If you’ve had the misfortune of being forced to take your RV in for service lately, you’re well aware of the impact of the ongoing shortage of RV techs.
RVers requiring even routine maintenance on their rigs are reporting waits of weeks or even months on new and used RV services. It must be mind-numbing to take your brand-new RV in for a little warranty work after your first trip only to find out you’re actually kissing it goodbye for the rest of the camping season.
Granted, not all the service delays can be laid at the feet of the ongoing shortage of qualified RV service technicians. Worldwide supply chain woes are exacerbating delays as dealer service departments join a virtual Easter egg hunt for replacement parts, and RV manufacturers continue to ship out rigs that are missing more non-vital parts than a discounted Thanksgiving turkey.
More RV tech help on the way
Curt Hemmeler, president of the RV Technical Institute (RVTI) based in the RV manufacturing mecca of Northern Indiana, says the Institute has rolled out about 4,000 newly trained RV service technicians in the past two years, despite pandemic challenges.
“We are making great progress, but the shortage isn’t going to go away overnight,” Hemmeler recently told RVtravel.com. “With the rapid growth in the RV industry, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to say we have enough.”
Hemmeler’s institute was created about three-and-a-half years ago, funded largely by industry groups like the RV Industry Association, Go RVing, and the RV Dealer’s Association along with a few others.
Since then, Hemmeler and his team have tried to whittle away at what was in pre-pandemic 2018 an estimated 20 percent shortfall in the number of needed RV technicians. Hemmeler equates RVTI’s efforts to “eating an elephant a bite at a time,” and says the rapid increases in RV production and sales in the past two years have likely only made the elephant bigger and the shortage worse.
“Before the pandemic, the repair cycle time was about 21 days to get repaired, on average,” he said. Parts shortages, manufacturers shipping rigs with still-missing parts, and lagging reporting woes have made cutting into the 21-day cycle difficult. Many RV owners report waiting months for even simple services.
Hemmeler said he’s confident they were making progress on the repair cycle time prior to the pandemic. “There were good things happening in the industry before COVID hit,” he said. “Maybe as things settle down, we’ll get back to being about 20 percent short again,” he said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says it recognizes about 17,000 RV service technicians in the U.S. “We aren’t a regulated industry, so we don’t know exactly how many folks are out there claiming to be RV technicians,” Hemmeler said. “Being able to identify all these people is a big challenge. I’d say it’s closer to 21,000.”
How RVTI works
While the RV Technical Institute in Elkhart, Indiana, isn’t the only such organization in the U.S. (there’s also the National RV Training Academy in Athens, Texas), it does offer tech students certification through NOTCI Business Solutions, a leading provider of industry credentials for technical education programs.
Students in the program pay $300 to receive either five weeks of face-to-face instruction at RVTI’s facility in Elkhart, or take the courses online at their own pace through a one-year subscription. At the end of either program, students take written and interactive performance tests to graduate and receive their certification. Techs can receive certification as Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, or Level 4 technicians depending on the path they choose.
Hemmeler said the larger nationwide dealer operations are purchasing “learning partner” licensing memberships to either set up onsite programs with their own trained instructors at their locations or provide whole-shop training remotely to their various outlets.
Previously, many dealerships and repair shops trained technicians in-house in mentorship situations, but that led to massive inconsistencies in skills and many unhappy customers. He said RVTI is trying hard to change that.
“We are the only learning facility for RV technicians that was created with the help of the people who are actually building the final units as well as the parts and pieces,” he said. “That allows us to constantly reevaluate our curriculum and make the updates needed to keep everything current. No one else can do that.”
RV technicians are tradespeople, not mechanics
Hemmeler said what makes the RV industry unique also makes RV technicians a special breed.
“An RV technician has to learn electrical, plumbing, flooring, interior finishing as well as the mechanics of each rig,” he said. “The average person thinks this is all auto tech, but they should be thinking of them as a trades person. About 90 percent of what they work on are the house parts of an RV, not the vehicle part.”
He said those with previous electrical, heating and air conditioning, or plumbing experience do well as RV technicians. Yet the RVTI curriculum is designed to turn someone with limited experience with a screwdriver into a skilled professional.
Hemmeler said his focus right now is on educating high school guidance counselors, potential students, and those looking for a new job that a career as an RV technician can be rewarding.
“A Level 1 or Level 2 trained technician after five weeks of training can expect to make between $45,000 and $65,000 in their first job,” he said. “Many can be making six figures in just a few years, and it doesn’t matter if they are working for a dealer or are independent.”
For now, Hemmeler and his team are hitting trade shows, job fairs and high school counselor conventions to spread the word. “We are finding out that all of the trade careers are getting a lot more attention now because of things like the Great Resignation (the recent trend of long-term dissatisfied workers quitting their jobs),” Hemmeler said. “We are all competing for the same people, and many don’t think about the RVing world until you can talk to them about it.”
He said remote workers who have taken to the road in an RV are taking RVTI classes to start a “side hustle” job as they travel, and he’s also working with home school groups to bring the online curriculum to those potential young students. “We are in a good position to get our fair share,” he said.
From jail to RV tech job
One of the more unusual places the RVTI is finding students is through recruiting non-violent inmates enrolled in prison education programs.
More than 640,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year. In fact, about 70 million Americans currently have a criminal record, and that can make job searches difficult.
The RV Technical Institute is taking its hands-on training to incarcerated populations including the Westville Correctional Facility in Indiana and the Linda Woodman State Jail in Texas. In the case of the Texas program, all the inmate students are women convicted of non-violent offenses.
“There are actually school districts within the corrections systems around the country,” Himmeler said. “It’s a wonderful program and we are working with area RV dealers to have jobs waiting for them, providing them a real second chance.”
A victim of RVing’s success
The rapid pace of RV manufacturing to meet demand is causing problems for dealerships and RV owners. An estimated 600,000-plus rigs will be shipped from factories this year. Due to supply chain problems, some of those rigs will be delivered missing parts—mostly cosmetic pieces that don’t affect safety or performance. But a new owner will still want those parts installed by technicians eventually.
“I’m comfortable saying that RVs are being built safely, but I’m not saying that they are being built as well as they were before the pandemic,” Hemmeler said. “Doorknobs are going to be missed.”
He said longtime RV owners have become accustomed to new units that need to return to dealerships or manufacturers shortly after purchase for needed repairs by RV techs. Hemmeler said that has led to a “tolerance of acceptability” for less-than-perfect construction. “If a door is ajar or the air conditioner makes noise, there seems to be a tolerance level among buyers,” he said. For now, he said, he expects that tolerance to continue until repair cycles become shorter.
“I think we’ll find that the new generation of RV buyers will be more demanding,” he said. “My portion of the solution equation is to just train more people.”