Seeds of change

Jan. 1, 2020
The automotive industry has been in Ryan Gillenwater's blood, from his family's string of automotive businesses to his affinity for racing that began at age eight. Now 22, he's still racing, and as he wraps up his senior year at the well-regarded Nor

The automotive industry has been in Ryan Gillenwater’s blood, from his family’s string of automotive businesses to his affinity for racing that began at age eight.

Now 22, he’s still racing, and as he wraps up his senior year at the well-regarded Northwood University, companies are virtually lining up at his door to give this future leader a chance.

“I have 19 prospective jobs right now,” says Gillenwater, who’s studying aftermarket management. He loves the idea of working in the aftermarket, which, he adds, “is so broad. That’s kind of what intrigues me; I don’t think you’ll ever get bored.”

Amiable and articulate, Gillenwater represents a new breed of young workers. He’s eager to enter this industry, and he speaks the vernacular of a seasoned veteran. Considering his tally of job prospects, the aftermarket is apparently just as eager for people like him.

The aftermarket’s future leaders are sophisticated and optimistic yet pragmatic enough to understand that real challenges are abundant in this marketplace. They’re not afraid of digital technology, and they’ve had time to ponder some of the timeworn yet dire problems in the aftermarket that those in the workforce have set aside in favor of day-to-day struggles for profit margins. 

We recently interviewed a number of tech school and university students and recent graduates, and despite its noted problems, the aftermarket’s future landscape appears to be in good hands.

A revolution of sorts is brewing, making this an exciting time to be a part of the automotive industry. And today’s marketplace is undergoing a sea of change, a technological renaissance brought about by necessity more than anything else as we attempt to come up with fuel alternatives that address both environmental and financial concerns.

If history is any guide, great leaders have sprung from chaos and adversity. And tomorrow’s aftermarket walks the halls of tech schools, vocational schools and universities, ready for a chance at carrying the market into the future.

These young adults entering the workforce will be taken seriously by established leaders, if for no reason other than the fact that their leadership is inevitable.

As of January, there were nearly 136 million workers age 20 and over in the U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics; there were 98.5 million workers between 25 and 54, and about 24 million were 55 and older.

Think of the complexity of the auto parts supply chain and you can imagine the wealth of job categories available to those entering the aftermarket.

Even the repair side alone has a plethora of job options for today’s aspiring technician.

Angela Whitmore, 21, who just graduated from the University of Northwestern Ohio, says there’s so much she can do with her high-performance automotive degree, the choices are abundant.

“I don’t have to just work on a car,” she says. “I can work on a race team, I can work in a parts store. It’s such a wide opening for me as far as jobs.”

And it’s this flexibility of qualifications that helps this younger generation become poised enough to make a difference.

A ‘booming’ problem

There is prevalent concern across all industries over the departure of baby boomers from the workplace (the numbers thrown about these days range from 60 to 75 million), but Roger Herman, from The Herman Group, believes the baby boomer retirement era will take a different turn than expected.

The Herman Group is a consultancy that defines its role as Strategic Business Futurists.

“People are not going to be retiring the same way,” says Herman. “The people who we thought were going to retire are going to work through their 60s, 70s, 80s. Not only will you have people working longer, but you’ll have a stronger market.”

The current baby boomer generation is known for its endless pursuit of youth, and remaining active into the golden years would appear to follow this inclination.

What will this mean for the aftermarket’s future leaders? Herman says they’ll be privy to this older generation’s mentorship a little longer than past generations have been and they can tap into this valuable resource to become better leaders themselves.

Adds Herman: “We’re past the age where people retire, get the gold watch, sit on the front porch and wait for the Grim Reaper.”

Another future trend Herman believes will benefit the aftermarket will be the migration of military personnel into the civilian workforce; these enlisted workers will have a solid training foundation, he adds. 

Employee shortage or PR issue?

Though the students we spoke with do acknowledge a shortage of qualified employees in the marketplace, they also speculate that many future leaders are being overlooked: the old guard just needs to give them a chance to shine.

Schellen Durance, a Northwood University senior, sees the problem as more of a leadership shortage rather than an employee shortage.

A majority of students she’s encountered haven’t been challenged enough to step up as leaders. “Even though we’re young, we should also be given a chance to prove ourselves,” she proclaims.

Many of those with aftermarket-specific career tracks have ambitions that evolve from a personal experience with automobiles, whether it’s a family-run repair shop or parts store or a passion for cars.

Durance, whose mother and father work in the automotive industry, had her future solidified when her first car was a Camaro. (“I wanted to do stuff to make it faster,” she adds, verifying that necessity is the mother of invention.)

Beth Ciot, another Northwood senior, has been working on cars since she was 15 years old. She’s managed to pick up three degrees in four years: automotive aftermarket, business management and marketing.

But it’s these reasons that lead one to wonder if the industry is making itself visible enough to those who aren’t die-hard race fans or who don’t come from an automotive lineage.

What about those who aren’t familiar with the aftermarket? Are our companies reaching out to those students?

“A lot of people don’t understand what the aftermarket is,” admits Gillenwater. “They don’t understand what’s all involved. I think that trickles down when people make decisions about what to do.” The aftermarket, he believes, “is not in the public eye enough and not explained enough.”

He says he found out about Northwood’s programs by pure chance.

Ciot says future aftermarket leaders face a perception challenge from the workplace at large, along with the existing aftermarket establishment.

Skilled trade work, like automotive repair, is often looked at as a dirty vocation, she adds, when in actuality techs can make great livings from this line of work, which requires more technical sophistication than ever before.

Additionally, Ciot sees many established industry leaders who tend to get “stuck in their ways.”

“They don’t want to accept new ideas,” she says, adding that, in fact, the younger generation of leaders is tuned in to the younger buying public and can provide valuable input, offering a new angle from which the established marketplace may not have looked.  

A great recruiting tool that not enough schools or businesses take advantage of is racing events, suggests Gillenwater. Indeed, nearly every young person we spoke with has an interest in racing. At these events, companies have a captive and interested audience and maybe a future technician or counterperson waiting to grow and excel. 

Matt Dorr, a senior aftermarket student at Northwood University, definitely sees a shortage in the heavy-duty arena. What’s more, he sees a shortage of qualified employees who lack skills that can’t necessarily be taught.

“People don’t know how to treat people on the phone,” says Dorr. “You can’t teach somebody people skills.”

He also sees a shortage of qualified employees. He remembers calling a local parts distributor (his family owns a trucking company) and being met with a counterperson who couldn’t help him.

“I had some wheel seals left over from five years ago, and this guy couldn’t figure out what the (part) number would cross to,” says Dorr.

Durance says she sees problems with customer service on the repair side, where, she adds, the service dealer hears the customer but doesn’t necessarily listen. “It seems like they need to listen to the customer more. Take a drive with a customer and take a couple turns around the block,” she advises.

Along with learning about potential jobs, younger people are also in need of education when it comes to maintaining their vehicles. “You need to make sure as soon as you hear the first squeak on the brakes, you get those changed,” says Durance.

Whitmore, the aspiring technician, sees an internal communication problem between the technicians and repair shop owners and management.

“They don’t necessarily communicate on the same level,” she adds. “I’m not sure whose problem that is.”

Throughout her job searches, Whitmore’s finding out a lot of companies across the country are in need of experienced techs (an assertion backed up by numerous Aftermarket Business studies). 

Wherever the blame lies, a perception problem exists in this industry, both internally and externally.

A step above business school

One program the industry does have its sights on is Northwood University, which is perhaps the bellwether of scholastic aftermarket programs, an ivy league of the automotive elite.

The school has campuses in Midland, Mich., as well as Texas and Florida.

“A lot of companies come to Northwood and they want to hire kids before they even graduate,” says Gillenwater.

Ciot, a Northwood senior, has already landed a job with Sherwin Williams, months before graduating.

Northwood’s Michigan campus also boasts North America’s largest outdoor international new vehicle auto show, which is run by students. This large-scale exposition offers them yet another dose of real-world experience. “This year, we had about 50,000 people attend the auto show in three days,” Gillenwater says.

In such universities as Northwood, young academic minds are primed by pondering industry challenges like Right to Repair legislation, parts proliferation and China. The students are then armed not only with job knowledge but possible solutions to these widespread problems.

For example, with regards to the complaint of competition from low-cost countries, Gillenwater says the solution is to sell more products back to these countries.

“The car market is going to grow over there as their workers attain wealth.”

One of the perks of hiring someone from Northwood is the company doesn’t have to spend a year teaching the new hire the industry as these students are well-versed with specialized knowledge.

Northwood students attribute much of the success of the aftermarket programs to James John, chair of the university’s aftermarket management department.

Dorr, who plans to enter the heavy-duty aftermarket, says he probably wouldn’t have even considered an aftermarket career were it not for John.

Regarding this year’s crop of graduating seniors, 21 from the Midland, Mich., campus alone, “They’re a bright group and they have a strong interest in the business,” announces John. “This is their vocation. From the high-performance industry to the distribution side, they all have an interest one way or another.

“Is the future bright for these people? It sure is.”

John concedes he’s a little envious of the position his students are in when they enter the workforce. When he began his career selling for Champion, all they gave him were “a catalog, a map and keys to the company car.”

Aside from the difficulties the industry currently has selling new vehicles, the aftermarket has a promising future, he believes. “More importantly, the technical complexity of these vehicles and the management it takes are suited to these students. They’re not intimidated by technology.”

Northwood students are given more than a textbook curriculum.

“Our goal at the end of the first year is, they should be able to have a candid and understandable conversation with those who have been in the industry for 10 years,” John adds.

Another prominent college with an aftermarket management track is the University of Northwestern Ohio, which also has a cutting-edge diesel technology program.

Tom Grouthous, dean of the College of Technologies, says diesel is really coming into its own in the automotive realm.

In fact, when the college hosts its career days, diesel takes a prominent place. “Better than 70 percent of the career day participants are diesel,” he says. 

Grouthous adds he’s seen a definite increase in the caliper of students who enter the university’s programs. “They’re wrenching now, but when they’ve worn out wrenching, they go into teaching or they go into management.”

Another component of a well-rounded education for these students is participation during Industry Week, held every fall in Las Vegas. Many of those we interviewed have worked as interns at either the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo (AAPEX) or the Specialty Equipment Market Association’s (SEMA) show.

The tech evolution

Perhaps no other niche of the aftermarket will realize the full benefits of the technology revolution than automotive repair.

The U.S. Department of Labor notes that a rounded educational background for techs should include courses ranging from computers and physics to chemistry and English.

Another aspect with which techs should be familiarized is diesel technology.

Josh Morrison and Tim Kessens, both from the University of Northwestern Ohio, say they are studying diesel technology to accommodate for the expected upsurge in diesel for the passenger car market.

“I want to be able to work on anything that comes my way,” says Morrison, 20. “I don’t want to turn anything down.”

Much of the curriculum he studies also covers the increased electronic presence in automobiles.

“Everything on the vehicle is going to be electronically controlled,” he adds. “Every aspect of the vehicle is going to be controlled in some way by electronics and computers.”

Kessens believes that to prepare for the increased technology focus, technicians should be subject to more compulsory education to keep up.

In fact, in his hometown in Indiana, he’s already showed some of the seasoned wrench-turners a thing or two. “I’ve worked at a trucking company for a little over a year,” he says. “It’s amazing: I’ve actually taught the technicians there some of the stuff on EGR systems. It goes to show you how much we’re learning at school.”

Joshua Weik, who’s studying to become an ASE master tech at Alfred State College in New York, sees an increased focus on diagnostics. “Eventually, you’ll be able to plug a scan tool into a car and be able to repair it without even turning a wrench.”

At his school, they’re also learning about hybrid repair, but, unfortunately, there aren’t any available to work on, which could be attributed to the high demand and high cost of hybrid vehicles.

What the future yields

As we look ahead to what the job market will be like when these future leaders begin to assume their posts, we find that demand for aftermarket jobs and those seeking these jobs are growing at a healthy pace. The number of jobs in repair, wholesaling, parts sales and retailing is expected to grow over the next decade.

An increased use of the Internet for parts ordering and communication, as well as electronic warehousing operations and consolidation are expected to slow the growth of wholesale-related jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which pegs job growth at 8 percent between 2004 and 2014.

The number of automotive repair jobs, however, is expected to increase 17 percent by 2012, according to the agency.

Jobs in vehicle and parts manufacturing continue to be significant, with 1.1 million jobs in this category reported in 2004. The Department of Labor predicts that vehicle parts manufacturing jobs will have increased 6 percent between 2004 and 2014 compared to only 2 percent for the vehicle-manufacturing segment during that same 10-year period.

Increased international competition, productivity improvements and additional cost pressures will suppress job growth in manufacturing, the agency adds.

Employment for manufacturing in this country is concentrated around Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, but the woes of Detroit will change this dynamic in years to come.

As production of domestic vehicles declines, foreign carmakers such as Toyota, Honda and Mercedes have increased production in the United States, offering U.S. workers high paying non-unionized jobs, according to Business Week, which adds that car sales in fact were up last year.

Industry stats aside, there are plenty of jobs in the aftermarket, and plenty of eager young workers ready to take the reins.

Those schools we spoke with say the number of interested students in this industry is increasing along with the available positions.

John, from Northwood, says the number of students at the Michigan campus is increasing exponentially. This year, there are 21 graduating seniors; next year, there’s an estimated 30; and if they all stick around, the next crop will number about 45.

Grouthous, from the University of Northwestern Ohio, says, “We’re 25 percent above enrollment from last year. We’re filling up the high-performance, the diesel and automotive (programs) real quick.”

Also reported is a spike in female enrollment, and U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that in the 16 to 19 age range, women outnumber men in the workforce.

Grouthous notes that nearly 50 women are pursuing associate’s degrees in automotive and diesel programs at his school.

“Don’t discount the girls,” warns Durance. “The girls have some fresh, innovative ideas.”

Moreover, women make many of a household’s purchasing decisions when it comes to automobiles, she adds. “Be careful, because you don’t want to offend the women coming into the market.”

Whitmore says she sometimes sees confusion on the faces of men when she tells them of her technician job track, but from women, the advice is simply, “Go for it, girl.”

Dorr says he sees the aftermarket as continually growing in years to come, but the focus on fuel efficiency needs to continue. Ciot advises the aftermarket to open itself up to new technologies.

What’s most important is the aftermarket embraces these future leaders for their differences as much as for their similarities.

“It seems like we have a huge outpour of incoming students into the automotive industry,” says Whitmore. “Patience is needed when we get out of school. We’ve got stuff we need to learn from them, and they’ve got stuff they need to learn from us.”

Reaching out with more than wrenches

Honeywell Consumer Products Group found out how much vocational students are in need of good training materials when putting together a Bendix® Friction Materials LLC training DVD.

The DVD includes details about different types of friction material, among other things. Also geared toward technicians and parts counterpeople and released two years ago, “The Friction Factor” is still requested daily from the vocational arena, says Technical Training Manager Jay Buckley.

The company didn’t even market directly to vocational schools, but after posting info about the film on the International Automotive Technicians’ (iATN) Network, a popular technician Web portal, the company immediately received requests for about 1,800 copies.

“What it’s really done is opened the door and allowed us to go into vocational schools,” says Buckley, also known as the Bendix Answerman.

Now, the DVD is part of the curriculum in more than 350 tech schools. The company has plans to make similar materials covering the science of spark plugs, oil filtration and antifreeze, says Buckley.

The DVD discusses friction materials, customer driving profiles and installation tips, as well as details about different types of friction material.

Students are in need of that manufacturer connection so they can remain updated on current technology and how it applies to the marketplace, Buckley says. “I know earlier in my career it used to bug the heck out of me that people were teaching 10-year-old technology.”

Other suppliers are also reporting this manufacturer-student connection, like Tenneco, which late last year unveiled its DRIVE program, an interactive training partnership featuring Web-based communication and technical materials. The program includes an instructor’s kit, product samples and videos.

When introduced, the program was expected to reach nearly 1,000 students within the first year.

“It’s no secret that it is increasingly difficult for automotive education programs to attract and retain students,” says Richard Alameddine, vice president of marketing, North American Aftermarket, for Tenneco. “Automotive service can be a promising and rewarding career for thousands of young people with the skills and drive to take charge of their future.”