By Ronnie Garrett
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a special report on the technician shortage which can be found at RV Daily Report’s website by clicking here.
Just looking at the numbers, the RV industry has much to celebrate. RV wholesale shipments in 2017 hit 504,599 units, up 17.2 percent from 2016; the highest number since the industry tanked during the Great Recession.
The RV lifestyle is thriving and growing. In fact, Dr. Richard Curtin, RV industry analyst and director of consumer surveys at the University of Michigan, estimates the number of RV owners has swelled to 8.9 million households, up from 7.9 million in 2005.
But there is a dark side to this numbers’ game. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of RV repair technicians at 13,520 techs, meaning the average technician is responsible for servicing an estimated 658 RVs, and industry experts say that is simply too many rigs per technician.
This is the face of the RV service techni-cian shortage in 2018, and it’s only going to get worse, predicts Kevin Ketner, chair of the Texas RV Association’s Education Committee and vice president of Ancira RV in Boerne, Texas.
“I think this industry could plateau, then take a downward spiral, because people will turn to some other form of entertainment.
Whether they buy an RV or something else will be determined by how well we service them; how well we take care of our
Terry Cooper of the National RV Academy agrees, “We average three to four phone calls a week from dealers, mobile service companies and campgrounds looking for technicians. The need is there—and it’s growing.”
The problem is showing itself in longer repair event cycle times (RECT), which average four days per RV, states Tim Wegge, chairman of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) and owner of Burlington RV Superstore in Sturtevant, Wisconsin. Though he stresses there are many things that factor into RECT, from the number of techs working in a shop, to the time it takes to perform a complicated repair, to the availability of parts, the shortage of techs is a growing consideration.
Cooper worries what will happen to the industry if something isn’t done to address the problem soon. “I think this industry could plateau, then take a downward spiral, because people will turn to some other form of entertainment. Whether they buy an RV or something else will be determined by how well we service them; how well we take care of our customer.”
Strike Out the Stigma
As demand for service techs skyrockets in every industry, the amount of interest in the job should too. Unfortunately, that is not the case. There remains a perception problem when it comes to hands-on work. Young people simply do not see this as a viable career, or even realize that it exists, according to Ketner.
“In many cases, they have no idea what the pay rates are, they have no idea what the benefits packages could be, and the different things they could accomplish,” he says. “We need to get more people—from trade organizations, dealers and manufacturers, to private parties—to say, ‘Here’s a great opportunity for a career.’ ”
This suggestion also must begin earlier, adds Jennifer Maher, CEO and executive director of TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit focused on “Driving Tomorrow’s Workforce of Technicians.” Maher maintains more tech training opportunities are needed at the middle and high school levels. “Schools are teaching only to the eyes and ears, but that’s not how all people learn, and it’s not how all people want to work. We need to stand up for the tactile intelligence of a huge population of our kids and provide them with learning opportunities.”
Unfortunately, the gold standard has long been getting a four-year college degree as opposed to a two-year associates degree, certificate from a trade school or industry apprenticeship. But Cooper maintains this model must change. He describes how at RV shows, he sees dreams conjuring up in young people’s heads as they excitedly climb in and out of RVs and talk with their parents about RVing and camping adventures.
“The interest is there, but we need to do a better job of showing young people that not only can they be part of the RVing experience, but they can work in this industry too, and help others have that fun,” he says. In Cooper’s mind, the transformation must begin with the idea of the job itself.
Often, people see hands-on work as “hazardous and dirty,” he says. “But it’s not unsafe, dirty or grimy work.”
Parental perceptions also need to shift. Too often, parents do not want to see their sons and daughters entering a field that in- volves tearing engines and other machinery apart and repairing it. “But, for some folks, that’s what they want to do,” says Cooper. “Plus, RV technicians stay pretty clean. This is not a dirty job.”
Wegge adds he wishes schools did a bet- ter job of providing students with aptitude and temperament tests to help them zero in on the type of career that best suits them. Many kids entering four-year colleges, he stresses, might be a better fit for the trades.
Steve Anderson, owner of Workamper News, adds that he sees the income potential for RV technicians routinely downplayed. That, too, presents a barrier in attracting would-be technicians. “That’s part of the education that needs to happen,” he says. “RV dealers function on what you’d classify as a piece rate, and we are not talking chump change. There is the possibility for a good
tech to turn six digits a year.”
The best kept secret in the RV industry, says Cooper, is this very fact. He says the key to a lucrative career as an RV technician is learning the trade and continually developing your skills because “you have got to be able to look at a piece of equipment, know what it’s telling you, and go in and do the repair or maintenance. It’s not just tearing it apart and throwing parts at it.”
Competing for Techs
PJ Buerger is the general manager and owner of Princess Craft, a thriving RV dealership located in Round Rock, Texas. This dealer- ship focuses on selling lightweight trailers, generally 5,000 pounds or less, as well as truck campers. “We specialize in units that are unique, and give customers more op- tions,” she says.
But whether a dealer sells lightweight units or full-sized rigs is a moot point when it comes to technicians, adds the president of the Texas RV Association. Every dealership needs them, and every dealership is struggling to find them, she says.
Buerger sees competition from other industries as a concern. “Unemployment is low, and it’s been a challenge to find good people who want to make a career of this,” she says. “You can always find people who come in and do it for a while, but then another dealership or industry will offer them a dollar more, and they’ll move onto that.” Texas, she adds, has been particularly hard hit. Though the RV industry is thriving in the Lone Star State, skilled laborers have left it to pursue positions in the higher-paying
“There are a lot of other industries that are also doing well,” agrees Ketner. “Whether it’s the oil industry or the automotive industry, they are pulling technicians away from RV dealerships. So, when you find someone that has the skills and the traits you need, you must grab a hold of them, teach them all you can, pay them well and offer them good benefits.”
Princess Craft already does these things, but Buerger laments technicians still end up leaving. The dealership counters this trend by building its company culture. “You can’t out pay the competition,” she says. “But you can make people feel valued and give them opportunities to grow. We try to be very performance-based and offer internal rewards for people who do well. You need a culture that when they come to work they know they are not alone, they have support, and they can grow. That’s the most valuable thing we have to offer technicians here.”
Ketner adds, “We have to be very competitive with other markets then go that extra step and provide them a place they can call home. The last thing you want to do is spend thousands of dollars on a training program and lose them to another industry. You really have to do everything you can to make this a home for them and their family.”
Beyond the Wrench
An RV tech does more than turn a wrench, adds Wegge. He believes this should be one of the greatest selling points of the job, but
states the industry isn’t sharing this story very well.
“We have something the other trades don’t have, and that is variety,” he says. “People like the variety, and we need to do a better job of talking about that as a benefit to becoming an RV tech. We are looking for people who have a multitude of skills and skillsets, as well as strong mechanical aptitude.”
Ketner explains RVs are basically houses on wheels that drive down the road. Maintaining and repairing them requires an individual with a variety of skills. “You’ve got to have someone who can understand electrical, plumbing, carpentry and air conditioning,” he says. “There are folks out there who can do one or two of these things, but to find someone who can do all of them is very difficult.”
He adds a person possessing these skills is often employed and being paid very well. For this reason, he recommends RV dealerships hire people they can groom into the role through industry training and certification. Phil Ingrassia, president of the RVDA, reports many dealerships are growing their own technicians. “They bring in people as detailers and in other entry-level jobs to see if they have any technical ability, and if they do, they start to move them up by matching them with mentors, be it a shop foreman, service manager or experienced tech,” he says.
Dealers typically uncover tech candidates by reaching out at retail shows, to the military and to tech schools. But more needs to be done before the shortage causes customers or would-be customers to leave RVing for other forms of entertainment, notes Cooper.
One dealership advertises for a “jack of all trade” handyman position, and Ingrassia says it’s working for them. “If you think about it, that’s what RV techs really are,” he says. “They work on a little bit of everything. Maybe a cabin is broken. Maybe some plumbing needs to be fixed. Maybe they must fiddle around with the furnace, the water system or the air conditioning, or maybe they need to repair the roof.”
He adds, “What attracts people to this job is the variety of work. A tech never knows what’s going to cross the driveway into the service area.”
Ingrassia adds this is what sets RV technician work apart from tech jobs in other industries. Though some people may want to work on diesel engines every day, and for them a job in the trucking industry might be a good fit, there are many others who want a job filled with the type of variety that an RV technician job can offer.
For this reason, Wegge and others speak out against creating specialists in the RV maintenance and service area. Though it seems to make sense to have an air conditioning tech, a plumbing tech, etc., it dilutes one of the job’s primary attractions.
“A guy who is a specialist might get paid pretty well, but he’s doing the same thing day in and day out, and that gets mind-numbing,” Wegge says. “Our technicians have the benefit of variety and they are not buried in grease.” He adds that as the RVDA meets to shape the training and recruitment process, he will be advising against creating specialists. “The focus group will be discussing and talking about how to better tell this story,” he says.
He adds the RV tech story also needs to include the positives of working in the leisure business, and the ability to work all over the country. “A tech literally could live anywhere if he’s good, because there are job opportunities everywhere,” he says.
Training Up Techs
The million-dollar question has become: How can an industry behind the 8-ball when it comes to the number of technicians it needs, identify and target the right candidates for the job and get them trained before the brewing technician shortage hits its peak?
On a national level, Ingrassia recommends dealers use a company called Up-ward, which is a national database of jobs, to post technician openings.
He adds paying the correct wage is also important, and notes that RVDA provides compensation guidelines for dealers as well as recommended staffing levels based on sales volume. It also offers information on suggested shop layouts to improve work environments. The association willingly shares this information with its members.
This effort must be coupled with industry partnerships, stresses Cooper. “We have all got to be willing to help one another and participate. An every-man-for-himself attitude is not going to improve this situation.”
Cooper says he’s seeing activity at all levels of the industry. Manufacturers are offering classes to familiarize dealer techs with the latest and greatest technology. Some of these programs are even moving around the country instead of only being offered at the manufacturer’s facilities. Dealers are donating equipment to schools, like the National RV Training Academy. Associations are also acting. The RVDA has partnered with the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) to offer an RV service technician certification program. This endeavor will assist the RV industry and the public in identifying professionals who have demonstrated the knowledge and ability to satisfy established standards in RV diagnostic and repair procedures.
In this program, technicians must complete two comprehensive tests in the certification process. The registered technician test establishes that the technician is proficient in core knowledge areas such as propane, basic electrical, fire and life safety, weight knowl- edge and other technical skills as outlined in the RVST Standard/DACUM. The certified technician test, meanwhile, is a comprehen-sive test designed to evaluate both general and specific knowledge as outlined in the RVST Standard/DACUM. Passing this test gives a tech certified technician status. But if a tech achieves a score of 90 percent or higher, and has five years of documented RV tech experience, they can obtain master certified technician status.
The RVIA also offers the TnT (Technicians in Training) Resource Library, which was created as a service to participating RV service technicians so they can locate the technical resources they need to make their jobs easier and increase productivity. TnT provides techs with a single online resource for troubleshooting, repair and installation manuals, and service FAQs for components. Dealers can opt to participate in the program to make this info available to their techs. The cost is $199 annually, though multi-location enrollment discounts are available. Training class registration fees in the program are set at $99 per technician for 8-hour trainings or $49 per technician for 4-hour trainings. The program delivers technical training classes to regional dealerships on a quarterly basis. There are currently four territories: Western, Midwest, South Central and Eastern United States.
Other work has also begun. For exam- ple, the Pennsylvania Recreation Vehicle & Camping Association has partnered with Northampton Community College to offer courses for techs, and Thor Industries Inc.’s Keystone RV Co. recently launched the KRV Technical Training Academy for Keystone, Dutchmen and CrossRoads dealerships.
“This investment in the KRV Technical Training Academy is a commitment to help our dealers deliver the best customer service experience in the industry,” says Rick Deisler, Keystone vice president of service operations. “Through the academy we will be working hands-on with dealer technicians to ensure the highest level of skill while keeping the dealership up to date on the latest Keystone technology.”
The KRV Technical Training Academy, headed by RV master tech Randy Davis, offers three-day training courses for entry-level technicians and advanced-level, certified/ master-certified technicians. Technicians completing the course receive credit for continuing education hours if already certified through the RVIA. Academy course schedules are available by visiting email@example.com for more information.
“We are definitely going to continue this effort beyond the May schedule,” adds Jim Mac, director of marketing at Keystone RV. “Our plan is to make sure the retail customer of the Keystone, Dutchman or Crossroads trailer or fifth-wheels gets the best service possible. If we can help our dealers by providing quality education for their techs, that’s what we will do.”
Cooper and Anderson also launched the National RV Training Academy in Athens, Texas. Though Cooper, known by many as The RV Professor, has been visiting dealerships and providing training for many years, this new program offers an intensive five-week, hands-on training experience at a state-of- the-art facility in the Texas RV Park. The pro-gram is designed to train techs in everything from water, electrical and propane systems; to air conditioners and refrigeration units; to slide-outs and roofs. (See All Roads Lead to Athens, Texas, on Page 10 to learn more.) The entire program is based on the RVIA/ RVDA curriculum and prepares students to test for the RVDA/RVIA certification exams. Students can access additional information about this program at nrvta.com.
“After the first week, they will be prepared and ready to start studying for the RVDA/RVIA registered exam,” says Cooper. “Once they complete the fifth week, they’re fully ready to sit for their certification exam. Our goal is to give them a chance to take both exams at the proper time so that when they complete their course, and when they complete their apprenticeship program, they have credentials as an RV technician.”
Ketner stresses this program helps dealers by providing techs with ongoing training as they work for them. “A dealer can put a tech through a program like the National RV Training Academy then couple this education with its own apprentice program to help a tech learn the ropes and make a living without getting frustrated. There is just so much to learn—and the learning curve is so fast, that you need a way to give these folks a basis to work from.”
All these programs add up to a good start in solving the tech problem. But more work remains. These programs are important, but they must work in tandem with each other, stresses Ingrassia. “This industry needs to work together to make what’s available for techs understandable so that would-be techs have an easier time navigating what’s available and so that the industry can identify what holes still exist.”