Where have all the technicians gone?

May 3, 2017
To address the technician shortage, first take a serious look at why so few young people are interested in becoming an automotive technician.

Automotive technicians continue to retire and there are not enough future technicians in the pipeline to meet demands. Many in the automotive repair industry may be asking, “Where have all the technicians gone?” The shortage of qualified technicians is real and growing as we speak. Why is this happening and how can the problem be addressed? To understand this, we must first take a serious look at why so few young people are interested in becoming an automotive technician.

If you cruise through almost any given neighborhood on a Saturday you will find very few people working on their vehicles. I remember growing up it seemed like almost everyone was doing something to their vehicles. Kids learned at an early age what it meant to be a gearhead or shade tree mechanic. Learning to work with their hands proved to be a benefit. Many young people became interested in cars because of working with dad on the family vehicle or their first car. Fast forward to today. Vehicles have become more complicated and fewer people are working on their vehicles. For the generation old enough to have children of their own, the thought of working on the family vehicle just isn’t very appealing. Since it doesn’t appeal to the adults, the kids aren’t exposed to the world of car repair. Kids today would rather play — sports, video games, you name it. When it comes time to think about a career choice, automotive is usually way down on the list, if on the list at all.

For the youngsters who have some interest, it is a long and expensive process. To be a successful automotive technician one needs a high degree of critical thinking skills, able to read and comprehend, able to follow directions, have good work ethics, math skills and good mechanical dexterity. Then there’s getting the education needed to become competent. True, a vocational program for high school students is a good start; but post-secondary education is usually needed. This can cost $10,000 or considerably more. Many students come out of these post-secondary automotive programs lacking a basic understanding of the repair industry. Then the next big expense is tools. Another $10,000 is a good start. Add it up and you’re at $20,000 or more just to get started.

Then there is pressure from school guidance counselors who direct the academically successful kids to concentrate their ambitions elsewhere. The students we need to attract to this business are being directed elsewhere. I had one student who wanted to take my automotive technology class who was told he was way too smart to be an automotive technician. The perception among many people today is this is a low-skill career. Some high school guidance counselors may encourage more traditionally difficult students into an automotive program, which hampers students truly interested in learning automotive technology from getting the full benefit the program offers.

So what do we do about this? Here are some helpful suggestions.

Visit your local high school and meet with the principal and guidance counselors and educate them about the issue. Even consider going to board meetings at your local schools and make a presentation to them. Let them know what you as an employer and the industry needs from the schools to help attract quality people to the industry. If you have a vocational school near you, volunteer some time to work with students in the program. Many of these students aren’t really thinking about an automotive career and your involvement may help them to decide otherwise. Attend career days at your local schools and talk to students about what the industry has to offer them.

Since the cost of getting stared in this business is high, consider starting an apprenticeship program perhaps with several other business owners. The program could be stretched out over a number of years, giving the student a chance to learn by working with technicians, purchasing the tools they need to get started and getting the experience they need to be successful. Too many young ones start out in this business only the give up when it gets tough to make money.

Speaking of money, the industry really needs to take a good look at how technicians are getting paid and how much. Asking a young person to start out working for $25,000 a year isn’t competitive with careers in the computer industry. While a good technician can make $60,000 or more a year, it takes time to get there. Asking a newbie to fork out the kind of money needed to start in this business and offer them $15 flat-rate per hour or a lower doesn’t help matters much. If they can’t make money, they are likely to find something that pays better.

It is not typically the nature of the business for dealers and shop owners to cooperate with each other, yet this is one time when it is a necessity. No individual or small group is going to have any real impact on recruiting and keeping future technicians. It will take a concerted effort on the part of professional automotive trade organizations, dealerships, independents and part jobbers to make a real difference. If we don’t all pull together now, it won’t be much longer before everyone will be asking, “where have all the technicians gone?”

About the Author

Stephen Cook | ASE L1 and Master Certified Technician and automotive instructor

Stephen is an ASE L1 and Master Certified Technician and former shop owner who specializes in electrical and drivability concerns. He has been an automotive instructor for a vocational school for the past five years and is currently finishing his first book, "OBDII Diagnostics Made Easy."

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