Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2007   by J.D. Ney, Assistant Editor

Finding Employees

The Kids Want to In, But Why Aren't They Staying?

Across the independent service business, we all know what the major problem is with the continued success of the industry, don’t we? Asking shops across the country, and even many of the associations that support them, the resounding answer would seem to be, “We can’t get kids these days interested in the automotive service business; we need to bring more young people into the industry.” That has certainly been the refrain for years now.

Unfortunately, the industry may have fallen into a trap the popular American satirist Stephen Colbert has dubbed ‘truthiness,’ roughly defined as what someone “just knows to be true, from the gut, without any appeal to logic or the facts.” Truthiness has found its way into the automotive service business. As studies have shown, and as industry observers now attest, the real problem facing the continued success of the industry is employee retention, and not employee attraction. What’s more, according to many, it’s a task that many shop owners are just not taking seriously enough, choosing instead to keep towing the party line, regardless of how outdated it may be.

Eating the Young

A very informal poll conducted recently revealed some interesting answers when it came to a discussion about how apprentices were and should be treated. It would seem as though while most in the industry feel new employees in the trade should probably be treated better, many also note that they were treated very poorly.

As Murray Voth, an implementation coach with TACT Inc. notes, “Apprentices were hazed, and still are in some areas. We used to send them to get us a sky hook, or a can of compression. We made them do all the grunt work and dirty jobs, because we also had done our time and put up with the same treatment before.”

This is a reasonably telling comment that speaks to what is fast becoming a vicious cycle. Much like the bizarre and often obscene initiation ceremonies held on University campuses across the country, it would appear some owners and technicians view a difficult and trying apprenticeship experience as something of a right of passage. While some kids survive and stick with the trade, many others are simply not putting up with it. For an industry with a so-called labour shortage, this sort of tradition should be seen as counter productive.

To take only one of many examples, a recent letter to Jobber News stated: “I am one of those who did not stick with it because of the negative working environments that existed even back then. I found even the high school environment negative. I hoped that when I finished high school and got a job in a shop, it would be different. It was different — it was even worse,” the letter states. “It is long past time that those in positions of authority in every shop and high school across Canada realize how they drive away young people who are like I was — interested, and even passionate about the trade. If I had had support instead of negativity back then, I would still be in the field today at the age of 57,” the author concludes. While this is admittedly only one person’s experience, I think we can all agree that it’s probably not a unique story. The question then becomes, if contrary to the popular industry mantra the kids are in fact interested, and want jobs in this trade, why aren’t they staying, and what can be done about it?

Time to Change the Message

Despite the popular wisdom being repeated throughout the industry, there are certainly those that are starting to see things differently. John Norris, executive director of HARA, (Hamilton District Autobody Repair Association in Hamilton, Ont.) and the organizer of Career Day at this year’s Automechanika Canada, for one says that getting kids interested is no longer the issue. “The industry is, for the most part doing a good job of attracting people to the trade. In fact, our numbers have shown some 2,600 new apprentices since 2000,” he says. “Our challenge now has become how do we keep them?”

The current myth surrounding employee and apprenticeship retention usually revolves around the all-mighty dollar, but some surprising research is now even calling that assumption into serious question. A study sponsored though Human Resources and Development Canada titled Apprentice Retention in the Skilled Trades suggests financial compensation is not the top reason new employees are leaving the business, in fact, it’s not even in the top seven. However, continuing with our truthiness theme, cash is by far the most often cited reason owners seem pick when it comes to retention struggles. What is listed as being more important than pay are all of the softer, more difficult to quantify workplace items like appreciation, pride and responsibility. Certainly none of those things can be fostered by showing an eager young apprentice the corner and keeping him or her there for years to “pay their dues.”

How to Make the Change

The need for a shifted focus is quite plain. While industry participants clamber for programs to interest more people in the trades, interested kids are simply being pushed out. “It’s not that we don’t have people coming into the trade, we just don’t have any employer engagement yet,” says Norris. “We haven’t been able to work with employers enough to make an employee retention program easy for them, and a worthwhile process.”

As with many things in this business the answer is training. From individual technicians to shop owners, employee retention training should become a more regular part of the business management focus. This goal is undoubtedly ambitious given that any change in direction would likely have to be filtered down through at least a few association or banner program steps, but the fundamental problem is clear.

“The biggest reason [for apprenticeship retention problems] in my view is that people at the ownership level of many of shops used to be technicians, and have never been trained on how to be an employer, and certainly never learned about how to keep an employee,” says Norris.

The good news, at least for the moment is that there are some programs out there, for those who are curious enough and are serious about tackling the issue.

“There are lots of government grants and incentive programs out there,” says Norris. “But many shop owners don’t even know they exist, and others have put up barriers in their mind when it comes to apprentices. That has restricted their ability to access these programs. There is plenty of information, just not a lot getting through.”

Norris says what the industry needs is something of an overhaul in terms of its key messages about young employees and apprentices. Whereas for years it has been about getting people in, it now has to shift to moving people up. “The bottom line is that the message has to change,” he says. “It has to move up the ladder from how we get people interested, to how do we get people hired. So, to do that, we have to figure out how to start removing the barriers that are stopping the employers.”

As with many significant changes to opinions and beliefs, the major push will likely have to come from shop owners themselves. If it is in fact employee retention training that is required, it’s time to start demanding it from your associations and your banner programs.

The conclusion here is that the industry as a whole seems to have fallen into a pattern of too easily believing its own rhetoric. Without a clear picture of the actual state of things, owners and their associations have fallen back on what they have always instinctively thought to be true regardless of hard proof. What studies are showing now, however, is that a significant change desperately needs to happen at all levels of the service business if keen and enthusiastic apprentices are to be kept in the bays. Can and should the industry continue to try and convince more kids to give the automotive service business a chance? Of course. But it also needs to start taking better care of the ones it already ha

10 Key Retention Factors


Liking Co-workers






Financial Support

Access to Training

Work/Life Balance

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