If you look at the number of graduates that technical colleges are currently putting out, you’ll realize that there isn’t a technician shortage. The numbers show we are losing them somewhere in the first couple of years out of school — before they can work their way up the knowledge and experience ladder to become the “A techs” we seek. There are a lot of reasons why this happens. I am not attempting to take on the entire issue from top to bottom. Rest assured that several groups are doing just that. I want to focus on our attitudes and how we might adjust them to better tackle this problem going forward.
As shop owners, we wear a lot of hats. Unfortunately, it just so happens that talent development/trainer is not a role with which most of us are accustomed. We expect that vo-tech schools will bring us service-ready technicians. For now, we need to adjust this expectation as these schools transition to a new model.
Several years ago, the National Automotive Technician’s Education Foundation (NATEF) radically revamped its task list — the things techs need to know to graduate — for schools to receive NATEF accreditation. This came after input from many in the industry who wanted the programs to be narrower and deeper. In other words, don’t teach kids how to overhaul a differential so much as teach them how they work. The thinking was that the frequency of these repairs is too low to get enough experience in the short time they are in school.
Instead, the focus shifted to more practical matters, like how to properly service brakes, suspension, cooling systems, fluids and perform other light repairs. The higher demand and repetition of these services helps a young tech more rapidly develop journeyman skills in these areas. This, in turn, would allow a shop owner to pay more for these young rainmakers rather than someone coming in with a limited practical skill set in need of considerable training to generate revenue.
Only recently have the last programs’ accreditation renewals come up to put these new processes in place. Schools are now adjusting curriculum and will need some time to perfect this new training focus. In the meantime, you need to consider how you respond and support these efforts.
It starts with expectations. Rather than looking for a senior technician, how about bringing in one of these recently graduated techs? The good ones will demonstrate that they are eager to learn. You may find that one of their previous employers put a broom in their hand rather than a repair order, so you could be their lifeline to a long and thriving career.
I have one such tech now. I am absolutely astounded that his first three employers failed to see what he brings to the table. If you want to build a tech who will spend their professional career in your shop, you need to have processes that help them know what is expected. This generation of technician does not respond well to being thrown into a new task and then being yelled at when they inevitably do it wrong. Take the time to show the process, provide technical support during the repair and inspect the work, offer constructive feedback and a gold star for work done well. The results will surprise you.
The other area that requires your assistance demands you to leave the shop. I know, we are all busy, but getting out in your community to be an industry ambassador will be worth your time investment in many ways. If you’d like to take a more technical approach, serve on the advisory committee of a trade school. If you are comfortable speaking, get involved by talking to middle-school- and high-school-age kids about getting into the industry.
Our country is a few years away from a skilled labor crisis. Many have recognized it and are working to address it, but a local presence is absolutely critical to success. There are plenty of kids out there who have the right mind for where auto service is going. They need to hear from you that this is a great industry in which to work.
Never apologize for auto repair as a career — it’s not a last resort. An average to excellent technician will never be unemployed. If a young tech saves just $100 a month from the time they begin working, they will have a nice nest egg for retirement. Young technicians will out-earn most of their college-bound friends in the first 5-10 years of their career, which can give them a significant leg up on their entire professional career.
I leave you with a quote from my friend Trish Serratore, senior vice president of ASE, who said to me many years ago, “If you don’t like the way it is, come help.”