By Alexis Gross
Automotive experts agree that one of the key components to increasing capacity and performance numbers is having a qualified labor pool from which to choose the best technicians. But some shop owners say that such a labor pool does not exist today and hasn't for a long time.
In fact, most any automotive repair business owner will tell you that three areas of concern in their business are retaining technicians, training technicians and recruiting technicians. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, there are 225 million vehicles traveling an average of 15,000 miles per year on U.S. roads and highways. The need for qualified technicians remains strong.
Currently, the United States employs close to 840,000 automotive service technicians and mechanics, 199,000 auto body technicians and 22,000 automotive glass installers. These numbers include technicians from all industry segments. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that those numbers will grow an average of 13 percent in the next 10 years.
In short, the need for qualified technicians will only grow in the future. ASA's latest studies of our members, however, show the number of technicians entering a repair business are approximately equal to the number who leave. How can shop owners grow their business and increase the number of qualified technicians in their shops?
Ways to address the need for highly qualified technicians include increased technician training, improved management techniques and exploiting the increase in unemployed or under-employed technically savvy individuals in the job pool due to layoff and hiring freezes within other technology sectors. With the proper encouragement, students and entry-level workers who might have headed toward other high-tech careers may be more likely to become automotive technicians.
Wages and benefits play a key role as well. An important element to consider here is the connection of good management practices and the relationship to technician retention. According to results from the 2004 "How's Your Business?" mechanical survey, most ASA business owners provide paid vacations (95 percent), paid holidays (88 percent), health insurance (74 percent), training (82 percent) and uniforms (91 percent) as a standard part of the technician benefits package. (Be sure to see next month's issue of AutoInc., which has comprehensive coverage of the "How's Your Business?" survey of mechanical and collision shops.) This may explain, in part, why the majority of ASA business owners have high technician retention and are able to recruit more technicians than leave their facility.
The industry as a whole, however, does not reflect these statistics. In the absence of offering key benefits such as training or health insurance, recruitment and retention challenges are elevated considerably.
The high-tech nature of today's vehicles mandates the need for regular technician training. This need is well recognized within the industry. Typically, both technicians and owners are aware of changing technology and feel it is difficult to keep up with.
Sources for technician training vary. The majority of technicians currently in the industry report receiving their training from jobbers/parts suppliers (78 percent), independent training providers (63 percent), trade magazines (57 percent), association seminars (48 percent), equipment manufacturers (44 percent), in-house programs (39 percent), technical schools (33 percent), OEM training (24 percent) and community colleges (22 percent).
For new recruits into automotive repair, vocational programs, secondary school (high school) programs, SkillsUSA-VICA, the Automotive Youth Educational Systems (AYES) program, and apprenticeship situations offer technician education and training.
As automotive service and repair professionals know all too well, recruits in today's industry need high-tech skills - particularly computer and math skills. ASA works with training facilities to ensure that the students who apply for technical jobs are adequately educated. These students must be able to cope with extraordinary demands made by advances in technology.
To find an educational institution near you, visit the ASA Web site at www.asashop.org. Click on Membership Information, then on Educational Members for information about schools in your area. Be sure to share this Web site address with future technicians or students who have an interest in automotive service careers.
Bottom line: training is a key issue when it comes to this topic. First, training quality technicians; and second, training management in improved business practices. If businesses can retain their qualified technicians, the anxiety of a technician shortage will dissipate and technician retention and recruitment will expand. In conjunction with training is the need to educate school teachers and counselors, parents and the consumer on the high-tech skills necessary to serve today's motoring public.
Building Better Technicians
Major manufacturers have used apprenticeships to develop their own technicians for years, through both their own programs and through joint operations like AYES, a partnership among General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG and Toyota for high school students. Apprenticeship programs for independent shop owners have been less prolific, and there is no standard program for a career in independent repair that exists in multiple locations throughout the country.
Bill Voorhees, automotive service program chair at Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee, noted this has not always been the case.
"Our campus started in 1946, and for all those years until the late '80s, our program was generic automotive. In the 1980s, we started joining the manufacturer-sponsored programs and phasing out our generic program," said Voorhees.
And, he said, this trend played itself out across the country. However, OSU-Okmulgee returned to its roots in 2002 with PRO-TECH, a two-year, six-semester program leading to an associate in applied science degree with a major in automotive technology. Students enrolled in the regional program divide their time between campus and the service bay for two years, spending the first half of the semester on campus and the second half applying what they've learned in their sponsor shop.
Apprenticeship programs are nothing new for OSU-Okmulgee. The school conducts five manufacturer-sponsored training programs, an auto collision program and service programs for heavy vehicles like those produced by Komatsu, Caterpillar and DitchWitch. All 12 programs are internship-based, affiliated with a sponsor shop, and structured for semesters of half study, half work.
For Voorhees, PRO-TECH's focus on servicing a variety of vehicles, not just those of one manufacturer, represents a departure from the norm for postsecondary education.
"High school-level automotive education tends to be generic in many cases, and college programs become more specialized. We realized some men and women would rather work in an independent environment, not for a big dealership, so this is our attempt to try to fill that need."
And the need has only grown in the two years the program has been open.
"There is a large demand for technicians with PRO-TECH expertise, and the employment opportunities are great," Voorhees said. He's been racing to keep up with the growing enrollment in the program. OSU-Okmulgee recently completed a $26,000 remodeling project that provides the program with a new classroom, three offices and a storage room. They're also looking for an additional faculty member. ASA members interested in the position should contact Voorhees at (918) 293-5394.
"We're really proud of the PRO-TECH program," he said. "We started the first class with 14 students, the second had 18 and the current class has 24. The first group graduated in August this year, and as far as I know all of those graduates have been employed at the shops they interned with. You have two years to build loyalty with the students, and the shops that are successful at doing that keep their technicians when the students graduate."
Supporting the growth of successful programs like PRO-TECH is important to ASA. ASA recently assisted groups such as AYES to obtain grants from the U.S. Department of Labor this year to start their own training programs. Charles Elder, AAM, anticipates bringing ASA's own plan for training to the Department in 2005. Elder owns Ray Gordon Brake Service in Tallahassee, Fla., and serves as secretary/treasurer on the ASA board of directors.
"The Mechanical Operations Committee has worked a fair amount on school-to-work issues in the past, and we anticipate reviving that issue in 2005," Elder said. "Classroom training is very important, but in our industry it's critical to have hands-on training. In order to have the kind of well-trained technicians we need tomorrow, we've got to have both coupled together today, and that's what a hands-on training program would do."
ASA is interested in creating a standardized apprenticeship curriculum that could be offered to high schools and vocational/technical schools across the country.
"We're trying to get a grant for a pilot project at one school where we could develop a curriculum and make whatever adjustments need to be made before it's presented to schools across the country," Elder said. "Some of the OEMs have similar national programs for dealerships, but there are no programs for independent repairers that are consistent across the country. If we can do this, it would give us an equal footing with the dealer programs as far as training goes."
Such an ambitious plan requires a lot of help, and Elder encourages ASA members to volunteer in any way they can. "Anybody that has a passion for this issue should contact the operations committees and get involved," he said. "We could use some assistance and input in the process so that all needs out there can be addressed."
Voorhees would suggest looking to the PRO-TECH program for a successful example.
"I think this is the premiere program of its type in the nation and it's growing. The model is certainly there and it's working," he said. "Every time the students come back from an internship, they're more seasoned and ready to go. By the time they finish the next training here at school, they're eager to go back to the shop. The rotation has worked well because they're always ready for the next stage."
Whether designing a training curriculum or recruiting students, Voorhees suggests following the adage that people learn more from showing than telling.
"We have shops that sponsor open houses and invite students and counselors to come and take a look at their operations," he said. "They ask the counselor to look under the hood of their car and ask who they would want working on that. You need someone trained with computer skills and engineering knowledge."
Voorhees also believes there are a lot of independent apprenticeship programs out there, but that they lack the public profile of the manufacturer-sponsored programs. One way to raise that profile, he said, is to follow OSU-Okmulgee's example in partnering with larger organizations like ASA, AAA and aftermarket parts companies.
ASA encourages its members to investigate apprenticeships and see if they are suited for their shop. A sponsoring shop should realize that training costs must be built into their operating budget. The rewards for that investment are great, said Bill Haas, ASA vice president of service and repair markets.
"There's an incredible difference between someone who has apprenticed with you and someone who hasn't," said Haas. "They've had work site experience during that apprenticeship, they've gotten to know the other people in your organization, how to interact with customers and how to use the equipment in your shop."
To make the most of an apprentice, Haas said, "Make them part of your family. They're not just employees. The mentor takes some of the responsibility, but the whole shop has to be involved in it."
|Alexis Gross is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.