Shops in Crisis? The Tech Shortage - Tire Review Magazine

Shops in Crisis? The Tech Shortage

You’ve heard about it. You’ve read about it. Perhaps you’ve experienced it. It’s ‘The Tech Shortage,’ the most critical personnel issue facing businesses involved in automotive repair, including tire dealers. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Or is it?

Facts are facts. Perception is quite another thing. In this two-part series, we will define the “problem” as industry experts see it, elaborate on some of the efforts being taken to alleviate the problem and then propose a few potential remedies.

For this article – Part I – we’ve analyzed the issue from various perspectives to get at the heart of the matter, which, as you’ll soon see, is much more complex than it first appears.

The ‘Problem’

Once upon a day, a major automaker and the federal government belched out a proclamation that the auto industry would be short 60,000 auto tech jobs. Said the mighty parties: “We need 60,000 auto techs right now.”

But when that number was challenged, 60,000 suddenly became 30,000. Almost overnight, the proclaimed shortage was cut in half.

Other groups have suggested that, by 2012, we’ll be down some 45,000 service techs.

Within the tire industry, dealers constantly complain of high employee turnover, particularly among tire and service techs. According to Tire Review’s 2005 Dealer Profile Study, fully 65% of tire dealers say that finding good employees is a major concern, and 43% say it takes four or more weeks to fill a service tech opening on their staffs.

According to additional data, we are training about 35,000 auto techs a year, and the industry, according to some, will need 35,000 new auto techs each year through 2010. In that scenario, we seem to be keeping our noses above water for the moment.

Yet Automotive Retailing Today, a coalition of automakers and retailers, reports there are 37,000 vacant auto tech positions right now.

On the flip side, Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) studies suggest that, while supply and demand for automotive techs have both risen, supply is far outstripping demand.

In fact, Rich White, senior vice president of marketing and member relations at AAIA, is puzzled by the whole shortage thing.

“Our studies show that, since 1980, both the supply and demand for automotive techs have increased significantly. But while demand has grown an average of 0.8% yearly, the supply of technicians has climbed an average of 2.3% per year. We see the supply of auto techs outstripping demand.”

Nowhere in AAIA’s study is the claim of a massive tech shortage validated. That is partly because the association’s statistics show the supply of techs exceeding demand and partly because there are a variety of methods used to analyze a labor shortage, all of which could arrive at a different outcome.

In White’s view, though, the obvious signs of a shortfall just aren’t there. “Typically, a shortage of automotive techs would have specific symptoms apparent to all of us,” he says. “We would immediately notice that repairs are taking longer, we would see cars lined up around the corner waiting to be serviced and we would see an increase in the labor cost of repairs. None of those things is happening.

“If there are symptoms of an auto tech shortage floating around, the symptoms aren’t evident,” he says. “There are no indicators that justify calling this an auto tech shortage, and we use the Bureau of Labor Statistics to support our findings.

“The bottom-line question remains: If we are training 30,000 automotive techs every year and there is a 30,000 shortfall of automotive techs per year, what are we failing to understand? Are we talking about a shortage rumor, or we talking about a shortage reality?”

As the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil used to put it: “All politics are local.” Perhaps it is the same way with the so-called automotive tech shortage. Maybe it is being felt to a large degree in some sections of the country and is barely noticeable in others. Either way, the tech shortage issue won’t go away, whether real or imagined.

Here’s the quick-and-dirty story: Deep research finds no reliable number, no consensus of opinion regarding any current auto tech shortage. However, most insiders feel that a tech shortage is surely on the way.

So, what do we, as an industry, take away from this? Is there a problem today? Or, are we staring at a future shortfall of qualified auto service techs? And, just when is this future going to hit?

Confusing, isn’t it? The question of who is right and who is wrong is up for grabs. At least one thing is eminently clear: While there is no consensus on the existence of a shortfall today, situations exist that point directly toward problems tomorrow.

Mass Exodus

Most conversations about the Tech Shortage – real or perceived – appear wrapped around one simple, and frighteningly true, premise: The Baby Boomer generation is fast reaching retirement age. Our nation’s single largest population group will be hitting the magic number 65 over the next decade, creating a potential void of talent in a wide range of professions.

Some 26.8% of the nation’s population is made up of Boomers, and 32 million boomers are 50 or older.

In simple terms, nearly 27% of every vocation will see a sudden shortfall in experienced talent when those gold watches are handed out.

But the real problem – at the heart of the matter – isn’t quantity. It’s quality.

There’s no debate that the market for highly qualified auto techs is strong. Even the AAIA, which does not conclude that a massive tech shortage exists, offers this concession: “If there is any shortage, all of it is extremely local, it is at the high-end of the A-Tech spectrum and it is spotty,” says White.

And, according to Tire Review’s 2005 Dealer Profile Study, only 39% of dealers say that three-quarters of their staffs have at least five years of active experience. Translation: Two-thirds of dealers – averaging seven full-time employees each – have largely inexperienced staffs.

Over the next seven to 10 years, the industry expects that half of all the top techs working today will retire. These are highly qualified, Baby Boomer-generation techs who have seen it all and know how to fix it, including recalibrating the complicated diagnostic tools we use today.

But, take a closer look. Notice the words, “highly qualified.” Even though “qualified” is a subjective word, it is important to the tech shortage argument.

We call them ‘master techs’ or ‘A-Techs.’ These are the masters of the trade who have been around for a while. Many have a two-year auto tech degree and have been active in technical update programs. They came up in the day when high schools all had “auto shop” classes, and they turned their love of cars into lifetime careers.

When they retire, this group of top techs will leave behind a void the likes of which we have not seen since the first “grease monkey” turned the first wrench.

Depending on who is doing the talking, the shortage could amount to a shortfall of 45,000, to 60,000 to 100,000 techs.

Who takes their place in the chain of command when they retire? That’s the question, and Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Excellence (ASE), sees a coming shortage among high-end diagnostic A-Techs. The C-Techs, born and bred on vehicle maintenance, will probably never be in short supply, he feels.

“The jobs are out there for them, but we don’t know yet what the exodus of retiring A-Techs will mean to the automotive aftermarket,” Molla says. “Soon, we will not have enough auto techs to replace the Baby Boomers, who are retiring. The one thing we know for sure is that there are lots of forces at work in this marketplace.

“There isn’t a week that I don’t receive at least two phone calls from a tire dealer looking for a high-quality auto tech, and I know I’m not the only one receiving these phone calls,” Molla adds. “There is a demand for the certified auto tech right now, and that number will grow.”

Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association, doesn’t see an end to the tech shortage problem. “Like the shortage of teachers and nurses, it never seems as if we have enough well trained auto techs,” he says.

A Certain Quality

And, “well trained” is key. When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see that there does indeed appear to be a shortage of experienced, top-notch, qualified technicians right now. But let’s dig a bit deeper. What is causing this shortage? And, why is the situation so dire?

That’s right. We said “dire.” Consider these facts:

• Light vehicle registrations continue to rise, especially those more than five years old.

• Despite current gas price issues, more miles are being driven, per vehicle and in total, than ever before.

• The average age of vehicles is rising (9.1 years).

• Higher-tech vehicles and vehicle systems mean that higher technical skills are required.

• In 2004, there were just under 225 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S. The best evidence suggests there are 876,000 active service techs working today. That means there are at least 257 cars and trucks on the road for each available tech.

All these facts lead to a frightening conclusion: Automotive technology is advancing at an almost dangerous pace, while automotive experts are slowly disappearing.

And, the car makers know it. Take, for example, AYES, the Automotive Youth Education System. This OEM organization has embedded itself in the shortage scenario by partnering with 427 tech schools nationwide. Surprisingly, the usually secretive vehicle makers make their training programs available to these schools. Read between the lines here, and this much-talked-about shortage may be for real.

Detroit, Stuttgart, Tokyo and other car-making capitals already know that auto tech programs are vital to their futures. The more technology they pour into their vehicles, they understand, the better service techs have to be to keep them running right.

As you think about future vehicle technologies and these students, consider a few other aspects. For example, more and more passenger vehicles are coming in from offshore. South Korea has joined Japan as a major importer. And, soon, China and India will be producing vehicles that will be sold here.

How do we train a tech to repair so many advanced vehicles from so many cultures and so many countries?

The vehicles themselves will also change dramatically as we work toward alternative fuels and propulsion systems. If you want to get the shock of your life, try working on a hybrid vehicle without any training. The voltage in some of these vehicles is strong enough to kill, making extensive training mandatory.

In the past five years, the sales of hybrid vehicle sales in the U.S. have grown from 9,500 in 2000, to more than 200,000 in 2005. With gas prices hitting – and sticking – at the $3 per gallon level, those sales will certainly continue to increase.

And, what types of fuel are we talking about? Your new techs may need to be familiar with corn-fed cars – fueled by E85 ethanol (a mix of 85% grain alcohol and 15% gasoline). Your future tech may need to be an expert on repairing vehicles powered by other alternatives like natural gas, propane, hydrogen, biodiesel, electricity, methanol and p-series fuels. They are already in use worldwide, after all.

Perception is Everything

But quickly advancing vehicle technologies are only partly to blame for the top-notch technician shortage. Deeply embedded societal perceptions and generational differences are other ingredients.

First, here’s reality: Auto tech positions come with an established support system and a high level of job placements. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, places 100% of its auto tech graduates before they leave the front door. It’s the same story at Stark Tech State College in Canton, Ohio, where 95% of all graduates have a job waiting for them.

Randall Bennett, department head of automotive technology of Stark Tech, says the college’s auto service grads not only get hired right out of the classroom, “our kids leave as workers. They know they will work hard, dirty jobs at first. But, most will move into managerial positions, auto tech positions or master tech positions.”

Bennett is upfront with the students, and lays out what their financial future can hold. “A Stark Tech two-year associate degree holder in our automotive tech curriculum will be making $30,000-plus in three to five years,” he says. “In five to 10 years, he or she can expect to be in the $40,000 to $60,000 salary range, and at the very top of our graduating techs, just 10 to 15 years out, $60,000 and up is the norm, with some moving well past $100,000.”

It is obvious that once a student is enrolled, the tech schools and community colleges will do a great job teaching and encouraging. And, those students have a bright future ahead of them. Getting them there in the first place is the real battle.

That brings us to another perception: Secondary to the pending impact of mass retirement is how younger generations view automotive service as a career option. Far more high schoolers look forward to high-tech careers and owning great automobiles than there are young people interested in keeping those autos on the road. And, while most technical schools – either at the high school or post-high school level – claim nearly 100% placement of automotive service training students, such schools often struggle to attract students.

Most high schools, in fact, have done away with “shop classes,” which used to serve as a springboard to service careers. Instead, schools – if they are at all interested or able – hook up with a nearby technical school, which offers an array of highly attractive IT, graphic design, engineering and fashion-design options, in addition to auto tech training.

“We see high schools closing out vocational education programs and replacing them with computer-science programs,” says Molla. “It’s cheaper to go this route, but is it wiser?”

As a career choice, being a service tech may not appear as attractive, and while most tech schools offer tech-training curriculums, pamphlets and brochures, they tend to shy away from pushing them.

The Roots of Perception

So, why the lack of interest? Generational differences – which ultimately impact far-reaching societal perceptions – certainly play a part.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Baby Boomer generation, now 76 million strong, has pretty much called the shots. Marketers love them, educators love them, bankers love them, and so do the credit card companies.

Dad graduated from a “sweatshirt college,” where cheering on the school’s football team was second only to quaffing a beer or two at the frat house. Mom was in a sorority and graduated with honors. Their offspring – son or daughter – will have better, they said. Parents always want better for their kids, and ‘better’ usually means less sweat and less dirt and more respect.

Nobody pictured their children being a ‘mechanic,’ as we used to call them. Moms and dads said then, and continue to say today: “No son or daughter of mine is going to work a blue-collar job. My kid is going to wear a white collar, live in an air-conditioned world and make it big time.”

This remains the premise for all conversations having to do with advanced education. And, unfortunately it’s what high-school guidance counselors reinforce with parents and students.

How many high-school guidance counselors today are going to recommend that Junior or Missy pursue a two-year auto tech associate degree at a community college? None. Why? Because that’s not what parents want to hear. Because of their perceptions, most parents equate an auto tech career as failure – on their part!

One nationally known, independent college counselor says that not once in his 39-year career has any student or parent asked him about a career as an auto tech.

Move Over, Boomers

Today, another group is calling the shots. They are the Echo Boomers. Generation Y. Gen Yers. Whatever you want to call them, they are part of a group of more than 70 million Americans born from 1977 to 2002. Gen Yers, generally, are the 32 million people who are ages 16 to 27, born between 1978 and 1989.

Understand their motivations, and you can see how to reach them. Money is important to this group, but not more than the recognition they want from employers. Failure to recognize the humanity of an employee – the need to be treated with respect – means as much or more than the money you pay them.

Underscoring how this generation thinks is the fact that they are the most protected generation in history. Everyone is above average in this generation, every kid is recognized, everyone is rewarded just for participating – and they all have the ribbons and trophies to prove it.

Any cultural accoutrement that doesn’t produce instant satisfaction is boring. Echos are a reflection of the changes in American life over the past 20 years. This is the first group to grow up with computers at home, in a 500-channel, always-on universe. They are multi-taskers, with cell phones, music downloads and instant messaging. They are plugged-in citizens of a worldwide community.

These kids have seen mom and dad cry after being ‘downsized’ from their white-collar, degreed jobs. Twenty years with a company and nothing to show for it, no pension and maybe a small 401K. They don’t want any part of that world. They want control over their fate.

The auto techs you hire in the future won’t be motivated by the same things as their moms and dads and grandparents. They are not as concerned about long-term employment as their parents were; they are more nomadic. Changing jobs on their terms is ‘control.’ If so moved, they will simply find another job down the street, and there will be many jobs waiting for these just-trained students and practitioners of automotive technology.

Sound unnerving? It is for Baby Boomers, who sweated and swore and busted knuckles to get ahead. But, while they can be defined as “high maintenance,” Gen Yers are also high achievers. They have high expectations for themselves, and aim to work faster and better than others. They have equally high expectations of employers; they want fair and direct managers who are highly engaged in their professional development. They seek out creative challenges and view colleagues as vast resources for knowledge. And, while they want to make an important impact on Day One, they desire small goals with tight deadlines so they can build up ownership of tasks.

The new reality for them is $50,000 a year 10 years out of tech school and a lot more in 15 years. If you can’t pay them that kind of money, they’ll find it working for a municipal government, state-level garage, large buying group, new-car dealership or large chain. You’ll all be in the same boat; the highest bidder gets the tech.

Looking Ahead

At its heart, the Tech Shortage is a complicated situation that is unlikely to change anytime soon. One thing is obvious: Looking at this question uncovers complex societal issues and serious shortfalls within ‘the system’ that certainly contribute to any real or perceived shortage of qualified auto technicians.

Perhaps the existence of a shortage is not the biggest concern this industry faces. The more important issue appears to be one of quality and not quantity: How do we, as an industry, improve our ability to attract, educate and retain top-level talent?

We know the industry will lose its most senior experts over the next decade. But, what can or will the industry do to attract the next generation? And, we’re not talking about just bodies but top-notch students.

The technical schools and community colleges offer tremendous training opportunities for young people, but they are fighting an uphill battle against more glamorous, less arduous careers – the ones that get all the positive press when the media looks at the ‘hot jobs.’ What can they do to help alleviate the potential problem?

The test-results-oriented educational system may not be leaving many children behind, but is it unfairly discrediting an automotive service career because is too blue collar and not what parents want to hear? Are guidance counselors steering kids away to avoid angering parents or because they don’t understand?

And, how do you re-educate parents that “automotive service technician” means the titleholder has a strong educational background with advanced, high-tech training – and an outstanding career path ahead?

Vehicle technology changes clearly will define the service techs of the future. Surely, it will be less about greasy fingernails and more about mouse clicks and problem solving and communications and troubleshooting. Techs in the future may well have to be as good as – or better – than the engineers who designed the vehicle systems they have to fix. Are we as an industry prepared to meet that challenge?

The question of a tech shortage cannot easily be answered. Perhaps today it is indeed regional. Tomorrow, indicators strongly suggest, things will get worse.

How do we rebuild the profession of the auto tech in a world of seemingly instant gratification, little deliberation, less attention and no patience?

Part II of this series – coming in October – will look for some answers. Stay tuned.

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