Industry watchers have long raised warning flags that the influx of new technicians is insufficient to fill the job vacancies created by those who are retiring.
The resultant skills shortage is real… and it’s growing.
New estimates suggest the problem is going to get worse as the demand for automotive technicians increases over the next five years due to record auto sales.
“The statistic that we’ve been going by, from HRDC, is that for every four and a half technicians leaving the industry, there’s one entering. That tells you the math. And it’s scary,” says Neil Urquhart, managing partner at Avenue Rhodes, a Vaughn, Ont.-based human resources company that specializes in the automotive aftermarket. “In the next 10 or 15 years, I think there’s going to be a wholesale changeover in the industry.”
His company maintains a database of over 26,000 Canadian technicians, developed over the past 12 years. When a shop needs a tech, they comb through their files to find suitable candidates.
But there’s a lot that shop owners can do on their own to find – and keep – good techs.
Run an ‘aspirational’ shop
Technicians want to work in a clean, organized, well-run, and well-equipped shop.
“If you’re not getting any candidates, it could be because your shop’s a mess, you’re not paying well, you don’t offer benefits, you have lousy equipment, or you’re open long hours on the weekend,” says Urquhart. “Each negative shaves a little more off the pool of candidates.”
The solution is to create an engaging place to work, one that attracts outsiders and makes the insiders never want to leave.
“If you don’t like the idea of someone swooping in and stealing your people, then give your employees a reason to stay,” says Priya Pillai, the operations manager at Avenue Rhodes.
She believes aspirational shops are particularly enticing to young technicians.
“They don’t want to work at a shop that has equipment that is so old that they can’t service modern vehicles,” she says. “They find new technology exciting. They want to be on the cutting edge.”
Keep in mind that you’re not only competing with other aftermarket shops for the best technicians, but with modern, up-scale dealerships that boast the latest equipment and a commitment to ongoing training. If you’re too far behind, you simply won’t be attracting the best.
Find someone to mold
Shop owners would prefer to hire a technician with lots of experience, who can hit the ground running. That can sometimes be a very tall order. If you’re having trouble finding a seasoned technician, refine your search so you find someone who is keen to learn.
“Experience or not, if you find someone that you really like, personality wise, and you think they’d be a good fit for the company, you need to take a chance on them,” says Pillai. “Spend the time to train them and mold them into the kind of technician you’re looking for.”
Urquhart agrees. “You can take somebody younger and build their skills and behaviour much easier than you can mold a 15-year journeyman,” he says. “Some of them are pretty set in their ways.”
Invest in training
Not only is it critical for any shop to stay on top of the latest automotive technology, it sends a message to employees that it is looking to the future.
A side benefit is that it meets the technicians’ need to develop valuable skills.
“Technicians may well ask, ‘What are you doing to make me continually employable?’” says Urquhart. “There’s no guarantee of a job for life anymore. But if you keep your technicians employable, with access to current equipment and the latest technology and training, they’ll be a lot less anxious.”
Know what you need
Not every personality is going to fit in at your shop, and not every type of skill is under-represented. You need to have a good understanding of what kind of person you’re looking for.
“If you want a lead technician, but you have someone there who’s been there for 20 years and has historically taken that role, are you thinking things through? You can’t just throw a new person in the mix and say whoever comes out on top wins,” says Urquhart.
Take the temperature of the room. Understand what kind of people thrive in your working environment. New employees have to fit in, not only skill-wise, but personality wise, especially in a small setting.
To some degree, it’s a seller’s market for skilled work. To get what you want, you might have to bend a little. If you’re not getting any nibbles at the wage you’re offering, you may have to make it a little more enticing.
“There has to be some give and take,” says Urquhart. “There’s a truism in recruiting that says there’s never a perfect candidate. There are always trade offs and you have to evaluate what your priorities are and what you’re willing to be flexible on.”
Money is not always the bottom line for technicians. It’s fair to say, however, that it’s often a major consideration. And as automotive work becomes more complicated, it’s inevitable that wages will go up.
Indeed, Urquhart believes many independent shops are underpaying their staff relative to their door rate.
“If you’re looking for someone with 10 years of experience, you have to pay for those 10 years of learning,” he says.
Most skilled trades have unions that control pay scales. The automotive repair trade doesn’t. That makes technicians sort of like independent contractors. Their experience and tools become their businesses. They can roll out of the shop as easily as they can roll in.
Your pay scale will determine your access to the labor pool and your attractiveness to top techs.
Always be looking
Things might be good right now, but you never know when a sudden turn of events will leave you vulnerable.
“As a shop owner, one thing that would be important for me to know is how happy are my staff? How likely are they to stay? What is my exposure to being short-staffed?” says Urquhart.
Collect resumes, keep them on file, and keep in touch with technicians who might be a fit for the shop, even if there are no current openings.
And one of the best places to look for candidates is through your existing staff. Let them know that you’re open to suggestions from them. They meet other techs at training classes and often know who’s a good catch for the company.
Keeping your shop well staffed with the right people is a challenge, but the effort that goes into recruitment pays dividends in future stability and profitability.
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