It’s a fact: the first wave of baby boomers will be hitting retirement age by 2012. Those retirees include people in the automotive service and repair industry, where the current apprentice shortage means big problems in the near future. Look around your shop and ask yourself, ‘who will be minding the business in ten years’?
“We’ve got an image out there that careers in the trades are dirty and dangerous and boring, when in fact, today’s trades are anything but,” says Beverlie Cook, Project Manager of the Skilled Trades Promotion Project, and 15-year veteran of the AIA. Skilled trades, including auto repair, have an image problem. Schools aren’t promoting it, parents aren’t up to speed on it, and consequently kids aren’t considering a career in auto service. It’s an issue with serious implications for both the automotive industry and drivers.
The automotive service industry is not alone in its apprenticeship issues. All the skilled trades in Canada will have critical labor shortages within 10-20 years and auto service will be competing with those other trades to get the few recruits available. But what will they have to offer?
According to the CARS Council study, Bridging the Gaps-Issues and Challenges Facing the Canadian Automotive Repair and Service Industry, approximately 40% of auto service workers are reporting an annual income of $35,000 or less, with only 14% making over $55,000 annually. A starter set of tools needed to make the most basic repairs will cost an apprentice between $3,000-$4,000, at a time when their income is at its lowest. Seasoned technicians can expect to invest between $10,000 and $30,000 in personal tools, according to the CARS study, with another $1,000 to $2,500 in annual upgrade expenditures. Adding insult to injury, these tool costs are not income tax deductions, something CARS is actively lobbying to change.
And what’s in it for employers? Acquiring the skills needed to work on modern cars is a long, expensive process. Even seasoned technicians struggle to fit-in training on the latest electronics and diagnostics in order to stay current. And who’s going to give the trainee a shot at a major repair when there’s so much money at stake in parts and labor?
The cost of training an apprentice lacks a long-term pay-off for many shops, especially small, independent operations without franchise funding behind them, explains Gil Verwey, Director, Employees at the Ontario shop associate AARO: “A lot of shops don’t want to make an investment in an apprentice because they will go from shop to shop to get experience with different types of cars and work environments. There has to be actual incentives for employers so that if they do lose those apprentices two years down the road, it’s not a huge financial loss for them. They need some kind of tax break or wage subsidy program, run by the government because it would be a big undertaking.”
Independent shops will likely take the biggest hit when the skilled labor shortage hits crisis proportions. Studies by CARS and other industry analysts have identified a skills-gap in both technical and non-technical areas which is making it harder for smaller shops to compete. Keeping up on the latest electronics and diagnostic technology is time consuming and difficult to access for smaller businesses. And ‘soft-skills’ like customer relations, computer knowledge and management practices, factors that contribute to profitability in today’s auto service industry, are also harder to acquire for shops without a franchise network backing them. With more funding behind them, franchise shops may have the edge in attracting, and keeping, apprentices down the road.
The Awareness Gap
As if the auto repair industry doesn’t have enough on its plate staying current and well-equipped, they’re also fighting an outdated image of the skinned knuckled, grease covered mechanic who spends most of his day on his back. It’s an image that’s just not cool with kids, or their parents.
“I think one of the hardest sells is with parents whose knowledge of the labor market may be 25 years out of date,” says Diane Seed, Project Coordinator for Ontario’s Halton Industry Education Council. “Parents may not be aware of some of the technological advances in the workplace that require bright kids to be in apprenticeship because learning is going to be continuous in a skilled trade.”
This is particularly true of the auto service industry, where technological advances in automobiles require years of training in multiple skills to produce a competent technician. And the learning curve never flattens. Shop class, in the few schools that still offer one, is often woefully out of date, with kids being taught how to rebuild carburetors on twenty-five year-old wrecks. The high-tech, computer driven reality of modern cars is actually far sexier, but high school kids may not be aware of this. Educators, like parents, are out of the loop.
“Many educators are not aware of the good careers in skilled trades like auto service. Educators, by virtue of their background, know academia and they tend to send students towards university. Most parents and educators do not think of apprenticeship as a form of post secondary education and neither do young people,” says Cook.
One Halton school board study says 85% of kids in secondary schools think they’re going to university, when in fact only 50% will go and only half of those kids will graduate with a degree. According to Seed, the average age of an apprentice in Ontario is 28, so a lot of young people are falling through the cracks in their early twenties.
As many a waiter will tell you, having a degree is no guarantee of a job. And the computer industry has a glut of technicians thanks to ten years of educators funneling kids into computer training. The trades, including auto service, are actually a career option with a future. And that’s the message that needs to get out to young people.
While none of the labor problems facing the auto service industry are an easy fix, hope is on the horizon. In January 2003, the federal government announced $12 million in funding for a three-year, national campaign to promote skilled trades as a “first-choice career option.” Managed by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum in partnership with Human Resources Development Canada, the “Skilled Trades: A Career You Can Build On” campaign uses a multi-level approach to target parents, educators, employers and kids through the media, schools and the workplace. Their website, careersintrades.ca, provides information and resources.
Local programs like apprenticesearch.com, run by the Halton Industry Education Council in Ontario, are also attempting to increase awareness and connect employers with apprentices. Industry organizations like CARS are conducting ongoing, in-depth studies to identify the challenges faced by the auto service industry, and develop programs for making the industry more competitive and attractive to young people. AARO is also working on behalf of its members to make them more profitable, including active lobbying to make tool expenses tax deductible, among other things. They also provide links for young people interested in a career in auto service.
Ultimately, attracting young apprentices to the auto service trade is going to require undoing a lot of damage that has been creeping up on the industry for years. An image makeover is only part of the equation. Independent businesses, as well as franchises, will need to be profitable to take the industry into the 21st Century. Auto service is a high-tech business that often suffers from low-tech management practices and inefficiencies. A shop that makes money can afford to take on apprentices.