Shops in Crisis? The Tech Shortage: A Special Report: Part II - Tire Review Magazine

Shops in Crisis? The Tech Shortage: A Special Report: Part II

In our August issue, we began an in-depth look at an issue that has been described as one of the automotive aftermarket’s biggest hurdles: attracting qualified technicians and preventing an industry-wide shortage that, some insist, is inevitable.

While most experts agree that a shortage does exist, it appears to be centered at the highest, most experienced levels. The lack of qualified, highly trained technicians available to service today’s advanced-technology vehicles is the real problem, the roots of which reach down into the depths of societal perception.

In other words, it’s a highly complex problem, and simple fixes won’t do.

In this second installment of our Special Report, we’ll look at what can be done to ease the pain that’s likely to befall tire dealers once Baby Boomer-age techs – nearly half of all the top techs in the industry – hang up their hats.

Lighting the Way

There is plenty of work being done in the automotive service industry to ‘light up’ the career opportunities offered by the automotive aftermarket. That’s the good news. The bad news, from a tire dealer perspective, is that when it comes to service techs, auto dealers are holding the brightest torch.

Rich White, senior vice president for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA), says the gatekeepers for prospective technicians – parents, friends, peers and guidance counselors – have differing viewpoints, but probably all have a negative perception of a career in automotive service and repair.

“I hate to say it, but the independent aftermarket is not doing as good a job as the new-car dealerships at reaching these gatekeepers and students,” White says. He cites the original equipment vehicle AYES (Automotive Youth Educational Systems) program as an example. “It is dedicated to growing more techs to work in new-car dealerships and backs it up with a $2.2 million Bureau of Labor scholarship program. Originally, it was financially supported by and still receives support from 14 car makers,” he says. AYES can be found in approximately 375 schools in 45 states.

As part of the AYES program, high-school students participate in job shadowing opportunities at new-car dealerships. They follow top techs around all day to see what they do, how they do it, observe working conditions and how management treats the auto tech. Some students decide immediately on an auto tech career path; others choose another vocation. Either way, AYES delivers dedicated auto-tech students to high-school vocational education teachers and, later, tech schools and then car dealerships.

“Car dealers in our region are dying to hire to three or four of our qualified, graduating technicians,” says John Kelly, automotive department chair at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Kelly is talking about the region surrounding his university and Utah’s adjacent states. “We get calls every day asking if we have any qualified techs they can hire.”

Weber State has partnered with GM, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler and American Honda as well as component makers. So, for the most part, graduates aren’t motivated to seek employment at a tire dealership. Most likely, the option hasn’t even been presented to them.

“We place our graduates with new-car dealerships,” says Kelly, “and we place 100% of those who leave here with a two- or four-year degree.”

Kelly also counts on the OE feeder program AYES to get high-school juniors and seniors to start thinking about a job as an auto tech. New Weber State students will find that, in addition to the college’s curriculum, new-vehicle maker sponsors have their own curriculum to prepare new techs to work at their car dealerships.

Weber State is just one example of emerging automaker-educator partnerships. They are happening elsewhere, too. Jeff Collins, an auto-tech instructor for a four-high-school consortium in Wadsworth, Ohio, meets regularly with local new-car dealerships to match their expectations with his curriculum.

That’s not to say that nothing is being done to help tire dealers recruit high-quality techs. Well intended initiatives do exist. The Tire Industry Association (TIA), for example, partners with community colleges to educate students about the auto tech career path and point them in the right direction.

It’s a small but crucial step in changing perceptions. “This is a great industry with a rich tradition,” says Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of TIA. “We are out in the community colleges with our message. We tell the youngsters that the automotive aftermarket offers great pay, great opportunities and great training. We also tell them that we recognize the need for more techs and that we would be proud to accept them in the tire dealer community.”

“At the automotive aftermarket level, we are seeing new signs of life,” adds AAIA’s White. “An indirect benefit of the ‘Be Car Aware’ consumer education campaign is improving perceptions of those professionals who provide vehicle care, maintenance and repair. The more consumers know about what their vehicles need, why they need it and when they need it, the more likely they are to have a positive auto repair experience. The more positive experiences, the better the image of technicians and tire dealers.”

Changing History

But much more work needs to be done to change long-standing, firmly rooted perceptions about auto techs.

“My dad called me a ‘damned auto mechanic,’” recalls Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Excellence. “Four years at a name-brand college, and dad called me a ‘damned auto mechanic.’ He never left off the word ‘damned.’”

Molla took his Temple University journalism degree and headed right into the service bays.

Today, Molla is a successful cheerleader for the auto-service vocation and former editor for an automotive service magazine. His career choice hardly ‘damned’ him. But that was the perception his father had.

As we stated in Part I – and as illustrated by Molla’s experience – perception and reality can sometimes be wildly different animals. The roots of the tech shortage problem are firmly grounded in perception, so rebuilding the image of the profession has to start there.

Specifically, there are three groups of people – parents, high-school guidance counselors and students – who must be convinced a career in automotive technology is a great direction to pursue.

So, recruiting – of students or parents and even guidance counselors – has to happen to keep the pipeline filled. To expand that pipeline to meet shortfalls in the future will take much more effort than what is being expended today.

Weber State is taking their message right to the gatekeepers. “We know which regional high schools have active automotive programs so we visit them on a regular basis. Not just the student, mind you, but the auto tech instructor and the high school guidance counselor as well. We need good, top quality students in the profession,” says Weber State’s Kelly, “so we’re out looking for youngsters with the best potential, both boys and girls.”

Those recruits are then put through their paces, a move that helps demonstrate the importance and vitality of a tech profession. Recruits take an ASE-like written exam, with the top scorers invited back for a hands-on 12-station troubleshooting test. The cream of that crop earn scholarships, tools and toolboxes.

“If the parents remain dead set against their youngster going into the automotive field, we invite them to attend the testing and later to a career field day where mom and dad can see what our new-car sponsors are doing, the latest scan tools and computers, and to see first hand how difficult it is to become a qualified auto tech,” Kelly explains.

“We want them to understand that their children will not become a ‘squeak-and-rattle guy.’ They, in fact, are about to embark on a career channel with few limitations,” he says.

Buyer’s Market

Perhaps every tire dealer needs to rethink the whole ‘consumer’ concept they hold in the employer/employee relationship. They see themselves as the buyers, the techs as sellers.

In fact, today’s A-Techs don’t work for employers anymore. It’s the other way around. The high-quality techs that tire dealers need are, in that sense, consumers. And, it’s time to put the same effort you put into attracting traditional customers into attracting the best techs.

Tire dealers can start to do that by shining a positive, worthy light on the career opportunity in front of these ‘consumers’ at every chance.

How? One strategy involves using a bit of ‘word-of-mouth marketing’ by telling stories like Molla’s.

Explain why he dislikes the term ‘blue collar.’ “Call it what you like,” Molla says, “but these jobs require people who must be able to comprehend higher mathematics, approaching the level of what we commonly call ‘an electrical engineer.’

“The requirements and the training are that daunting, yet achievable for those inclined to make a way for themselves and their families in this century,” says Molla.

Another reason why auto dealers hold such a decided advantage in attracting tech talent is that they pay better, recognizing that enhanced training and knowledge is vital to customer satisfaction. They start early, and give their techs the opportunity to make a healthy living, with all the right tools and equipment at their disposal.

To compete for the best techs, tire dealers – and others – will have to pony up. In general, independent tire dealers aren’t paying auto techs what they are worth. Pay rates and benefits must – and will – change in the future when technology outstrips the knowledge base. Tools and equipment that allow techs to be efficient will also have to come.

Collins agrees that car dealers and independent shops are going to have to step up their pay scale if they have any hope of hiring these students. “Right now an unskilled kid can get a job at a T-shirt shop for $8 an hour. Some of the new car dealerships in our area are paying entry-level techs $7.50, maybe $8 an hour at the high end. Until the pay goes up, we are going to have trouble attracting youngsters into our auto tech program.

“My students aren’t going to become auto techs if the pay is too low, if continuing education isn’t paid for by their employer and if they fail to acquire the proper ASE certification,” Collins says. “The way I see it, employers are going to have to entice these youngsters to come to work for them.”

For an idea of what ‘going rate’ means, consider that associate-degree holders from Weber State generally start on a flat rate immediately, according to Kelly.

“Top techs earn $30 a flat-rate hour at first, and the B and C techs start at $10 to $12 an hour. We know that a tech needs 12 to 20 flat-rate hours to make some money,” says Kelly.

Even before entering college, future auto techs will have been among the brightest and the best in their high-school classes. Owners of high-priced cars do not want second-rate techs working on their vehicles. They expect the best, and your job is to find the best, pay them well and keep them on your payroll. It isn’t impossible, but warning flags still fly.

In most cases, when pay goes up, societal perception eventually follows. “Being an auto tech means a long-term career, complete with healthcare, 401K and job security. What we must add to this list is higher pay. The pay scale for auto techs has not improved as much as I would like,” says Mike Garblick, professor of automotive technology at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.

To reach higher levels requires changed perceptions, Garblick knows. Even before they reach high school, he has already started educating and recruiting students – and their parents.

“We are working now with Tech Prep, a federally funded program that begins in middle school,” says Garblick. “The curriculum is targeted at applied science and math, for kids and parents. The goal is to educate everyone that being an auto tech is not some sort of renegade career.”

In fact, “there is probably no larger portal toward better jobs than the automotive industry,” adds Kelly. “A student can become a tech, an engineer, a designer, a vehicle-dynamics expert or an aerodynamic professional. The list is nearly endless.”

Perception adjustments don’t all have to come in the classroom or living room. ASE, for instance, gives vo-ed schools a 1,000 hp tool to illustrate the complex nature of today’s vehicles.

Team ASE, headed by Garblick, has been involved with attracting young techs by appearing at many drag strips with its 1994 Pontiac Super Duty station wagon powered by a Pontiac engine assisted by nitrous oxide. Its name: The Grocery Getter.

Team members are involved in numerous charitable, public service and educational activities throughout the year, including extensive outreach programs to high schools and vocational schools. Sinclair’s Garblick is one such advocate.

“Young technicians in training are exposed to the excitement of racing as well as the importance of continuing their education,” says Garblick. “Finally, people are beginning to realize how complicated their vehicles are. We know mom and dad can’t maintain their vehicles anymore, and we know it takes a highly trained, qualified auto tech to perform even basic maintenance.”

Looking Ahead

When all is said and done, maybe the automotive aftermarket just needs better publicists. Or perhaps a more aggressive, more grassroots effort to recruit top-level students.

Parents obviously have to be convinced that it’s okay for Junior or Missy to pursue a service tech career. Maybe, as Molla personally demonstrates and claims, the career cannot be viewed as an end but as a starting point to so much more. While it would be impossible to define a career path for the typical service tech, how many working today would even think about obvious – and less obvious – forks in the road?

Not every ‘damned auto mechanic’ will see an option to become a successful journalist, but he or she might see vehicle design and engineering, component development, sales and marketing, shop ownership, management or more as viable career goals that can begin with a solid service-tech base.

Business owners and their employees have to change their ways of thinking, perhaps meeting in the middle so that small businesses can continue to be viable employers and Gen Yers will have the opportunity to become tomorrow’s A-Techs – and more. Word of mouth, even in employment circles, is a very powerful tool.

Ed Sunkin, editor of Tomorrow’s Technician (a sister publication to Tire Review), says one way all of us can get involved is to attend school board meetings. “Talk with board members, high school administrators and parents. This is all about educating moms and dads about good careers for their children in a world that changes daily.

“We need a pipeline full of trained auto techs and a group of mentors out there waiting for them,” he says.

Sunkin and Beth Skove, publisher of Tomorrow’s Technician, have pledged to aim more editorial content directly at the parents of junior and senior high school students, as well as guidance counselors.

“Too often we hear about troubled students being relegated to a vo-ed program,” says Skove. “Our goal is send the ‘A’ students into the program. Vehicles are too expensive and customers too valuable to leave the work to someone who doesn’t strive to be the best. C or D students won’t do. Their work represents you.”

Any tech shortage conversation begins and ends with that perception thing. Getting around any manpower shortage poses less of a challenge than changing the perceptions of all those gatekeepers.

It’s not too late to secure the kind of tech help you need, but only if you participate in the process.

Get involved at the high-school level – with moms and dads, instructors, students and guidance counselors – and follow through to the tech school level. The reward speaks for itself.

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