Marcel Rousseau wanted a new career field with solid job growth potential after he spent nine years in the U.S. Coast Guard.
He gave the decision a lot of thought, then enrolled in Northwestern Michigan College's Automotive Technology program to become a certified auto technician.
"There is a need for mechanics out there," Rousseau said recently as he labored on a transmission with fellow student Charlie Manning during class. "There's big demand. It's a good job for moving around the country, and people are always going to need mechanics to fix their cars."
Local dealerships, educators and employment agencies said Rousseau's decision likely was a wise one. The prospects of finding a good-paying job in the field are strong in northern Michigan, with talented, experienced auto technicians in high demand.
The shortage of certified technicians spawned a competitive job market that has many auto businesses in the region regularly looking out of state for skilled labor.
"We go as far south as Indianapolis and Ohio because we can't find them around here," said Ron Smith, director of human Resources at Bill Marsh Auto Group, which has six dealerships in northern Michigan. "It's kind of an evolving market. Back in the day it was points and condensers, and all that now has turned into computers."
The shortage is so noticeable a grass roots effort evolved in the Traverse City area that links local auto technicians with employers. Michigan Works, NMC and the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments will hold a second annual Auto & Diesel Technicians Night on March 5 at the Parsons-Stulen Building on the NMC campus from 4 to 7:30 p.m. The event is planned with the assistance of numerous dealerships and auto shops.
"With a lot of these dealerships going out of state to different technical schools to find their talent, we ... put our heads together and thought we should plan a local event," said Michelle Socha, a business liaison at Michigan Works. "We want to focus on hiring locally skilled technicians and graduating technicians.
"It brings dollars here," Socha said. "When someone gets employed, it's workforce development and economic development in action."
Steve Gloshen is the service manager for Fox Grand Traverse and BMW Traverse City. He said hiring decisions for technicians are very important for dealerships because it costs thousands of dollars to train technicians on the vehicle manufacturer's systems. Keeping technicians on staff also is challenging because of the competitiveness of the labor market.
"I think they are more likely to stay if you get them at a young age and grow them in your culture," Gloshen said. "That works best for me."
Wayne Moody, director of the Automotive Technology program at NMC, said the program is witnessing increasing enrollment. The U.S. Dept. of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the auto service technician and mechanic sector will grow by 9 percent through 2022, adding 60,400 jobs nationwide.
"It has become so complicated now that it's becoming more like the medical field where you are specialized," Moody said. "Our industry has been pretty recession-resilient. People still need cars. They are keeping their cars longer and a lot of people are not capable of working on their cars. Lets face it: the simplest task on cars requires a lot of information. There is more to it.
"I've got people who have left here, just graduated and went out West," Moody said. "Some are in North Dakota and they are getting six figures."
John Roster, shop manager at Team Elmer's, said he's a fan of the Auto & Diesel Technicians Night because of its emphasis on hiring locals.
"Any time you can try to pull in talent and good people locally, it is the best thing to do," Roster said.
Continued trade education for master technicians necessary to fill the need for qualified employees who understand computers and diagnostics.
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