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Addressing the Technician Gap

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Jeff Curtis, diesel technology instructor at Bellingham Technical College in Bellingham, Wash., was named the 2016 recipient of the VISION Hi-Tech Training & Expo Educator of the Year award in March. It was his passion and commitment to pushing the industry forward that made him an “inspiring” choice for the honor, says Sheri Hamilton, VISION’s conference manager and the executive director of the Automotive Service Association–Midwest.

After stints as a technician in the heavy duty fleet industry throughout the Pacific Northwest, Curtis began teaching at Bellingham in 1994, and now instructs on various topics including medium- and heavy-duty truck certifications, electronics, brakes and hydraulics. During their time at Bellingham, students are taught the fundamentals, Curtis says, and experience peer-to-peer learning in addition to completing an internship of at least 320 hours in the industry. The students who have completed Curtis’ program have a placement rate around 95 percent.

What advice would you give to shops to help attract young talent to the industry?
I encourage my local shops to come to grips with reality, and the reality is there is a technician shortage. There are not journeyman mechanics on every corner. The good journeymen are already working. Local businesses need to participate in a program that will help them grow their technicians, otherwise all of the shops will be stealing from one another.

“I encourage shops to take a step back and look in the mirror and figure out why they can’t attract or retain good employees.”
—Jeff Curtis, instructor, Bellingham Technical College

It’s a hard sell to businesses. They don’t want to hear it or believe it. Those are issues that we talk about at events like VISION. It’s not a secret that this is something that is impacting the industry. I encourage shops to take a step back and look in the mirror and figure out why they can’t attract or retain good employees. If the shop down the street is good at it, look at what makes them successful.

How do you find the right shop for students to intern at?
I have a list of local businesses that are supportive to our internship program. I try to vet the students by personality and how I’ve seen each shop operate to make the best possible fit. I try to get an idea of where each student wants to be in their careers and get them to that place.

How do you track students’ progress during their internships?
I do site visits but the students are also required to do a weekly report on an open blog. I use a learning portfolio software. This requirement also allows them to log their hours, list what they have done each day and reflect on it. It can be used to show their future employers to demonstrate what they’ve done. Videos and photos can be included. That way, when they say they’ve done something, they can show evidence of accomplishing that task.

Once a shop has hired someone, what should they keep in mind to help that young employee grow?
This is a great generation of young people and they need to be recognized for that. Yelling and barking and demanding productivity without a pat on the back does not work. It’s interesting to see the trends in shops that are successful in growing quality technicians and those that struggle with retention. Shops that are dirty and cluttered and dark, and shops that are managed by a boss that has a pretty big ego and an even bigger temper, who doesn’t treat employees well and doesn’t pay a living wage—those are the shops that are going to have a very difficult time retaining and attracting employees.

What should shop owners keep in mind to produce the highest quality employees possible?
It’s just like in the classroom. Listen to the student or employee.

Take the time to find out what drives them. Don’t assume that it’s money. Don’t assume that it’s cars. Find out what it is. Try to meet that person where they need to be met.

One of the other things I tell shop owners to do is to find a dark room and visualize to themselves what their lives were like at age 18 or 20 and what opportunities they would have liked to have from an employer. For the most part, this generation is no different.

What are some common mistakes that you see shops making when it comes to facilitating learning?
Shops need to keep in mind that they cannot operate how they did in 2006, and certainly not how they did in 1996 or 1986. These are different times. Shops and educators need to meet this new generation where they’re at instead of trying to get them to reach you where you are at. There are many companies that are successful in the industry in terms of hiring and retaining employees. Shops need to look at what they are doing and model that. We all need to be willing to change daily and make those small corrections.

“[Independent repair facilities] need to ... think about how they’re going to compete not only tomorrow but for the next five years.”
—Jeff Curtis, instructor, Bellingham Technical College

What is it going to take to close the technician gap?
It’ll take dedicated folks who want to keep the infrastructure up and running. Shops that are trying to operate in improper facilities without the proper tooling and little emphasis on safety and employee comforts are going to have a very difficult time attracting talent.

What specifically can independent shops do to win over prospective employees in today’s industry?
I emphasize with independent repair facilities that they need to think out of the box. In fact, they need to deconstruct the box completely and think about how they’re going to compete not only tomorrow but for the next five years.

Here’s an example of what’s going on in the Bellingham area and how that applies. I’m hearing from fleet managers that they are currently short about 50 mechanics. That’s not so bad, but there are 50 more with their feet out the door that could retire at any time. That’s 100 job opportunities in the Western Washington area and there are less than 100 graduates available for those jobs. With all of the competition to attract quality employees, independent repair facilities are going to have to figure out how to operate to be the most appealing to those graduates.

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