There's no shortage of solutions for the tech shortage

Aug. 29, 2019
Only over the past couple of years has the industry recognized that this shortage has reached crisis levels. The shortage is now firmly established and is an issue automotive businesses must accept and address.

Do a quick internet search for “auto technician shortage” and you’ll come up with more than 2 million results, many of which are people merely talking about the existence of a shortage. Unfortunately, the solutions are absent from most of these mentions. Some of the headlines use phrases such as “chronic shortage,” “high demand,” “scrambling for technicians,” “shortage crisis,” and “shortage may mean more expensive repairs.” Is that last headline enough to make the average person notice?

The largest unsolved problem faced by the automotive industry is the growing technician shortage. It’s not a new problem. It has been a long, slow-moving situation that was predicted for decades. But as with many predictions, many hoped it wouldn’t happen. Turning a blind eye is something people do when they don’t want to face a problem.

But now’s the time. Only over the past couple of years has the industry recognized that this shortage has reached crisis levels. The shortage is now firmly established and is an issue automotive businesses must accept and address. As an industry, those in automotive must recognize that the worker shortage both has no easy answer and is not going away.

How bad is it?

The technician shortage is discussed at every auto service, collision repair, and heavy-duty/diesel event. It is covered regularly in not just trade press publications; it makes national news in conventional consumer journalism. Why? Because everyone has a vested interest: most people have a car and they all need those vehicles repaired.

Obviously, this topic is mentioned whenever conversations are had with or about automotive-related career tech education (CTE) programs. But the truth is that all skilled trades are suffering from a shortage. In its June 2019 job openings and labor turnover summary, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there were nearly 7.4 million job openings in April. According to the Association for Career & Technical Education, more than 80 percent of manufacturers report a talent shortage, nearly half of talent recruiters at Fortune 1000 companies report trouble finding qualified candidates with a two-year STEM degree, and between now and 2024, 48 percent of all job openings will require education beyond high school but less than a four-year degree.

According to the TechForce Foundation’s “Technician Supply and Demand Report Update for Fall 2018,” in 2017, the demand for new technicians was nearly 138,000. The number of 2017 post-secondary graduates numbered nearly 56,000. This leaves a shortage of more than 82,000 for the automotive service, collision repair, and heavy-duty/diesel industry segments.

These numbers assume that 100 percent of post-secondary graduates in all three segments enter the automotive trades upon graduation. In fact, some of those graduates will not enter the industry at all. This shortage must be offset by high school CTE graduates directly entering the industry (skipping post-secondary school), as well as other technician candidate sources, such as returning military or unskilled, untrained individuals to enter the transportation trades.

Why is it such a struggle?

Specific to the automotive industry, what are the struggles?

  • Baby boomers (those people born between 1946 and 1964) are retiring and taking decades of skills and experience working in shops with them. There are about 76 million boomers in the United States, representing nearly 30 percent of the population.
  • Educational programs are struggling to stay ahead of vehicle technology, especially in a two-year high school. But even post-secondary career technical education (CTE) programs often lag behind technologically. This is particularly true given the significant budget reductions that CTE programs have faced. Also, CTE programs have for years been struggling to find qualified instructors.
  • More and more high school students are pressured to pursue 4-year college degrees instead of career readiness or trade skills programs, despite research that says students who take advanced CTE courses in high school see higher earnings.

What can be done about it?

In its research, the ASE Education Foundation found that 42 percent of the automotive CTE graduates (both high school and post-secondary), leave the transportation industry altogether within the first two years of employment.

What are some of the reasons, and where can the industry start to make improvements?

  • Low starting pay. How are you paying your techs? It’s common for techs to be paid in one of three ways: hourly, salary, or flat rate. Because flat rate pays technicians by the specific job they perform, it benefits those employees that work quickly. Putting an entry-level technician on flat rate often results in them earning less than a living wage. Consider an hourly rate or salary for those technicians just starting out. In most states, entry-level auto service and collision techs make $10-12 per hour, while the diesel and trucking industry pays $18-22 per hour for entry-level. You’re not just competing against the shop down the street. You’re competing against every segment that wants to hire that technician candidate.
  • Benefits. Paying more may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s not always about the starting salary. Benefits are a major draw, so strongly consider health and dental benefits, 401K plans, established advancement opportunities, and a career path.
  • The high cost of tools. Consider a tool program where the employer provides tools for all starting employees to use at the shop with tool ownership retained by the company. Or, the shop can purchase a new tool set for employees when they start, and employees vest toward ownership in the toolbox as they reach goals and benchmarks. Expecting a new employee to spend thousands of dollars on tools from the start of their career just isn’t feasible for most people, especially at entry-level pay rates.
  • Lack of sufficient training/mentoring. One method that can dramatically improve retention is to better equip shops and dealerships with mentoring tool sets. According to the Spherion Emerging Workforce Study, those who receive mentoring at their place of employment are 77 percent more likely to stay with their employer. By improving mentoring practices, the probability of improved retention increases, with a goal of reducing the 42 percent attrition rate.
  • Bullying in the workplace. Harassing and bullying behavior that may have once seemed acceptable and overlooked should have no place in today’s shop. Take a hard look at your work areas and strengthen your HR policies if necessary. Remember, leaders in your shop set the example.
  • Non-automotive sectors are recruiting graduates from automotive-related career tech programs. Graduates from your local auto service and collision CTE programs are great candidates for other industries, such as aviation, oil and gas, and wind energy. How can the automotive industry as a whole make the automotive industry more attractive so that we aren’t losing people to other industries? It’s an important question and one that may not have an easy answer. Take some time to research what these industries are paying for employees with similar skill sets.

Start today

There isn’t one solution to the technician shortage, and conversations about the reality of the situation are a great starting point. But this problem isn’t going away, and just talking about it isn’t going to change anything. It is going to take a commitment from everyone to strengthen and grow the industry.

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