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Timothy Spurlock is overhauling diesel education.

We’ve written a bit about the challenges the industry as a whole faces. Chief among them is that diesel mechanic shortage we keep mentioning. We need a steady supply of new mechanics to replace the ones that are retiring, but it’s not happening. Schools are expensive, but where else can a would-be tech learn?

We all eyed the growing problem with deepening concern, but Tim decided to do something about it.

He’s not a trucker or a tech, by the way, though he has some familiarity with the industry: from 2009-2017 he worked in sales for a company selling curriculum for automotive and truck schools. The job took him all over the country, and as he visited some of the biggest diesel educational programs in the United States he noticed a lot of open seats in the truck-related classes.

“These classrooms were essentially empty,” he recalled.

At roughly the same time, he started receiving calls from various shops and companies.

“We want to buy your curriculum,” they said.

“This is really for a school,” Tim said.

“We don’t care,” the shops told him. “We’re hiring people off the streets.”

Hiring people off the streets? Not bringing them in through schools?

Tim pieced together the mystery. The empty seats he’d noticed in classrooms were just the tip of the iceberg. The curriculum his company sold might be good — after all, shops wanted to use it — but something had broken down somewhere in the educational engine. Schools were producing fewer mechanics, and for whatever reason, those mechanics weren’t going on to work at repair shops. Instead, those shops were turning to the older way of hiring — pulling in folks who showed up at the door. Those people still needed training, but shops weren’t about to send them to school to do it.

So what gave?

The broken system

Tim studied the situation and zeroed in on three things that are dissuading mechanics at the source and contributing to the overall shortage:

1. Schooling is too expensive
Schooling prices can range from a few thousand dollars to $50,000. Even on the low end, that’s not chump change for anyone and can take years to scrape together. Grants and loans can help, but the former isn’t guaranteed and you have to repay the latter.

2. Schooling takes too long
Securing an associate degree in two years means attending full-time for two years. Many of the people who would otherwise be excellent mechanics can’t take that kind of time away from their other obligations like work and family.

3. Students are being overtrained
A student graduating with a degree can rebuild an engine…but that’s not what shops want in an entry-level employee. They want someone who will mop grease and assist — and they want someone who can handle PM work, not rebuilds. In short, the skills these schools are teaching are not the skills shops are looking for.

The more he looked at the situation, the more concerned Tim became. Somewhere along the line a disconnect had occurred, and the very schooling that should have been building up the industry was in fact contributing to its erosion.

“I’m blaming the internet,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s spawned so many different careers and jobs that anything that would be considered a skilled trade or a dirty job just isn’t interesting to people.”

The “college for all” mentality that has entrenched itself in society is also partly to blame. Sure, it seemed like a cool idea once upon a time. But supply and demand catches up with everything:

  • When everyone is going to college because it becomes a necessity, schools are free to charge whatever they like.
  • When everyone has a college degree, degrees stop being something that can set people apart.
  • Students start out their lives in debt and with a bushel of skills they may or may not need.

We are seeing the repercussions of this all over the country, but it’s struck particularly hard in the heavy-duty industry.

A world without mechanics

We’ve touched on how much of American commerce depends on the trucking industry before, but let’s reiterate here: 70% of all consumer goods get to where they’re going on trucks. Those trucks need maintenance to operate properly. If the trucks aren’t running, you aren’t getting your stuff.

Think about that for a moment.

What happens when supply dwindles? Prices skyrocket. Food, beverages, medicine, electronics, furniture, clothing, books, movies — imagine 70% of everything in your home, everything you’re wearing or might eat that day, doubling, tripling, quadrupling, then reaching some multiplication level this writer can’t even fathom.

That’s assuming you can get that stuff at all.

Not to be overly dramatic, but that’s the endgame if we don’t start cranking out more diesel mechanics.

No one wants that reality.

Tim thought there must be a way around it. Techs still needed education, even if they weren’t getting it at schools. So why not find out what shops actually wanted in an entry-level tech and build a curriculum around that? In theory shops would be lining up to hire these individuals.

A new way to train mechanics

Tim took his idea to various shops and companies and said, “Tell me what you want in an entry-level tech.”

Spoiler alert: no one really cared if a newbie could rebuild an engine.

Shops were more interested in personalities than skill sets. They wanted reliable techs who wanted to be there. Ideally those techs had soft skills — the kind necessary for properly interacting with customers. These techs-in-training needed basic mechanical skills, but shops were OK teaching them the rest.

Tim and co-founder Chris Ellis developed the program with the help of numerous shops.

American Diesel Training Centers launched in July 2017 in Columbus, Ohio. The new school focused on training people from all walks of life to be entry-level mechanics. The number one requirement? You had to want to be there. If you got through the training, you were pretty much assured a job at a shop.

Tim and Chris figured it would be one location.

It did so well, a companion school in Cincinnati opened up in 2018.

“The calls didn’t stop,” Tim laughs. “‘Can you put a place in Iowa? Can you put a place in Florida?’”

It’s the sort of popularity every new business wants to capitalize on, but it left ADTC with a problem. Opening up new locations took time and money — think purchasing equipment, dealing with real estate, and hiring — and while there was obviously huge demand for it, they had to figure out a way to move quickly and meet that demand.

Was there a way to somehow package up their existing educational model and make it mobile?

The new model

The shops were the ones asking for this service…so maybe the shops could help out.

Once that part of the puzzle fell into place, things moved quickly.

If a shop wanted ADTC to come to their area, they could serve as a sort of host partner. ADTC wouldn’t lease a bay; instead, they’d embed their program inside the shop and graduating mechanics could land a job there. It essentially created a training program for that particular business.

Alternately, companies allow ADTC to use their facilities for their school without any promise of hiring. Either way, Tim says, “They become the school.”

ADTC provides the students and the instructor, and they use the shop’s facilities to educate the next generation of techs. Sharing resources cuts down on costs and risk. As an added bonus, even if the hosting shop doesn’t have plans to set up a hiring pipeline through ADTC, they can see how students are coming along on a daily basis.

It puts all the best parts of the modern sharing economy to work, minimizing risk and expenses to all parties. If a company wants ADTC in their town, they can host them; ADTC will use their equipment and bays to train their students. This doesn’t just spare everyone the cost of leasing a space and getting equipment; it also allows ADTC to tailor the education the techs receive to the company and/or area they’re in. If the shop in question wants to turn the classes into a funnel, there’s the added benefit of embedding a potential entry-level tech in the company culture before they even graduate. They’ll literally learn in the shop where they’ll eventually work.

It sounds a lot like the way apprenticeships used to work, doesn’t it? Bring someone into your shop, train them up, and then benefit when they carry on your good work.

The future of diesel education

So far, ADTC has trained and placed over 350 techs at over 100 companies. It’s on track to be the largest producer of techs in the U.S. by the end of 2020.

Bear in mind its first classroom opened in 2017 — it’s pulled this off in just a couple years.

Can ADTC save the diesel industry from its mechanic shortage all by itself? Better yet, can it save the diesel industry from itself?

Time will tell. But we’d say Tim, Chris, and ADTC are on the right track.

For more information, to enroll, or sign yourself up as a partner, head over to American Diesel Training Centers!

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.