Find a Wrench

Auto shops: 3 changes to save your future

I talk to the owners of auto shops large and small — from dealerships to two-man shops — and they’re all asking themselves the same question.

“If I want to keep running this business for another 20 years, who is going to work here? What will the be the carrot that brings young technicians back into this industry?”

The numbers are alarming. The technician workforce is shrinking by almost half every year. Tech schools would have to double their enrollment just to stop the bleeding.

That’s not likely to happen any time soon, which means shops have no time to lose to change their approach to recruiting.

But before I talk about what you need to change in your shop, I want to talk about something everyone in this industry needs to change about ourselves.

If I asked you to draw a technician, and I gave you a pad of paper, a marker, and 30 seconds, what would your drawing look like?

Chances are, you’d draw a white male, wearing a baseball cap, covered in grease. This perception isn’t off-base — the industry is still male-dominated — but having a narrow view of what a technician looks like will hurt your recruiting and retention efforts. At the rate we’re losing technicians, we’re going to need to look beyond this old stereotype for talent, and fast.

We need to start opening our minds to the many possibilities of what a technician can look like, and then go out of our way to attract that kind of talent.

What are you doing to make your shop more appealing to women? The shops excelling at retention are promoting women in the industry. I work with a shop that works closely with an association to help women get involved in the automotive industry in Portland. They provide workshops, career fairs, and scholarships to support women in the field. I know a professional psychologist who works with women in distress who would like to help them start careers as technicians. Would your shop be a welcoming place for them to work?

Would you make changes to make sure it’s not a hostile environment for women? How about immigrants?

A shop I work with in Florida has been turning to immigrants to fill its technician ranks. They’re highly trained, and they want to move to the U.S.

It’s time to think outside the box about who makes a good technician, and then make changes within your shop to make sure all kinds of technicians can thrive.

Here are three changes auto shops should make to improve their retention.

Change your expectations

The workforce is changing. You’re probably not going to hire a tech right out of school and keep them at your shop for 20 years, even if you offer all of the best perks. People are more willing to move around the country for better jobs or just better scenery, now that there are so many tools to stay connected to friends and family.

You need to realize that you’ll be doing well to retain a technician for five years, and adjust your goals to reflect that. As much as you’d like to keep a tech on until retirement, it’s important that your technicians stay in the industry, instead of ditching it for another trade or another career altogether. You have a responsibility to make their first impression of the industry a good one.

Make sure their career path is well-defined, with many exciting opportunities for growth. And do yourself a favor — if you create a really positive culture during the 3 to 5 years that they work for you, when they do leave for personal reasons, hopefully they’ll recommend someone to take their place.

And finally, don’t discriminate based on age. This shouldn’t have to be said, but unfortunately I’ve run into this attitude a lot. It’s illegal, and it’s unwise. If you’re concerned about hiring someone who is 60 because he’s likely to retire in 5 years, consider that you’re unlikely to retain a 22-year-old for longer than 5 years either.

Change your perks

The No. 1 decision factor for techs when considering switching jobs is pay. If you recognize that your people are truly your most valuable assets, then make sure that your pay reflects that. If you’re the industry leader in pay, you will see a dramatic improvement in retention, which will in turn save you big bucks in recruiting and training costs.

I also advise shops to consider following the example of other industries when it comes to onboarding their employees. When a salesperson for a large equipment manufacturer starts her job, she’s given a car, a phone, and a computer — all the tools she needs to do her job. These tools would cost each salesperson well over $5,000 to purchase for him or herself, but the company often negotiates a bulk deal to lower its costs.

What I’m suggesting — and it’s not the most popular idea, but I think it’s time to consider it — is for shops to start negotiating deals with tool manufacturers to be able to provide a starter set of tools to anyone joining the industry. The cost of these tools, which can range from $5,000 to $10,000, presents a huge barrier to entry to young technicians when they’re often already strapped for cash.

Change your message

The job of a technician is changing as the technology in our vehicles evolves. The rise of electric and autonomous vehicles means more aspects of a car depend on complex technical processes and computers. Technicians are doing more and more work behind a computer, diagnosing and solving problems with how the car is talking to its own computer.

Of course, if you have to replace an engine, there’s still going to be heavy lifting and a fair amount of motor oil involved, but the frequency of these kind of repairs is decreasing. Plus, the skill set required to fix electrical and computer-related problems tends to be slightly different from the one required to change parts, so your message to young people considering a career as a technician needs to change. They need to evaluate whether their have a head for programming and problem solving. Fortunately, this also means that the job involves less wear and tear on your body, which removes another major deterrent to the career.

Finally, it might be time to consider other more creative options for making sure that a career as a technician is as good or better than a career in any other industry. Young workers today crave flexibility in their schedule and location of their job. Obviously a tech couldn’t inspect a transmission from a van in the mountains or a hostel in Southeast Asia, but could a manager perform some of that job remotely?

Could you follow the example of the salon industry and rent stalls and tools to independent technicians who work on their own schedule? Ambulatory repair shops are a growing trend, especially in the southern U.S. — are there aspects of that model that you could adapt to provide greater convenience for your customers and greater flexibility for your techs?

I believe the future is bright for forward-thinking shops who are willing to open their minds and experiment with their approach to recruiting and retaining technician talent.