Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2002   by Jim Anderton, Editor

Facing the need for speed

Canadians are a patient people. We must be, given our preference for ignoring pressing problems in the hope that they'll just go away. Here in Toronto, "The Centre of the Universe" our provincial and ...

Canadians are a patient people. We must be, given our preference for ignoring pressing problems in the hope that they’ll just go away. Here in Toronto, “The Centre of the Universe” our provincial and local governments chug away, generating paperwork by the ton, while real change moves like a Rocky Mountain glacier. Up in Ottawa, it’s much the same story. The shortage of skilled tradespeople, which is especially acute in our industry, is a case in point. Go back fifty years in the trade publications, and what was the most prominent issue? A shortage of mechanics. Getting young people excited about a career “under the hood” has been a challenge for a long time, and what have we done about it? Immigration helped in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but the skilled immigrant won’t or can’t fill in the gaps today. Why should we care? Because market forces, if allowed to decide both demand and supply, will never operate efficiently in our current system. The main reason is the need for formal training leading to government certification and licensing, which, while generating better technicians, injects a serious time lag in entry to the market. It seems to me that if we use the “Economics 101” model of market behavour, we have two choices: eliminate formal certifiation and let anyone work on vehicles (which would allow rapid entry into the industry), or create training and certification programs which are flexible, affordable, and allow local shortages to be addressed from within the country. A single national certification would be a good start, allowing techs to move to where the jobs are and start immediately, without paperwork.

Reducing the cost of entry into the industry is a larger problem. Training and certification is a Provincial responsibility, but the vehicles and repair procedures are the same coast to coast to coast. The fact that existing systems aren’t working suggests that real change needs to happen. Unfortunately, change happens so slowly that by the time a “solution” has been implemented, the target has moved. Governments in Canada are very good at waiting for a problem to go away on its own, and so far, markets have compensated well enough that it doesn’t cost $500 for an oil change, but the hidden costs to the economy of technician shortages are both serious and ominous. Ominous because current vehicle technology and the falling real price of entry-level cars and light trucks will continue to put downward pricing pressure on automotive service. Check the lease rates on a new Hyundai, then compare with a transmission rebuild financed by Visa and you’ll see what I mean. A stable supply of technical talent will be essential to keep the independent sector alive, especially in the new retail environment of big boxes and aggressive OE programs.

Ultimately, both the Provincial and Federal governments need to either move on the technician supply issue, or get out of the industry entirely. I feel that formal certification gives Canadians quality and reliability that wouldn’t be possible in a purely market-driven system, but that interference in market economics has to be accompanied by responsibility for the distortions it creates. So far, their record is awful. Those same governments also enjoy wide-ranging and little understood powers without the many checks and balances that jurisdictions in the U.S. take for granted. It’s easier to argue about how to divide responsibility than to work on faster, better solutions. We need to demand more from the politicians we elect.