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The Maturation of Fleet Maintenance: Career Notes from James L. Cade

I officially semi-retired in 2020, meaning that I have disengaged from my full-time career role at Ruan to pursue another passion. Specifically, I am now working with fleets to develop younger fleet managers and participate in short- to medium-term projects. 

As I prepared for semi-retirement, I found myself reflecting on how much truck transportation has changed since I first entered more than 50 years ago. After many trips down memory lane, I summarized a few of the most compelling changes that are continuing to impact our operations today. 

The most obvious change is the increasing complexity of our vehicles. Advancements in vehicle technology are driving our industry at a frenzied pace on so many fronts. It is hard to argue with the results as trucks of today are aerodynamic computerized marvels on wheels with all the comforts of a modern passenger car. They do all this while more than doubling the fuel economy of the trucks I first drove many years ago.


Technology and Data Reshape Fleet Maintenance

One of the many positives coming from the increasing complexity of our vehicles is their ability to generate tremendous amounts of data, which can help us make better repair and operational decisions. When I first started repairing trucks many years ago there was limited record-keeping or analysis performed to aid in the decision-making processes. Instead, most fleets were managed by experience or just went by gut instinct. That all changed with the rise of spreadsheets and computerized systems. There is so much data available today, from so many sources, the challenge is how do we collect it and turn it into usable information. 

As far as we have come in the last 50 years with vehicle technology, I am truly in awe of where we are heading. While VP of Fleet Services with Ruan, I explored several alternative energy technologies and I believe it is possible that in just a few short years the unthinkable may happen; diesel may not be the dominant energy source in the future. With advancements in electric and hydrogen technologies, I see one or both technologies eclipsing the diesel engine as the preferred power plant. I am excited and encouraged as to how this move away from hydrocarbons will improve our industry and environment.  

As I look back on the standard practices from when I began, I cringe at the impact we had on our environment. As a teenager, I worked in my grandfather’s shop, servicing trucks, and it was standard practice to dump used oil and filters out on the ground or provide it to the local county who used it to control dust on gravel roads. I also remember riding with my grandfather following one of his other trucks and him taking pride in its performance evidenced by the black smoke and fire coming from its exhaust. Today, I am happy to say we are embracing sustainability and are committed to improving the air we breathe and the water we drink. 


The Evolving Role of Technicians in Fleet Maintenance

The increasing complexity of our vehicles, and our focus on sustainability, has required the role and skills of the people maintaining our vehicles to change as well. My first job was lubricating the chassis of my grandfather’s small fleet each weekend, where I was often referred to as a “grease monkey.” A few years later, I beamed with pride when someone first referred to me as a “mechanic.” Not much later, I moved into maintenance management and eventually came to lead the maintenance services of the largest truck leasing company in the world.  

As VP of Maintenance for Ryder, I realized that the role of a “mechanic” had an image problem. To many people, the title of “mechanic” was still associated with terms such as “grease monkey” or “shade tree mechanic” despite the evolving skills and tools required to maintain our vehicles. 

This image problem continues to be the basis of today’s shortage of qualified repair people in our industry. For this reason, I support changing the name of “mechanic” to “technician” which accurately reflects their role. Just changing a name, however, is not the end-all solution to the image problem. We as an industry, need to celebrate and recognize the skills of our technicians to encourage further development. By recognizing their achievements, we will also highlight the importance of the technician’s role and help draw in new recruits to our ranks. 

Although I am looking forward to semi-retirement, there is also a piece of me that is sad to walk away from my day-to-day fleet management responsibilities. Although I have had ups and downs along my journey, I thoroughly enjoyed helping to shape our direction and preparing the next generation of leaders. There are exciting challenges for our industry in the coming years, but I know we will rise to meet them just as we have over the past 50 years.

About the Author

With five decades of experience in maintenance, James L. Cade is principal of his new venture. Assets & Maintenance Insights (AMI) is focused on assisting fleets in lowering the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of assets. AMI accomplishes this by providing fleet management expertise based on need. Available services are either project-based or providing short- to medium-term fleet leadership services until more permanent solutions are put in place.

Profile Photo of James L. Cade