Industry leaders wonder where the good techs have gone.
There's nothing new under the sun, not even the shortage of technicians within the automotive service industry. The problem of technicians disappearing from service centers across the United States has been around for decades — since the 1960s, to be exact. Surprisingly, the answer to the shortage conundrum — training — has been around just as long as the shortage itself.
But still, the number of technicians that are needed to fill the nation's service bays is growing faster than the industry can turn out well-trained, qualified technicians.
So what exactly is behind this problem and, more importantly, what can be done to remedy the situation before it gets completely out of hand? We've asked aftermarket professionals from the garage to the association level to weigh in on the issue and suggest solutions to what might fast become an unmanageable customer service crisis.
Calling all qualified techs
When asked if there is a tech shortage in this country, most people would answer with a resounding "yes." But George Witt, owner of George Witt Service, Inc. in Lincoln, Neb., is more cautious with his response."I don't think there's so much a tech shortage as there is a shortage of good shop technicians," he says. "Based on what I've seen, only 10 percent of today's shops are willing to participate in training events. Most shop owners don't seem to care about technology or management skills and aren't willing to invest in making their business better. They're just going on their merry way, locked in the 1960s. When they run out of VW Beetles to work on, I don't know what they'll do."
Witt's opinions are based on first-hand observations. As an instructor with the Automotive Management Institute (AMI), he travels all over the country teaching management classes and promoting the importance of practical business management education for people within the automotive industry. Despite AMI's best efforts, the lack of enthusiasm for training has held steady through the years.
And Witt is not alone in his observations, either. Ron Pyle, president of the Automotive Service Association (ASA), says he has observed the same general trend Witt and the AMI have long struggled to correct.
"There's not a lack of warm bodies (within the industry)," Pyle says. "There's a shortage of qualified technicians, a gap in quality that can only be addressed through training. We need a more focused, industrywide effort to educate technicians if we want to solve this problem."
A mass exodusAccording to an ASA survey last updated in 2006, there are an estimated 82,001 independent general mechanical repair businesses in the United States. These shops employ approximately 330,210 technicians and provide maintenance and repair services for more than 237 million vehicles. They also have projected total sales of $37 billion.
Still, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) estimates that there are 60,000 technician positions open at any given time in repair shops across the country. This breaks down to 32,000 annual job openings and an additional 30,000 openings over a five-year period. And experts predict that the situation is only going to get worse before it gets better.
"We produce 35,000 entry-level technicians a year, which some people think accounts for attrition," reports Tony Molla, vice president of communications at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). "But other people think that 35,000 is the number (of technicians) leaving the field. The problem is that most of our technicians are going to be eligible for retirement soon, and I don't know if we can keep up with that."
Betty Jo Young, co-owner of Young's Automotive in Houston and an active member of her local ASA chapter, agrees that the retirement of baby boomer technicians is becoming a big problem within the industry.
"We've got a generation of baby boomers getting ready for retirement and (we) are going to have a mass exodus on our hands when that happens," she says. "I'm afraid there's just not enough kids coming into the industry right now to take their places."
Young also points out that technician retention might become an even bigger problem in the near future.
"We've got to work on keeping the technicians we've already got. We've got to raise their level up a little and provide them with opportunities to get the training they need to become qualified technicians and make more money within their field," she explains.
From grease monkey to engineer
As Young points out, if you can't get members of the younger generation interested in the automotive service industry, there won't be any technicians left to train. So, what is turning today's young people away from the nation's service bays and in the direction more white-collar jobs?
The answer is simple, says Mitch Schneider, director of the Car Care Professionals Network (CCPN) and president of Schneider's Automotive Repair: It's all a matter of perception.
"I don't think that we, as an industry, have painted a very attractive picture of professional auto service as a career," Schneider suggests. "We haven't marketed our industry as aggressively or in as positive a fashion as we might have been able to do."
He adds that there is a "blue collar bias" that exists in most parts of the United States, a belief that unfortunately many professionals in the industry share.
"The first thing you've got to realize is that this is not a 'grease monkey' job," says Dennis Sweet, service manager of Automotive Advantage in Grand Haven, Mich. "You're not going to be a lube oil tech. (The industry has) come so much farther than that. Ninety percent of cars today are all electronics. You need to know how to diagnose problems correctly or you'll never get a job anywhere. We don't need repair people — we need high-tech repair people."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle a budding technician has to overcome is his or her parents, who are so busy pushing college degrees that they don't consider trade school to be an option after high school."There's not a lot of people lining up to give us their sons or daughters," Schneider laments. "And the thing about that is you can make a nice living in this business today. Much better than when I started in it."
According to Molla, the industry needs to do a better job when it comes to educating parents and guidance counselors about the automotive industry and dispelling the societal bias that exists against tradespeople in general.
"We're so busy pushing our kids toward college that we don't realize the benefits of jobs within the industry," he offers.
"We need to explain to people that today's technician is more of an engineer. In fact, an automotive career offers individuals a better earning potential than what you can get today with a liberal arts degree. And you can't offshore a technician's job. There's nothing but bright stars here."
Recruit, train and compensate
So what would an industrywide, focused effort to recruit and train bright young people as technicians involve?
Schneider says that for starters, the industry is going to have to take a long, hard look at "who we are and what we are about, and then put our best public face forward to convince parents, guidance counselors and school administrators that this is high-tech, blue collar work that presents a tremendous opportunity for young people who are not interested in going to college, but want a challenging career."
Molla agrees, adding that the heavy hitters within the industry have to take a more active role in the recruitment of young technicians.
"If we had just 400 people within the industry attending four career fairs a year, we could change the way people think about technicians and other service professionals," Molla says.
"We could show them that the automotive industry is an industry that needs bright kids with good computer and mathematic skills, as well as communication and customer service skills."
According to many industry insiders, this change in attitude has to come at the high school level or it will be too late for the students who are interested in a career within the automotive industry to cultivate the skills they need to succeed. But this is precisely where the system breaks down, according to Sweet.
"I don't think (automotive repair classes) are pushed at the high school level," he says. "It's still considered an extracurricular class, not on par with your English or math. And if something's going to get cut, it's going to be that class."
Young, with Young's Automotive, agrees with that assessment, adding that the stereotypes surrounding these classes have to change, too.
"It used to be that counselors would put the so-called 'bad' students or troublemakers into the shop classes," she says. "But that's changed. You've got to be very educated to work in this industry now. You've got to be a little bit of an electrician and a little bit of a diagnostician. It's very challenging."
However, unless the technicians themselves begin to understand the importance of training, that perception never is going to change.
Training and certification
For years, the automotive service industry has encouraged technicians to earn their ASE certification. Many shop owners are willing to pay for these tests or to reimburse the employees who pass the tests and earn their certification.
The tests are down-to-earth, covering on-the-job diagnostic and repair procedures, but many shop managers and technicians still don't see the value in pursuing this mark of distinction.
"If you don't see the value in certification, you probably don't see the value in training," says Molla with ASE. "But with new technologies — particularly the hybrid and diesel technologies that will be rolling into the service bays sooner than you think — technicians are going to need training to stay on top of cutting-edge technology."
Pyle, of ASA, agrees that ASE certification is valuable to repair shops and technicians, but he also feels some concern about the certification process.
"Don't get me wrong, I support ASE 100 percent," he adds. "But I don't think the tests are a reliable indicator of an individual technician's qualifications. I think there's often a disconnect between the ability to pass a test and fix a vehicle and (I) believe that the current certification process rewards individuals who know enough to test successfully."
That being said, Pyle says he believes the industry needs to develop a certification process that will objectively measure a technician's qualification. He also believes there are "plenty of dollars and plenty of people out there willing to address the problem."
More importantly, he says, it is time to stop passing the buck and pull together to create an industrywide effort that will provide shop managers and their technicians with a comprehensive listing of skill sets and training resources, as well as information on where to find such resources.
Molla acknowledges that there indeed are some barriers to training — including tuition and tools required for starter technicians — but he adds that if the industry could help address these issues, more people would be able to participate in quality programs and develop the skills that a good technician needs to survive in today's changing landscape of auto repair.
A bright future
In addition to training, the automotive service repair industry needs to do one more thing to keep qualified technicians from jumping ship, says John Wick, vice president of sales and training for the Aftermarket Auto Parts Alliance.
"Young people enter the market based on the compensation and desirability of a particular job," he says. "If we want young people to become technicians, the compensation and desirability of these jobs is going to be what will affect their decision in a tight labor market."
According to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), automotive technicians earned approximately $14.09 an hour in non-supervisory positions during 2005. This represents a 3-percent increase in wages from the previous year.
In a 2004 survey conducted by ASA, however, entry-level technicians with less than one year of experience reportedly earned $19,911 per year, while upper level apprentices earned an annual salary of $27,123.
The experienced technician — one who has more than five years of experience — had the potential to earn a $45,632 salary within ASA facilities, which is a bit higher than the $34,278 received by the average technician on a national scale.
"A realistic salary for an entry-level tech with an automotive degree from a trade school is approximately $24,000," Molla reports. "Add three more years of experience and three ASE certifications, and that same tech can earn $35,000 a year. For a master technician, that salary will double. The better a technician you are, the more money you will be able to earn."
Young points out that not only will the industry have to offer technicians more comparable wages, but it is going to have to start offering better health benefits, as well. "Right now, we're losing a lot of young people to other industries," she states. "I think we are going to have to start offering more competitive benefits if we want to keep the technicians we have and attract new ones to the industry."
To which Molla adds: "If we're going to expect to attract the best and the brightest to our industry, we're going to have to make some adjustments to develop their careers so they don't feel like they're stuck in a dead-end job."