Operating electric school buses may be a boon for the environment and offer savings on fuel and maintenance, but as a shortage of technicians grows and those currently in the workforce retire, who is going to maintain them?
TechForce Foundation, a nonprofit that provides students with educational resources to become automotive technicians, has found that the transportation technician shortage is growing. The nonprofit’s latest update points to increasing demand for professional technicians and a declining supply of new technicians entering the industry.
Moreover, a lack of familiarity with the technology involved in electric school buses may cause the shortage to grow even more, says Tim Shannon, director of transportation for Twin Rivers Unified School District (USD) in McClellan Park, California.
In response, he is working with a local college, municipal agencies, a dealership, and an electric school bus manufacturer to organize training for what will become an electric school bus repair program that high school students at his district can take for college credit.
Shannon says that he was originally inspired to create the training program after his district received a California Air Resources Board (CARB) grant for its 16 electric school buses in 2017. He and Craig Weckman, department chair of collision technology and diesel technology at American River College, discussed how to deal with a lack of technicians well-versed in electric vehicle maintenance coupled with an increase in related job opportunities that looms on the horizon.
“We need to drive that portion of the industry along with the acquisition of electric school buses,” Shannon says. “Since there are very few people who can work on them, as they start [retiring] and we get more [electric buses], we are going to need qualified technicians.”
Shannon and Weckman have already helped develop a couple of diesel and alternative-fuel technician classes at two of the district’s high schools. Highlands High School has offered clean diesel and compressed natural gas (CNG) training since last year. Additionally, there are three class periods of diesel courses (Brakes and Electrical) being taught there this semester. Meanwhile, at Rio Linda High School, two class periods of diesel courses (Electrical and Hydraulics) are being offered.
Student enthusiasm is high; the classes are full, Shannon says. The Highlands High School class, which the district started offering last year, consists of 40 students, and the Rio Linda High School class has 30 students enrolled.
“There’s quite a bit of interest,” Shannon says. “It’s not a fully electric program yet, [but] that is the eventual goal.”
To achieve that goal, Shannon and Weckman are teaming up on the creation of a dual-enrollment class for college credit with an electric component with the district and American River College.
Weckman, who heads up the diesel/clean diesel technology and automotive collision technology programs at American River College, works with Twin Rivers USD to provide curriculum for the district’s technician classes at the two high schools, and has taught similar classes at other high schools in the area. He is now developing the curriculum for the electric school bus repair program.
The program will cover basic electricity fundamentals, including how electricity flows, resistance, circuitry, and Ohm’s Law, to high school and college students.
“High school students [in particular] have to learn all about the technology to move up,” Shannon says.
There is no prerequisite to take the classes. Students just need to have the desire to learn, he adds.
The class is also working on the components of an electric vehicle using electric Go Karts. Weckman ordered six of the recreational vehicles for the Rio Linda High School class for students to troubleshoot and eventually run in an obstacle course competition on Rio Linda Farm and Tractor Days in May.
“The students are pretty hands-on,” Weckman says. “They need to be engaged, and Go Karts are fun.”
A train-the-trainer class at the college for school bus shop technicians will be another part of the program. Technicians will be able to take three or four electric heavy-duty vehicles and diagnostics classes.
“We start with the basics: how electricity works, and then get into more advanced electronics in the type of bus, and more specifics, such as the motor generators, charging system, and trouble codes,” Weckman explains.
Students will be familiarized with electric bus systems and troubleshooting for a total of 16 hours in the train-the-trainer sessions.
Another curriculum resource comes from The Lion Electric Bus Co.: it recently opened a teaching space nearby, and will train some of the district’s students.
Located in Sacramento, the Experience Center is designed to be a community education center, where people can get more tangible experience with two demo buses and charging infrastructure, and even drive an electric bus.
Because the Experience Center is so close to the Twin Rivers USD, says Nate Baguio, vice president of sales for The Lion Electric Co., the electric school bus manufacturer is making its entire infrastructure available to any students involved in the training program. They’ll be able to learn about the bus and charging infrastructure and talk to the engineers, not only about the current technology, but about the future of electric vehicles in a place where they are designed and built.
“It’s going to give them a view of different types of jobs, as well as immediate training to begin working in the electric vehicle field,” Baguio says.
The Lion Electric Co. will supply parts that are unique to electric vehicles, versus those with combustible engines, such as software and batteries, to the program.
“They want to prepare them for what the state of California has already determined is the future,” Baguio says. “It’s mandated for all transit buses to be fully zero emission by 2040. Many counties are committing to 2030. They are preparing students at the high school and community college level to be the technicians of the future, to learn a trade that will rapidly become part of the school’s curriculum.”
Baguio echoes Shannon and Weckman on career opportunities: In tandem with these training programs, there is also job growth. In particular, Lion is hiring.
“We have a growing sales staff, and are hiring technicians now,” Baguio says. “Along with this new technology is job growth in California. There are jobs emerging not just through Lion, but through [companies] that supply the components that go into our buses for this new technology and evolution of the school bus.” (See sidebar below for more information about the Experience Center.)
The project involves a team effort with several players. In addition to American River College, Shannon, who acts as the project’s liaison on behalf of Twin Rivers USD, is working with Sacramento Clean Cities, Sacramento County, the City of Sacramento, Sacramento Regional Transit, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Priority Bus Sales, and The California Council on Diesel Education and Technology, to eventually fund, supply, and build a completely alternative-fuel facility for more high school and college-level classes.
Shannon advises those who want to set up a similar training program in their district or high school to first get buy-in from those who manage career and technical education. Then, partner with a local college that has similar courses or objectives. He also recommends teaming up with manufacturers that the transportation department works with on its buses for additional support.
Shannon is looking to secure an additional class location as well as electric school buses and parts for students to work with.
“We’re working on it, but it’s not like there’s extras laying around at this point,” he says.
CARB, via the California Energy Commission, recently approved American River College for funding to provide the train-the-trainer sessions to technicians in an effort to standardize training at community colleges and high schools. The funding will also be used to supply buses and equipment, including motor generators, software, and a charging system. Review of hydrogen and lithium-ion batteries may also be added to the curriculum, Weckman says.