry can do some hands-on exploring, too.

TechForce documents all of this. They create lots of outstanding content around the various roles in the industry, including videos and graphics, and they set them free on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. They also post resources and tools to help people gain access to or just learn more about the industry. This content is re-shared over and over, showing people all over the country what it’s like to be a diesel tech today.

“It’s all around the common messaging and the theme,” Tina says. “Once people start seeing that common message and theme throughout society, then they might start listening—‘I’ve seen it here, I’ve seen it here.’”

The more people see, the less mysterious and stigmatized the industry will be.

HOW DOES TECHFORCE DISTRIBUTE SCHOLARSHIPS?

Okay, Fullbay, you’re saying, so we can see what TechForce is trying to do. But how do they give out these scholarships?

Friends, we had the same question.

The first steps to obtaining a scholarship through TechForce is to be enrolled in a post-high school technician training program and file the FAFSA. This helps TechForce determine financial need eligibility: “If they have access to a lot of resources, they may not need our help,” Mike says. Applicants must also be in good academic standing with their school.

Once it’s clear an applicant meets the monetary qualifications, TechForce is looking for a good story. This does not mean they’re looking for novelists. The organization, unfortunately, has finite resources, so they’re looking for people who really want to be techs and are passionate about this field.

There’s a reason for this. Big manufacturers trust TechForce-sponsored scholarships because of their retention and graduation rate. That means TechForce is picking out the right people, the folks who really want to be part of the industry.

You can take a look at the various scholarships and grants TechForce offers, but Tina spoke at length about the “Life Happens” grant. This award is usually about $500, and is reserved for a $200-$500 sudden expense that a student who isn’t rolling in dough simply cannot afford; think getting four new tires on your car vs. paying your rent.

Tina tells one story that still gives her goosebumps: a man’s father passed away, and he had the money to stay in school or an airline ticket. “He filed for the emergency grant to cover some of that funding, and he was able to go to his father’s funeral and stay in school. That one hit home…we were able to keep him in school. That will affect him for the rest of his life.”

FUNDING THE FUTURE OF TECHS: HOW YOU CAN HELP

One of, if not the biggest challenge of TechForce’s lifespan has been the COVID-19 pandemic; their in-person events were cancelled, and while they kept their sponsors, pretty much everyone “tightened their belt” in 2020.

Over time, TechForce was able to pivot to virtual exhibits, which helped get the word out — often at the expense of tactile learners, who enjoy picking things up and playing around with them. Like everyone else in the industry, they’re eager to book events and meet people face-to-face again, but the ongoing delta variant remains a wildcard.

Because so many companies stepped down their spending, TechForce is understandably looking for a little help. You can make a donation here, or, if you’re interested, you can look into becoming a partner or sponsor. We’re also big fans of the TechForce Peer Network, which “caters to people who are exploring, interested in, student of, or working technicians” and comes with all sorts of goodies for the mechanically inclined or those who are curious.

“The more money we raise, the more we can help,” Mike says.

By now, you know the crew at Fullbay is passionate about drawing new techs to the field, so we’ll be donating a percentage of all our signups for August. If you’ve been thinking about getting Fullbay and want to contribute to a good cause, this is your lucky day: you can give us a whirl right here!

Suz Baldwin

About Suz Baldwin

Suz Baldwin got her start in the automotive industry, writing and editing for several motorcycle and classic car magazines straight out of college. In the years that followed, she’s written all sorts of copy for brands big and small while consuming enough coffee to paralyze a dinosaur.

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