According to industry experts, the automotive trade is suffering from a technician shortage. Given the high cost of entry into the field and the low esteem some people hold for it, I'm not totally surprised.
Out of curiosity, I searched a few automotive job and training Web sites to see what's out there in all of the related fields. I found many sites offering training and a great many jobs available for qualified techs, but very few directed at the parts field. I can also say that during my almost 30 years in the business, I've met many techs who started out by taking classes at local tech schools, but I've never met a parts person who wasn't homegrown.
Parts specialist seems to be a job that people drift into or join as part of a family enterprise. The only schooling I saw offered were three-week courses that couldn't possibly cover more than the bare basics.
In contrast, ASE requires at least a year of hands-on counter experience before allowing someone to take the P2 certification test. That means the average employer can have a pretty good investment into any new employee they wish to have certified, and with that investment comes some risk. Even if you have hired someone with good automotive technical knowledge, there is still the human element of the business to learn.
A counterperson who knows all the ins and outs of every vehicle built in the last 20 years but who has the personality of a rabid pit bull won't pull in business. As a matter of fact, it can have just the opposite effect, so not only do you lose your investment in employee training, but you've lost customers as well. Even the basic concepts of upselling, related sales and profitability can be foreign to newcomers. This same human element is a major part of the service writer's job as well, which also seems to be underrepresented in the training field.
The fact that there is so much to be gained or lost by having a person behind the counter who is not ready or qualified makes it hard for me to understand why both the parts and service writer fields take a backseat to the technicians. If all the aspects of the automotive service field were covered in tech training, it might make recruiting and retaining qualified counterpeople a little easier.
As our economy moves away from being production based and moves toward service and consumerism, the skills needed to be a good counterperson are necessary in many fields. Not every high school graduate can or even wants to continue an academic education. By stressing the basic communication, customer service and business skills needed to survive in today's world, even someone with a purely technical-focused education stands a much better chance of succeeding.
If you think of the automotive service field as a three-legged stool, with parts, service writers and techs comprising the legs, it's easy to realize that it can hold only as much weight as the weakest leg. If any one leg is overloaded, the other two will come crashing down. The aftermarket and the OEMs do a pretty good job of educating their own once they're brought in, but luring them in shouldn't be such a hit-or-miss proposition.
Mike Gordon, a 20-year counter sales veteran, works the counter at Sanel Auto Parts, Concord, N.H.