Thompson: Industry Perception is Changing Among Youths & Their Families

Nov. 7, 2022

Bill Thompson, CEO of IMR Inc., a Chicago-based research company, shares the results of his research on how youths and their families perceive careers in automotive. 

Facts & Figures

U.S. facing an increasing shortage of skilled workers in the trades   

42.6% of households surveyed said they would be extremely likely to recommend the trades as a career path if their child or a family member were considering it  

64.6% of households with a family member or friend working in the trades were more likely to recommend the trades as a career path option to their child than those that do not have a family member or friend working in the trades (38.5%).  

Households reported 33.5% of children were most seriously considering a four-year college degree while 33.8% planned to enter the workforce immediately, 84.5% of which is a trade career 

Courtesy IMR (full report)

Bill Thompson is the CEO of IMR Inc., a Tennessee-based research company that provides market research and data for the automotive aftermarket. At AAPEX, Thompson revealed his latest research insights on how American households perceive the trades—particularly automotive—as a career path. According to his press release, the study surveyed “25,000 nationally representative households during the first quarter of each year since 2020.” 

Thompson sat down with Ratchet+Wrench at AAPEX to talk about some of the findings in the research report. 

Ratchet+Wrench: Let's go right in. What were some of your findings? We’d love to hear how you began the research process. What kicked that off? 

Bill Thompson: I'm a big believer in the trades in the automotive industry. And, for my 20 years or so in the industry, I've heard a tremendous amount about technician shortages. Fifteen years ago, my question was always: How is the shortage manifesting itself in today's world? What does it really mean to have a shortage of technicians?  

Way back 15 years ago, I couldn't wrap my head around it really? Now we've entered into a period of time where it actually means something quite different. So really, what prompted this research was there really doesn't seem to be any benchmark for perceptions of automotive technicians. That's the one thing that seems to be missing out in the marketplace. And we have to understand where families are and how the general public feels about the trades, particularly the auto industry. At the end of the day, our competition for kids and trade school isn't bankers or accountants. They're the other trades and we need to understand how the other trades look comparatively to the automotive technician trade.  

R+W: With the data, you were able to mine, what were some of the attitudes that you discovered, and did they shift radically over the last couple of years? 

Thompson: Radical is a radical term, and nothing shifts radically unless there are great upsets. I think overall, people are more likely to recommend the trades now than they were just two years ago when we started. I think when we look at the data, from an attitudinal perspective, I would even start with if people are currently discussing the core options with their children, they're way more likely to recommend the trades. So, 65% of households, if they're currently discussing options with the kids, they'll recommend trades, which is a big number comparatively if you're not, which is 38%. That, to me is a really big deal.  

What that means is that the auto industry needs to be at the table with the families, right? I mean, it needs to be front of mind. I think when you're discussing career options with your kid, automotive's No. 3 on the list, but we want it to be No. 1, right? There are other trades that sit in front of it, like electricians, HVAC, and even plumbers in some cases. But attitudinally, there's a lot of stuff. I think we went through a lot of attitudinal things like educational skill sets and costs, STEM skills, earning opportunities, and career outlook. I think typically what happens though is when you start looking at the data and understanding what that really looks like, there are differences between income, there are differences whether you're male or female, there are differences when you have a male family member in the trade, or if you don't have a family member in the trade, right? A lot of these attributes that we track really kind of fall on this segment in terms of how people view it. When you put it all together, you wind up coming to some conclusion about who do you need to talk to, who do you need to convince, and who do you need to raise awareness with. 

R+W: Has the perception of the auto industry changed over the years or is it still been pretty much the same? 

Thompson: People working as automotive technicians are often less flattering than people working in other careers and are often portrayed less flatteringly. It's kind of all over the map. But at the end of the day, what it really points to is people don't necessarily have a great understanding of the opportunities, and the educational requirements. They don't necessarily believe that there's a lot of career advancement or career opportunities for automotive technicians. 

R+W: For shop owners who want to be more involved in that process earlier, do you think that will make a difference? 

Thompson: I think it's a broader conversation to some degree, but yes, 100% I couldn't agree with you more. The shop owners do need to show up at the high schools. There needs to be advocacy for the CTE (career and technical education) programs at high schools. I think shop owners can be doing apprentice programs and working with those types of [school] programs to bring kids in because that's what happens in some of these programs. They allow them to apprentice, leave school, go work at a shop for half the day, and get credit for it. Those grassroots types of efforts locally are what are going to pull kids in.  

R+W: Was there anything in your findings that surprised you either one way or the other? 

Thompson: I would actually like to see some change in the school programs to develop opportunities for women. I’ve got to be really honest because if there's anything that this whole study points out is that women don't believe there are opportunities in this industry as technicians. It's very obvious. And it's obvious because we've asked it. Still, it's also obvious because when you look at the differences in gender and their opinions, women are less likely to believe a lot of the stuff that the men are likely to believe [about automotive careers], and that maybe it’s exposure. It may be just a perception that it's not a job for women. 

R+W: How about generationally? Any data on that? 

Thompson: Gen X and millennials are way more likely to believe that there are opportunities for women than baby boomers—it's almost double. That to me was surprising. The other thing I think was surprising was if you have less education—if you don't have a college degree—you're more likely to recommend the trades, and you're more likely to know that the cost of college is much higher. For whatever reason, if you're on the lower end of the income side, you tend to understand what is involved with the trade. The people that have a four-year degree, quite frankly, are the least likely to recommend the trades. It just is what it is. And if you're younger, you're more likely to believe that to be the case. It's almost as if the younger generations believe that there is a path other than college …  

There’s a percentage of kids saying, I want to go right to the workforce, or I'm planning on going to the trades. I've done presentations before at high schools and talked about the auto industry as a whole and instead of me saying, here's all your opportunities as a technician within a shop, my conversation always goes, here's all your opportunities in the industry. Yeah, because you can be an automotive technician. You can turn wrenches, you can do all that fun stuff. But you could also work for distributors, and you can also work for retailers. The perception needs to be raised. 

R+W: Years ago, high schools had auto body. There were a lot of trades at high school. Those aren't there anymore. 

Thompson: It's got to be a very cognizant effort, and I can't say that it's going to be an easy climb, but if you're a shop owner and you have the opportunity, bring an apprentice in and grow somebody into working at your shop over time. We hear a lot of shops say they want experienced technicians, well we're in a shortage of trades overall. I think we have to come to the conclusion that the only way you're going to get an experienced technician is by stealing from another shop or if somebody's looking. You need to grow your tree, right? If you have young, smart, energetic, high schoolers or even community college [students], bring them in. That's part of the ticket to getting more people into the trades. 

About the Author

Ratchet+Wrench Staff Reporters

The Ratchet+Wrench staff reporters have a combined two-plus decades of journalism and mechanical repair experience.

Sponsored Recommendations

Download: Lessons in ADAS

As ADAS systems become increasingly popular, understanding proper maintenance is crucial. This eBook explains the importance of staying current on proper ADAS calibration processes...

Establish and track your KPIs: Gross Profit on Labor

WHAT IT IS: The difference between the revenue of a job and the cost of completing it as it relates to labor, excluding all overhead costs. HOW TO CALCULATE IT: Job (or repair...

Find the right shop management system to boost your efficiency

Find the right shop management system to aid in efficient scheduling, communication and payment processing

Craft a strategic marketing plan

Develop strategies and communicate them to your staff to keep you on track