Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2011   by Murray Voth, TACT (Total Automotive Consulting and Training)

The Next Generation

Everywhere I travel in Canada to put on management training I find shops talking about the shortage of qualified automotive technicians. Like any challenge in life or business there are usually several ways to look at something. I hear of...

Everywhere I travel in Canada to put on management training I find shops talking about the shortage of qualified automotive technicians. Like any challenge in life or business there are usually several ways to look at something. I hear of technicians leaving our industry for other trades because of better pay and less stress; but I have met shop owners that say they have no problem finding qualified technicians and paying top wages to attract the best in their marketplace. I resonate with those shops; they are well managed, productive, and profitable. For them, it is a matter of finding the right specialty or skill set and the right fit for their team. Many of these shops have lists of technicians waiting to sign up and work for them.
Another question to ask that leads to another point of view is, “What is your definition of a qualified technician?” Many years ago, I hired a technician based on the references he had from a previous shop he had worked at. He had moved to my area and was looking for a job. He was a hard worker, like his former employer had stated, but he was also what I call the king of silicon, muffler tape, bailing wire and bungee cords. As you can tell from my description he was a “patcher” not a “fixer.” He did not last long at my shop. I am convinced that what we need to do is improve our interviewing and hiring processes to attract better and more qualified people.
On the other hand, I think many shop owners are looking for the perfect technician, someone who can do it all, or someone who is as good as they are, (or think they are). It is my belief that the perfect technician is a figment of our collective imaginations and we spend a lot of wasted time, effort and money trying to find them. What is truly possible is a great team. Just like a successful sporting franchise, we need the right mix of skills, personality and the ability to act both as a team player, and to be able to make independent decisions when required. I find that few shops plan for their employment requirements, leaving it ‘till someone quits, is fired or the shop gets really busy to hire another technician. Many times these decisions made in haste, are regretted for a long time.
What about the “Prima Donas” as we call them? We have all experienced one of them in our shop, or currently have one “running” our shop from the bays. I believe that for the most part this industry has created the “Prima Dona” syndrome. With a few exceptions made for personality disorders, this is a symptom caused by our industry. I think it takes form in two ways. The first reason some technicians act like they know it all and are the best comes from a sense of insecurity. They are expected to be able to fix everything, to be able to diagnose anything and to know everything, but they know they can’t. However, to admit that is hard for anyone, not matter what career they have.
On the one hand, consumers and management expects technicians to know it all, yet several things happen that handicap that technician. The consumer unwittingly withholds information regarding how their vehicle is operating, thus making technicians guess. In addition, there is pressure from the consumer to have good, cheap and fast all in the same sentence, if you get my drift. Owners, managers and service advisors will also withhold information and do not ask the customer enough questions. Management expects high levels of performance without offering training and up to date equipment. With these kinds of pressures, I am surprised we don’t have more “Prima Donas” than we do. What are we doing to keep the best in our industry?
More to the point, as an industry we are not attracting as many new people to our industry as we need. Part of that is our responsibility and part of it is the responsibility of society expressed through the school system and parental expectations. The days of hazing apprentices and giving them all the crappy jobs year after year needs to end.
I agree that apprentices need to learn how to keep a shop clean, how to do all the equipment maintenance and how to do lots of the menial low paying jobs. But they also need to be challenged. They need to be given jobs that stretch their knowledge and skill level and their progress as technicians needs to be monitored and documented. We need to grow our future experienced and skilled technicians ourselves.
In the 1990s, the buzz was all about computers and the Internet. The dotcom bubble caused parents and high school counselors to guide young people into computer training. In the early 2000s, it was all about business and young people were all counseled to get business schooling. The trades were seen by many parents as “dirty jobs” not worthy of their children.
Of the five high schools in my area, only one has an automotive shop program left. Many school counselors still see the trades as an avenue for a student who is not doing well in school. In my day those of us taking shop classes were called “occs” short for occupational and it was not a compliment. The people needed today must be highly intelligent and skilled to work on the technology that is evolving.
Having said that, I still think the automotive trade is a great place for kinetic learners. Kinetic learners are those who learn by doing and touching, they need to experience the learning process physically. They may not always fit into a traditional academic model, but that is no reflection on their great intelligence. Rather than see shop class as a place to put those that don’t fit into our dated educational model, we need to see it as a place for those with natural mechanical abilities and interests to be trained and encouraged to pursue a trade.
Lastly, our apprenticeship programs and post secondary trade schools are in the midst of a crisis of politics, power struggles and upheaval. Dated curriculum, poor apprenticeship completion rates and a shortage of qualified instructors are only part of the challenge. In many parts of Canada, I find shop owners cannot get their apprentices into the appropriate level of classes in a timely fashion for them to complete their apprenticeships on time.
Colleges claim that low enrollment in the 3rd and 4th year levels causes them to cancel classes for economic reasons. In some colleges the vehicle manufactures fund exclusive classes for their apprentices only, excluding apprentices from the independent sector from attending. In some cases, this creates a shortage of instructors and classroom space.
Adding insult to injury, many provincial automotive apprenticeship programs are being restructured so that the four levels of experience are being segregated into four separate licenses. In British Columbia, it is called a progressive credentialing model. It is presented as a method to credential apprentices for each of their levels and assure employers of the consistency in the knowledge and achievement of each apprentice.
Apprentices can exit the program with whatever level they have achieved and be employed at that level but must stay in the program through all levels to achieve their full license. It can be argued that one of the benefits of this methodology is that someone who might not make it all the way to their full Red Seal Certificate can still be gainfully employed at the level they have achieved. My concern is that this process will be abused and many potentially good technicians will be relegated to lower paying positions based on their lower level certifications.
There are already reports of large chain store shops and new car dealerships having only one or two fully certified technicians and more than a dozen shop employees with only their level one or two certifications. It is not wonder that the colleges report low enrollment in the 3rd and 4th year levels.
In conclusion, I would like to challenge all of you to take matters into your own hands. This industry has allowed the shortage of qualif
ied automotive technicians to occur; we are the ones that have to solve the problem.
Firstly, if you do not have an apprentice working for you at this time, consider reevaluating your business model to include one, start by opening the door. Secondly, spend some time informing and educating the school counselor in your local high school of the benefits of recommending bright students into our great trade. Help sponsor the shop class in some way. They may need some equipment or tools, or may be building a racing car as part of the program. Thirdly, get involved in the provincial apprenticeship program in your area. Get involved on any planning committees or college advisory boards that have openings for industry representatives. Find out if industry representatives are even invited; don’t leave it up to the bureaucrats and administrators to run the programs without your input. Fourthly, investigate government grants, subsidies, and tax credits both for the shop and the employee to help pay for training and apprentice development.

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