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A Call to Action for the Auto Service Industry

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I’ve seen a lot of change since I first entered this industry—I suspect as much or more than anyone else you know. In fact, it would be safe to say that no one has worked harder, or longer to promote positive change than I have.

I’m not talking about the vast amount of technological change we’ve all had to endure over the past 50 years. No one had to actively work for that kind of change to occur. It was coming no matter what any of us said or did, welcomed or resisted.

I’m talking about the social, cultural and economic change that has to occur, that must occur in order for the industry to move forward and for all, or at least most of us, to move forward along with it.

You see, while the technological change has been more or less relentless; the social, cultural and economic change that is arguably even more critical to our future has been all but absent. It’s so small, I’m not even sure it can be measured.

It seems the more things change technologically, the more they stay the same in almost every other conceivable way. And, in all honesty, I’m not sure there has been anyone else in the aftermarket who has had a better vantage point to witness all this change and lack thereof than I have.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve written to both sides of the Industry; to the repair community as well as to manufacturing and distribution. I’ve spoken at industry events and for some of the largest and best-known companies, groups and associations in the industry, all of it beginning with a state of the industry address that described where the industry was in the fall of 1984 with an almost frightening accuracy. It also managed to predict exactly where we were headed unless things changed, unless someone did more than just talk about the challenges confronting the repair community and professionals like you and me every day.

And, there hasn’t been a week that has somehow managed to slip by since in which everything I wrote about then has not been reinforced by something that happened yesterday or the day before. I would be disingenuous if I didn’t share just how frustrating it is to be this “right” about so many things I so deeply wish would finally change and prove me wrong!

Most recently, it was the opportunity to participate in a partnership between “business” and one very small segment of our industry. It is a response to the “perfect storm” that has been brewing for decades—the shortage of trained technicians capable and qualified to work on today’s sophisticated vehicles. In this case, it was the heavy equipment side of our business.

As hard as it may seem to believe, the shortage of trained and competent people appears to be even more acute in that segment of the industry than it is in ours. In fact, it is so acute it is driving two of the largest (and, possibly wealthiest) corporations in America, headquartered in one of the poorest states (as measured by median per capita family income in 2011) to work hard to turn things around, to fill classrooms and ultimately service bays with a new generation of automotive service professionals capable of keeping their vehicles on the road.

Why now? Why not?

There aren’t enough heavy-duty mechanics and technicians available to keep their fleets on the road. And, when those trucks are idle, merchandise isn’t moving and when merchandise isn’t moving no one is making any money.

Will it work? Who knows.

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I wish I could count the number of “initiatives” I’ve seen over the past 30 years, almost all of which have failed to initiate or failed to work when initiated.

Why do they fail? The answer may not be as complicated as many would make it out to be. It has to do with the point at which sociology, cultural anthropology and economics all seem to converge.

It has to do with manufacturing and distribution working earnestly to solve problems and remove obstacles that in the end clearly sit at the feet of the repair community—problems that are clearly yours and mine to solve.

We need to build a new generation of mechanics and technicians, mechanics and technicians capable of working on the cars and trucks of both today and tomorrow. And, we need to realize that both require very different skill sets and abilities and that each is equally as important to the future of our industry as the other. But, before we build them, before we invite them to join us, we’d better have some place for them to go.

That means someone will have to pay them what it would take to bring someone with the native intelligence it takes to do what we do into an environment as hostile and corrosive as ours can sometimes be. It means shop owners will need to charge more and motorists will have to pay more. It means a level of business savvy and sophistication we are just now seeing take root with a small, but growing number of shop owners that understand value, margins, customer care and service. And, it means the repair community will almost certainly have to confront the issues it has managed to avoid all these years: poor self-image, low self-esteem, insecurity and an overwhelming sense of low self-worth that have plagued us all for as long as I can remember.

The question we have successfully avoided all these years, the question that really must be answered before any substantive change is likely to occur, is: Why would anyone want to participate in an industry in which the vast majority of those involved suffer a crisis of confidence so powerful and perverse it drives them to give away their knowledge, skill and ability every single day?

The initiative to fund a local community college specifically focused on automotive service education and training, funded by local business and supported by the aftermarket, driven by the critical shortage of competent and qualified service personnel, is encouraging. It may indicate that one of the predictions I made almost 30 years ago just may come true. A prediction that nothing was likely to happen, that no one would take any of these problems seriously, until there were parts sitting on  a shelf somewhere waiting for a technician qualified, competent and capable enough to diagnose the problem, acquire the part and then install it properly.

I don’t know about you, but as far as I can tell, we’re just about there. Now, the question is: What are we going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? I say we get involved. That means communicating with one another to find common ground, something we can all agree on. It means communicating in a positive and respectful way and it will mean a willingness to compromise.

It will mean that I may not get everything I want and neither might you, but it might also mean that we won’t stay stuck in the muddy sinkhole we’ve found ourselves drowning in for a hundred years.

I say we affiliate. It’s the only way any of us are likely to get anything done. That means joining something, participating in some way, even if the vehicles available to take us where we need to go are not perfect. And then it means seeing that the myriad number of local and national groups are forced to communicate and cooperate with each other. I say we take ownership, that everyone involved in our industry, who makes their living as a shop owner or a technician, who knowingly and willingly takes money out of this industry, commits to putting something of value back in.

I say we make it work. Because it has to. Because it must. Because if we fail, the legacy that we leave behind will not speak well of who we are or what we we’re all about. For a look at that first speech go to MitchSchneidersWorld.com. Let me know what you think we can or should be doing to take control of our destiny.


Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at mitchschneidersworld.com. Contact him at mschneider@ratchetandwrench.com.

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