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The Rise of Heavy-Duty Electric Trucks Is Driving a Training Rush

An apprenticeship program at Velocity Vehicle Group in the Los Angeles metro area is training workers to service heavy-duty electric vehicles. The training is partnered with similar educational opportunities at Rio Hondo College.

Students from Rio Hondo College in southern California tour the Velocity Vehicle service facility.
Students from Rio Hondo College in southern California tour the Velocity Vehicle service facility. Velocity Vehicle offers an apprenticeship program for jobs servicing heavy-duty electric vehicles.
Submitted Photo: GNA Clean Transportation and Energy Consultants
Jason Shearer recently looked out the window of the Velocity Vehicle service center in Southern California to an unusual sight; it wasn't that there were trucks from Walmart, Sysco and other companies waiting for service, it was more the type of trucks that stood out.

As heavy-duty battery-electric trucks gain traction, the need for qualified technicians is growing in lockstep, putting new pressure on training programs and companies.

“I would say, in the last six months, the demand on the battery-electric side has just been crazy, the amount of growth that we’ve seen,” said Shearer, vice president for service at the Velocity Vehicle Group.

“Even as much as we prepare, we’re seeing a huge amount of intake of these [electric] units, and we have been very much on the forefront of training and getting people ready, and getting them experienced in this stuff,” Shearer said.

Velocity has been partnering with Rio Hondo College, a community college in the area, and has developed an apprenticeship program to train workers for servicing electric heavy-duty vehicles. The program, which takes about two years, prepares workers for what may be perhaps the latest addition of new jobs resulting from the emerging green transportation movement.

This work is all happening as the state rapidly moves forward with transitioning a number of heavy-duty vehicle uses at ports and other facilities to zero emission.

The California Joint Electric Truck Scaling Initiative (JETSI), an effort by the state to incentivize the rollout of electric trucks, just announced trucking company Schneider has deployed a fleet of 50 battery-electric Freightliner eCascadia trucks funded through the project. It is the largest fleet of zero-emission heavy-duty trucks in the nation.

Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission (CEC), a JETSI partner, followed up with the development of 16 350-kilowatt chargers at Schneider’s South El Monte facility, allowing up to 32 battery-electric trucks to charge simultaneously. The project will also include solar generation and energy storage. The infrastructure allows the trucks to run regional daily routes up to 200 miles per truck around the Los Angeles and Inland Empire region.

The energy commission allocates about $5 million a year for workforce training and development, said Marc Perry, a project manager with the clean transportation program at the CEC.

“To date, the CEC has invested more than $44 million in workforce skills and capacity building through various institutions and partnerships for more than 32,000 trainees, faculty and trainers,” said Perry, in an email.

Rio Hondo’s EV servicing program dates back to the Volvo LIGHTS (Low Impact Green Heavy Transport Solutions) project, which started in 2019, said John Frala, coordinator for the alternative fuels, hydrogen and electric transportation program at the community college. Roughly 15 percent of the students in the program are now women interested in breaking into an industry that has traditionally been male dominated. The national average of women working in the field is between 3 and 7 percent.

But just how different is servicing an electric big rig from a Tesla? Frala explained that the main difference comes down to scale.

“It’s like an electric car. It’s just bigger in size,” said Frala. “The components are almost identical, they’re just bigger in size.”

At Velocity, all of the new apprenticeship students get a new toolbox on day one.

“If we want to be the best in the industry about acquiring the top talent, let's buy them a toolbox,” said Shearer, recalling the rationale the company came to when it established one of the perks of becoming an apprentice.

“When they join our group, and they get signed on to the apprenticeship program, we hand them the keys to a toolbox. We still own the toolbox. But when they graduate our program, it’s now theirs,” Shearer explained, adding he just recently approved the purchase of 60 toolboxes for next year, to be given out to the new class of apprentices. “At that point hopefully we’ve locked them in, and they’re going to be a long-term employee with us.”

Many of these apprentices are coming into the Velocity program with a couple of years of education from a program like the EV coursework at Rio Hondo. The company is also reaching out to high school counselors to give them the heads-up on a training program that can soon translate into a six-figure-paying job.

“You could be part of this whole other industry that doesn’t necessarily always require a four-year degree,” said Shearer.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.