The Opportunity to Solve the Current Automotive Technician Shortage
Canada’s current unemployment as of September 2012 is 7.1 per cent. The unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 15 to 24 is 13.6 per cent, almost twice the national average. Stats Canada reports that 20 per cent of university...
Canada’s current unemployment as of September 2012 is 7.1 per cent. The unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 15 to 24 is 13.6 per cent, almost twice the national average. Stats Canada reports that 20 per cent of university graduates who do have jobs are not working in the field they studied for, which some experts call underemployment. In addition to that, university graduates carry an average of $28,000 in student loan debt. It is time for our industry, our government, our education system, the parents of our youth and our youth themselves to face the realities of the true opportunities that are available for a great career with great pay.
The automotive service sector, both the independents and the new car dealers, are currently experiencing a shortage of 4,984 qualified automotive service technicians Canada-wide. If you include heavy duty, auto body and collision, and parts counter technicians the number climbs to 11,821. (CARS Labour Market Update Study 2013)
If that shortage is not addressed, it is projected to double each year for the next four years due to technicians retiring or leaving the industry for other reasons and the growth of the sector. There could be a shortage of 20,000 automotive technicians by 2017, and an overall shortage of 75,776 of motive power technicians.
Why The Shortage?
Why are we not attracting more young people into this trade? First of all, only 50 per cent of all automotive shops in Canada use apprentices. (CARS Labour Market Update Study 2013) There are many reasons given for this, including that they are not busy enough or not big enough; but many shops do not want to invest the time and the money, stating that the returns are not there for the investment or that the apprentice leaves after getting his/her license. There has been a lot of misinformation given to parents and school counselors starting in the 1990s and then into the 2000s.
In the 1990s, young people were all pushed towards computer programming and the Internet. Everyone was going to be a millionaire. After the Internet bubble burst, the next big thing was business school and everyone was encouraged to get their MBA. Trades were seen as a choice of last resort. Parents and society viewed the trades as dirty and below them. Many high schools closed their automotive shop classes and put the money towards other curricula. Of the five high schools in the district I live, four have closed their automotive programs and the fifth has scaled theirs back.
Almost 50 per cent of young people signing up for automotive apprenticeship programs drop out after two years (Canadian Independent Automotive Association). Why is this? Over the years there has been a culture of using apprentices for simple low-paying work and of hazing them. The hazing seems to be diminishing. However, the culture is still perpetuated by some senior staff who state they had it hard in the old days and new employees need to learn how hard things can be.
Many apprentices are relegated to performing oil changes and such basic services all the time, and they lose interest in proceeding because they are not developing their skills. If they do stick things out, many are not qualified when they are finished their four years because they have not had the experience they need to be licensed. This creates a double-edged sword for other shop owners looking to take on newly licensed technicians and finding that they have to invest a lot of time to help them catch up to the levels that their papers indicate.
Another factor is the fact that vehicle manufacturers are making vehicles that are highly technical, many with extended service intervals. This creates a scenario in dealer service operations where they only need one or two highly skilled technicians and lots of lower skilled service technicians purely to do maintenance and replace parts. Many young people see this as an assembly line mentality and are looking for more exciting opportunities. Once a vehicle is older there are more challenges for technicians and those that work in the aftermarket get to work on a greater mix of makes and models, and a wider variety of maintenance, diagnosis and repairs. In addition, the approach by some provincial apprenticeship programs to create four separate licenses for each year accentuates this problem. By allowing large dealership and franchise chains to hire dozens of lube technicians, a handful of brake and undercar technicians and one or two fully-trained and licensed journey persons, some of the colleges in more remote areas of Canada have had to cancel third and fourth year classes because of a lack of registrations. All of this contributes to young people leaving this apprenticeship and sourcing other careers.
What is the Solution?
The solution to attracting more youth to this industry is to get the word out to high school students, their parents and the school counselors about the opportunities there are in this industry. It is a rewarding job and unlike the past, due to the shortages in technicians, the pay rates are getting much better. Independent shop owners and parts store owners need to be involved in any career day presentations that come available. Shops and parts stores need to sponsor the automotive shop classes with tools, equipment and money. Shops and parts stores need to invite students and parents to visit their locations and get involved in young people’s careers choices. For too long we have made it the fault of the government, schools or the apprenticeship board.
We need to get involved, and those that get involved first are going to get the cream of the crop. We also need to market these concerns to the general public. If this problem is not solved soon the rates to service vehicles will begin to go up exponentially as the rates to keep people in this industry escalate. There is talk of bringing in foreign workers, but for this industry, if their English skills are not there, this creates another challenge.
Recruitment takes place on several levels. Shops need to be trained as to the benefit of hiring an apprentice. The Canadian Apprenticeship Forum reports that employers receive a benefit of $1.47 for every $1 they invest in an apprentice. This cost/benefit analysis needs to be brought to all shop owners so they have a clear understanding of the benefits.
The industry needs Federal and Provincial support on several levels. There needs to be an equitable and transparent apprenticeship program and administration of that program. It cannot be left completely up to the private sector. In some cases, those with more money manipulate the program to their advantage. Our industry associations such as the Canadian Independent Automotive Association, the Automotive Industries Association and all of the existing provincial associations need to advocate both to industry and government for support for these programs. Please join these associations and give of your time and knowledge to solve this opportunity.
I know that our governments are committed to creating employment; both the Federal and Ontario governments both committed 71 million dollars each toward the refurbishing of Ford’s Oakville plant. They say that would create 2,800 permanent jobs. In my opinion we could get 5,000 jobs in the automotive sector with much less money.
In most jurisdictions, apprentices go to school for six weeks every year. During that time they are away from work and only receive EI benefits. There should be a combination employer and government subsidy so that the apprentice has full wages during this time. I think that would help us retain many more apprentices in our industry. There are programs already available and there was some federal money available through Canada’s Economic Action Plan. But many shops, accountants and others that could help with this are unaware of what is available.
The industry needs to actively recruit female candidates for apprenticeship. In addition, the male-centric culture needs to evolve to become more egalitarian. The other challenge facing us is the lingering perception that only those who are unable to follow an academic path in high school and university are left over for the trades, whether male or female. The education system needs to work with different learning styles and recognize different types of intelligence. The automotive service sector is full of highly intelligent hard working individuals, they need to be given the respect that other professions already have. The fact of the matter is that 20 per cent or more of university graduates are under employed, but in the trades, anyone who wants to work can get a job.
In conclusion, once we attract and hire an apprentice we need to work hard at retaining them. When an apprentice is hired, the shop needs to have a complete training schedule laid out so that the apprentice and the shop are held accountable for her/his progress. When an apprentice sees hope that they will have a license in four years and the pay to go with it they will stay. Have a pay structure laid out so that as they progress through training they get the raises they deserve. And though there is currently a tool subsidy program available to apprentices, it is too little for the amount of tools that they need to purchase. That needs to be increased. I think a combined sponsorship by shops and parts companies will bring this to the next level. We have 5,000 positions to fill this year, and 5,000 more for each of the next four years. The best solution for everyone involved is to grow our own technicians.
During my career as a shop owner I had the privilege of sponsoring at least six apprentices who completed their journeyman certification. When you grow your own, they learn to do things the way that you and your clients want. They become part of a growing family.
Dave Meunier’s Automotive Management Training and Consulting group is one of the most sought after providers of business solutions for shop owners in Canada. Contact Lee Meunier, Toll Free at 1-866-489-8228 (TACT) or by email Lee@proshopmanager.ca