When Steve Reinarts is asked to identify the future of automotive repair, he gestures toward the two 20-year-olds sitting right across from him.
“They have the utmost confidence in the world,” says the dean of automotive programs at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. “They’re going to make change in this business.”
Honored as two of the best automotive students in the state by the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers of Minnesota (AASP-MN), those soon-to-be-professionals—Beverly White and Brad Williams—seemingly could not be in a better job position on the precipice of graduation.
Yet, despite all their accomplishments and advantages, these students are well aware of the struggles they—and their peers—face heading into the automotive repair world. One can sense the urgency as White, Williams and Reinarts contemplate a seemingly insurmountable issue this industry is desperate to remedy: the crippling shortage of quality employees.
And Mike Davidson can’t help but feel partly responsible for that struggle.
His guilt stems from a larger fact: As the owner of Parkway Automotive in Little Rock, Ark., searches for the reason why the industry has failed to overcome this dilemma year after year, one culprit in particular sticks out.
“We handed our industry over to the education system in the 1970s,” he says of shop owners. “We said, ‘Train our people and send them to us.’ And then, for whatever reason, we didn’t stay connected with them to know what they have to offer. We left them in the dust. We failed the education system.”
And, as the founder of the American Skilled Labor Association, which aims to bring shops and vocational centers together and increase apprenticeship programs across the country, Davidson wants your help:
“At the end of the story, we are the ones that will fix this.”
Fixing this—according to shop owners with a constant stream of apprentices running through their shops and the Dunwoody students that have secured jobs out of college—involves bridging that gap between education and profession. You just need to utilize the ample resources available and create career paths for the next wave of auto repair professionals.
When asked about the biggest challenge this industry faces in 2017, Dan Gilley references the hundreds of shops his company consults and reveals the answer is nothing new.
“I think the real challenge we’ll face in 2017 is similar to 2016, and 2015, and 2014,” says Gilley, director of RLO Training. “The lack of technicians is a snowball rolling downhill and it’s getting bigger. Technology is changing, and our techs continue to age. So we need a call to action.”
As an astute scholar of this industry for over 20 years, Gilley knows his snowball metaphor is backed up by numbers: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of employed automotive repair technicians decreased by over 10 percent between 1999 and 2005—yet, demand will only continue to grow, as the Bureau reports the need for technicians will rise by 5 percent between 2014 and 2024.
Beyond auto repair, trade positions are hurting across the board, according to the ManpowerGroup’s Talent Shortage Survey, which reports that, of 38,000 employers surveyed, 32 percent had difficulty filling jobs due to lack of talent in various fields, including trade positions. In July 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 3.6 million unfilled job openings—today, it’s up to 5.8 million. This effect has stretched to vocational schools nationwide, which saw enrollment start slowing down significantly in 2006.
All of that data, Gilley says, points to one important fact: In a world where four-year universities are preferred and automotive repair still has a “grease monkey” stigma, selling the promising career this industry offers is crucial. And that change requires a group effort.
Which means: If you’re going to do it, don’t do it alone.
“The dealerships are throwing a lot of money at this right now,” Gilley says. “As independents, we don’t have those kinds of resources. But as a group, we have lots of resources, and we can get a lot done.”
Nick Stoffel looks onto the repair floor and points right at one of his technicians.
“Ed did it,” Stoffel says before motioning toward the next employee who graduated from his shop’s apprenticeship program. “Matt did it. Jason did it. Even I did it.”
Stoffel’s facility isn’t a behemoth or anything—in fact, on its busy St. Paul, Minn., street filled with shopping destinations and restaurants, you could almost miss Lloyd’s Automotive. Yet, inside that small building, you’ll find eight technicians operating at full capacity, all while hosting local students studying automotive repair.
Stoffel will tell you it’s all because of his apprenticeship program, which has two area students in rotation each semester and has built the Lloyd’s Automotive team from the ground up.
The manager is willing to prove how dedicated he is to the cause, which is why his team participated in the Race for Automotive Education in February 2017. In 12 go-karts at ProKart Indoor Racing in Burnsville, Minn., sat area auto repair professionals, racing as part of AASP-MN’s fundraiser for Minnesota technical programs.
And as representatives from Crystal Lake Automotive, PJW Automotive and Superior Service Center maneuvered the 200-lap race, one fact became very apparent: The fight against the technician shortage is, indeed, a race. And, by working together—as these businesses did by raising $7,500 for Minnesota automotive programs in a single night—independent shops can pick up the pace.
Mike Davidson’s passion for curing the shortage has resulted in a project that combines Gilley’s call for action and Stoffel’s dedication to apprenticeships: He co-founded the American Skilled Labor Association (ASLA), which links schools and shops together and helps shop owners set up apprenticeship programs.
While an effectively mapped out apprenticeship program is crucial [See sidebar: The Apprenticeship Timeline], actually motivating students to consider automotive repair at an early age is the crux of the entire operation.
"“Guide them to what they should be learning and what the industry wants them to know. High schools are where you start stirring the interest, turning the light bulb on."
-Mike Davidson, owner, Parkway Automotive
Less than 10 miles away from Lloyd’s Automotive, at the Dunwoody College of Technology, sit Beverly White and Brad Williams, who, along with their fellow students, itch for an opening such as Stoffel’s.
And if your shop won’t give them a shot? Your competitors likely will, Steve Reinarts says.
Scattered throughout the Dunwoody automotive training center are banners highlighting area shops and dealerships that have dedicated money and tools to the program. Those banners exemplify one promising truth: As automotive repair morphs and requires different levels of skill and education from professionals, Reinarts says he’s had no trouble connecting the future of this business with shop operators.
Reinarts says such a partnership, however, isn’t exactly common. Vocational programs are shutting down at high schools and colleges across the country, and saving them requires cooperation between industry and education. Here’s how you can do it:
Partner with Organizations
Much like Stoffel’s partnership with AASP or Davidson’s push with ASLA, there are plenty of organizations eager to partner with independent auto repair shops to fix the employee shortage:
- Auto Care Association
- Automotive Training Managers Council
- Automotive Youth Educational Systems
- National Automotive Service Task Force
- National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation
- North American Council of Automotive Teachers
Donate Tools, Parts and Equipment
There’s a commonality shared by many of the shops plastered on banners throughout Dunwoody’s garage: They donated equipment to the shop. And to properly educate students on becoming efficient technicians, Reinarts says those donations—from scan tools to scrapped engines to outdated balancers—have immeasurable value.
“Before you throw it out, see if you can donate it,” he says. “The local high school would be more than happy to place a sign that says, ‘Balancer donated as courtesy from X Shop.’ And the students see those names and start thinking about their careers and see people care about their education.”
Meet with School Counselors
Getting students motivated about an automotive career is a tall task. Getting in front of the students, however? Davidson says that requires convincing school counselors that a vocational college can benefit students just as much as a traditional four-year university.
In fact, he says discussions about colleges need to become common at the junior high level, reaching students before they even hit high school. Reach out to area schools and arrange meetings with counselors, Davidson says, and sell them on some key statistics discovered by the Connecticut Technical High School System:
- Eighty percent of students taking college preparatory academic curriculum with technical education programs met college and career readiness goals, versus 63 percent of those without career and technical education (CTE).
- Students attending technical high schools have demonstrated higher rates of on-time graduation and credit accumulation.
- Students attending CTE high schools have a greater likelihood of successfully finishing college preparatory math.
- The average high school graduation rate for CTE students is 93 percent, versus only 80 percent for the national graduation rate.
- A ratio of one CTE class for every two academic classes minimizes the risk of high school dropouts.
Sit on Advisory Boards
One of the most common complaints made by shop owners, Davidson says, is that vocational schools aren’t educating students properly.
The best way to ensure that problem ceases to exist? Sit on your area educational advisory boards and help shape the curriculum.
And if there aren’t any advisory boards? Band with area shops and pitch your services to schools.
“Guide them to what they should be learning and what the industry wants them to know,” Davidson says. “High schools are where you start stirring the interest, turning the light bulb on.”
White and Williams say their pre-college perceptions of automotive repair were way off, based on nothing but the unfortunate stereotypes and stigmas that burden the industry. And that doesn’t surprise Stoffel one bit.
“As an industry, we need to sell the potential,” he says about discussions with students. “It's changed a lot. It's not such a grease monkey world anymore. It's very computerized. Most of the new guys are millenials. They've built their own computers at home. They're writing software. They're into that whole world.”
White and Williams—who aren’t too far removed from their teenage years, when they were searching for the right career path—are wholeheartedly on board with that sales pitch to students. And if either of them knew about the level of technology involved with automotive repair, they would have considered the career at a much earlier age.
“I don't know how many scan tools we have here—more than we can count for all different types of vehicle,” Williams says. “What it does is switch the stigma from ‘grease monkey’ to ‘grab the laptop, plug in the OBD-II connector and diagnose the problem.’ That's where you start. From there, you have to problem solve.”
White and Williams agree that pitching a more fulfilling career isn’t the same as offering one. Don’t just tell students about automotive repair—give them an actual glimpse into shop life by offering tours, job shadows and apprenticeships.
“It's all about the training,” says White, who had an apprenticeship during her senior year at Dunwoody. “You can go to school all you want, but even then, there's only so much you can do with your time.”
“Some shops won't hire you unless you have two years experience—even if you did go to school,” she continues. “If you put the purpose out there and say you’ll continue our training and education—and not just throw us under the bus and hope that we succeed—we’ll be more willing to want to do it.”
When those connections are made, both White and Williams—who secured full-time jobs before they graduated from Dunwoody—agree a deeper connection is forged.
A connection that could very well put this industry on the right path toward fixing the shortage.