Wholesale: Experience is a perk
As the baby boomer generation starts to retire and much of Generation X moves into management positions, the industry would be well advised to look at Generation Y (defined as those born between 1980 and 1996) to learn what makes them tick. More specifically, learn what attracts them to a career and entices them to stay in it.
Randy Austin, the Brunswick, Ohio-based regional director of store sales for CARQUEST, believes that if the aftermarket doesn't start paying attention to today's teens and young adults, the whole industry may suffer from an overabundance of underqualified and disinterested employees in the coming years.
"It's also becoming urgent because there's a proliferation of technology involved," he adds. "It used to be invite people in at 15 or 16 to become a driver and they would rise through the ranks to manager. But now you have to have a combination of technical expertise and customer communication. You have to be a customer resource, not just their 'buddy.'"
While he's not dismissing the importance of hands-on experience once on the job, Austin says education makes a difference in getting there in the first place.
Dennis Call, store manager of Sanel Auto Parts in Pittsfield, N.H., agrees. While he points out a college degree isn't mandatory, some mechanical ability is. And today's high school vocational programs are educating young people in new technologies — it's just a matter of making sure students stay interested. In addition, while many students think about moving directly into becoming an automotive technician, they should at least be aware of the parts industry as a career path option.
"We as an industry have to jump on the bandwagon and make it a career choice," he says. "We have to work with high school counselors to realize this can be a great, lifetime job."
On the bright side, notes Neil Gordon, with Gordon Group Auto Parts in Glenside, Pa., today's students are much more attuned to computer technology than previous generations. "My daughter is just 6, but she's better at using the computer than her grandfather — and probably even her father," he teases. "Our counter staff knows how get around the Internet pretty quickly.
"In fact, when we hired someone about three years ago who was too used to paper catalogs, he just could not acclimate (to using the Internet for his job) and was not a good fit for our company," Gordon adds.
Austin notes that initiatives do exist to appeal to young people that are making a difference. For example, CARQUEST is involved with the SkillsUSA program. Formerly known as Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA), SkillsUSA offers competitions at the state and national levels that let teens show their talents and acquired skills in a variety of trades. With a number of sponsors on board, each contestant goes home with a feeling of accomplishment and a "goody bag" of items and literature from manufacturers, distributors, suppliers — in essence, potential employers.
Austin, who has helped write some of SkillsUSA's tests in the past, recalls how two years ago, he spoke with a student who was competing in the Ohio air conditioning finals in Columbus.
"He had a great understanding about A/C, because his grandfather was in A/C. He had no training, but when he was little he used to carry Grandpa's tools," Austin says. "He won, and I'll never forget his smile because he knew he was going to go home and tell his grandpa that he won. Was he going to stay in the industry? Who knows? But he competed, and that meant something."
Austin's hope is that industry participation continues at the high school and college levels, and he cites Northwood University's three campuses and Toledo's Northwestern University of Ohio as stellar examples.
Retail: Spread the good word
On the retail side, counter staff must function as "counselors" to customers, knowing what to suggest to help solve a problem.
So says Kari Dettbarn, marketing coordinator for Uni-Select USA, Amherst, N.Y. "They need the knowledge to install, plus be able to communicate," she continues. For its part, Uni-Select has teamed with Alfred State College to ensure college students are given the chance to experience the aftermarket industry firsthand. Between the $1,000 scholarships the company offers and the on-campus store where students work, Dettbarn explains, the program "gives them an edge to get to the counter and to management more quickly because of their knowledge and experience."
Keeping the enthusiasm after hire is just as important, Dettbarn notes. She stresses that if employees are given learning opportunities within the industry, especially to move up through the ranks, it holds their interest longer. "I believe that if they become an ASA specialist or go through online training, basically given more opportunities to achieve, it seems to pull people together at a store," she says, reflecting on her own company's offerings. "Retention is higher."
Kathy Sturgis, co-owner of Santa Cruz Automotive in California, says that she hasn't had much of a chance to tap into today's markets because of good retention. "Of our seven counter staff, one has been here since 1964, one since 1977 and three since the 1980s," she says with a laugh. "Plus, we only hire full-time, not part-time, so that usually rules out students or people who aren't fully interested in this as a career."
Sturgis says she hopes word spreads that the parts industry can be a rewarding commitment. "We tend to rotate positions," she says, noting that one senior counterman moved on to outside sales as a natural progression after he had built good relationships with so many suppliers.
For the DuPont paint business, however, Sturgis says experience and education are key. "That's an industry unto itself," she adds.
Still, Sturgis takes life experience over education in that regard: "For paint, we usually hire body shop painters who are tired of the hard labor. They really know what they're talking about because they've used it for so many years."
Like many interviewed for this month's "issue," Bob Laptewicz, owner of Bob's Auto Supply Co. in Westboro, Mass., agrees that education is important — but it doesn't necessarily have to be in a formal setting.
"It's a plus," he says, "but today if someone were to walk in off the street, (making him a good counterman) could still be done. It's just a matter of training, of pooling all of our knowledge together."