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High tech or no tech – What’s in your future?

High tech or no tech – What’s in your future?

Many of the traditional sources for developing mechanics and technicians are rapidly disappearing, leaving the ability to replenish the work force with trained entry level employees as a problem in the automotive industry. The shortage of semi-skilled yet knowledgeable candidates is not a new phenomenon, and as vehicles grow more complicated and computerized, the need for technical training is becoming more urgent.  With automotive vocational programs disappearing from high schools, and a shrinking interest and understanding of mechanics among young people, (DIY does not exist like it did 30 years ago) the need for in-house training programs that cover the most basic levels of technical training becomes necessary. With traditional sources of mechanics & technicians largely gone, automotive service centers and specialized shops (such as transmission shops expanding their service options to grow sales) that hire workers with basic skill levels, will need to expand their in-house training programs by collaborating with private technical schools & associations to grow their employees’ skills.

With top level OEM technicians & mechanics earning upwards of 100K a year after achieving master mechanic/technician status accompanied by five years of experience in the field, it would seem logical that applicants for these high paying jobs would be lining up to sign on. The truth of the matter is, the shortage of qualified technicians is so great, that OEMs have recruiting programs pitching this career to students at high schools, technical schools, and career job fairs. I recently experienced this firsthand while attending an automotive instructors conference on the West Coast. The conference was well attended by vendors of educational materials and OEM recruiters looking for the next crop of talented job seekers. What makes this significant is that the job and training offers were from independently owned dealerships and franchises offering “apprenticeships” with excellent wages and benefits.

No longer is the career path a matter of looking over the shoulder of a patient mentor, learning and honing their mechanical skills. Today, to move ahead in the profession, requires computer skills and the ability to solve problems (without clear problem indicators like driveline vibrations or engine noises) using the diagnostics built into everything automotive these days. This problem for shops and service centers (especially those venturing into general service to grow sales) is even more acute and can’t be ignored. With competition among OEMs for car and truck sales cutting into their profits (a saturated market with slowing sales just makes the problem worse) the dealer service department has grown into a vital source of income. According to a 2016 NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) customers at U.S. dealerships spent $18.9 billion dollars on labor charges among service departments. These OE training programs convey the specialized repair/service information unique to their new and older models. This information is specific to the make and is generally used to update experienced and entry level technicians but is OE exclusive.

Because the automotive aftermarket service industry must compete with the OE dealerships, the need for specific training on how to service multiple makes of vehicles using correct service fluids becomes the challenge that will determine success or failure in years to come. With estimates of technician short falls of more than 25,000 at U.S. dealerships and service centers over the next five years, replenishing the entry level service technician will be the challenge. Worse yet, there may not be enough technical schools, junior colleges or private training programs to keep up with demand. This means pairing with trade associations and aftermarket suppliers will be essential to compete with the growing OE presence in the aftermarket service & repair industry.

Fortunately, because of the unique nature of what service centers or specialized shops do, they often become the “go to” option for consumers that dislike the $125 an hour labor charges and expensive fluids that are normally encountered at the OE dealerships. The businesses that will succeed in this cost driven environment will do so because they take the time to become the expert, with service technicians trained to provide the value the customers are looking for. Unlike the OE dealership, the “independent” shop or garage must provide knowledgeable personnel with “added value” service solutions designed to provide the performance and value they normally expect from the OE service solution.

This is an indication of the changing environment at repair and service shops, where, increasingly every day, the customer wants to talk directly to the technician and will make his/her decision to proceed based on the knowledge and perceived skills of the mechanic/technician.

If you are in the automotive repair/service business for the long run, and you think performing service in addition to repair (or whatever niche of this industry you have been involved in) is necessary to survive, then you must be willing to change how you do business to achieve survival. Finding employees that are willing to start from nothing to learn the skills necessary for today’s technology driven service environment will be the challenge. With OEMs trying to lock down the service for their make of vehicle, by training their staff on their specifics, it becomes necessary for the competitor to become the “expert”, because of all the different OEM’s types of service. This includes teaching them the fundamentals of automotive lubrication with special emphasis on service fluid selection. The key to this will be the training & retention of skilled employees that you have educated and rewarded, both for learning and using these new technologies & procedures.

It’s a brave new world – the shops, garages and service centers that accept the fact that success is based on training, will be rewarded with competent technicians able to communicate with customers and who make good data-based decisions that bring back repeat business. Survival and success achieved!

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