Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2014   by Tom Venetis, Editor

The Skills Shortage

Industry, governments need to come together to address the lack of skilled automotive technicians

Over the last several years, a range of studies and reports have found a persistent shortage of skilled automotive technicians. This is part of a larger, nation-wide problem of a shortage of persons entering into the skilled trades across multiple industries, the automotive aftermarket being just one.

In April, the Automotive Industries Association (AIA) of Canada released a statement arguing that the national skills shortage is “severely impacting Canada’s automotive aftermarket industry with a growing number of job vacancies and not enough skilled workers to fill them.” The AIA specifically pointed to a CARS Council report that found there are over 11,800 unfilled positions in Canada’s automotive aftermarket.

When CARS Council looked at the issue in greater depth in 2009, they identified several barriers for continuing business growth in the automotive aftermarket. The employers surveyed said that three of the top five barriers to growth were the supply of qualified new hires, staff time management skills and technical skill levels. In 2009, the study found nearly 5,000 jobs that were waiting to be filled for service technicians, over 1,800 for parts counterpersons or sales consultants and 1,600 for technician specialists. Many employers also said that with advancing vehicle technologies, the skills needed amongst new hires will have to encompass diagnostics, onboard electronics, advanced braking and body control systems, hybrid electric vehicle technologies, emissions controls, airbags and climate control, to name just a few.

Canadian provincial governments have been working to fill the gap in the skilled trades. British Columbia recently released its ‘B.C.’s Skills for Jobs Blueprint: Re-Engineering Education and Training.’ The comprehensive blueprint outlined the provincial government’s strategy: “Government currently funds education and training in excess of $7.5 billion per year. This is a lot of money from taxpayers. Re-engineering training and education doesn’t mean spending more, it means targeting more of the substantial resources already available to meet labour market priorities. So starting this fiscal year, we’re targeting over $160 million to do just that. In four years, this will ramp up to nearly $400 million per year. Over the span of our 10-year plan, this represents about $3 billion redirected towards training for high-demand occupations. That’s in addition to our capital plan, which over the next three years is targeting $185 million towards trades training infrastructure and equipment.”

The B.C.-based Automotive Retailers Association (ARA) is also looking at the issue, developing a sector-wide human resource strategy. In April, the ARA announced it had completed the second phase of the project that is designed to identify current challenges to filling shortages in the automotive aftermarket. Some of the challenges include an aging workforce, lack of defined career pathways, the fragmented approach to recruitment and retention and training. The goal of the ARA’s initiative is that it will assist in making decisions about how to tackle issues of recruitment, retention and training.

“The recently completed second phase of the ARA’s government-funded labour market project included the development of a Career Awareness and Marketing strategy, and a Human Resources strategy for the industry,” says Ken McCormack, president and CEO of ARA. “The recommendations in those strategies will be implemented over the coming months and by the fall of 2014 there will be employee recruiting and retention tools and resources available to employers and the industry as a whole.”

McCormack says one of the issues being addressed is the competition that the automotive aftermarket has with other skilled trades. Other trades offer higher pay along with fewer expenses to be incurred by the new recruit, such as tools and training. “Automotive trades traditionally don’t pay what some other trades do.”

Those entering the oil and gas extraction industry, mining, construction forestry and some manufacturing jobs enjoy pay significantly higher weekly pay than automotive service.

“As a means of addressing the labour shortage, AIA has created an HR Advisory Committee that is working on a career and education/training map for entry to and advancement within the industry, detailing job progressions and specific education/training opportunities,” says Stephanie Miksik, communications coordinator, AIA Canada.

“The Committee is also looking into mirroring the success of the Autobody and Refinishing Skills Canada program in the mechanical sector and is working with the Auto Care Association (formerly AAIA) in the US to identify best practices for industry attraction. From a government relations perspective, AIA National has also been working to educate its membership about available government programs.”

Dave Samalea, chairperson, automotive and motorcycle programs, School of Transportation with Centennial College in Toronto says changes that have happened to the automotive aftermarket have put new pressures on students and for filling needed positions in the automotive service trades.

“The trade has changed dramatically over the last two to three decades,” he continues. “Technology is now firmly entrenched in virtually all areas of the automobile. Electronics are an integral part of the engine, power train, suspension, climate and convenience systems. Being able to work with these complicated systems requires the same critical thinking and problem solving skills that doctors and lawyers require, yet it seems that we do not attract that kind of individual.”

Samalea says that industry and governments have come to recognize the issue as a pressing one and have started to work much more closely together to come up with ways of more effectively addressing issues about training and apprentice support.

In a June 2013 Conference Board of Canada report, ‘The Cost of Ontario’s Skills Gap,’ the report’s author says that the “skills gaps already take a heavy economic toll on Ontario’s economy, businesses, and residents and will worsen in coming years unless immediate action is taken. Although each sector will need to tailor strategies to address its unique occupational, skills, and credential needs, addressing Ontario’s skills challenges overall and securing future prosperity will require coordination, as well as additional resources and information . . . Many stakeholders in Ontario have a role to play. Employers can increase their investments in training and development and provide more experiential learning opportunities. Educators can better align programs to the realities of the economy. Federal and provincial governments can show leadership by investing in programs that provide skills training to under-represented groups and underutilized workers.”

“I think industry and government recognize the issue and are working to find ways to attract and retain people in the automotive trade,” Samalea adds. “Trade associations are doing more to promote career opportunities and the government offers wage subsidies and tax credits to employers, and incentive grants to apprentices to stay committed to complete their apprenticeship.”

McCormack says the automotive aftermarket as a whole needs to take a more proactive approach to getting young people into the service trade. Many have failed to recognize and accept the reality that if they don’t invest in attracting new talent into the trade they are going to face a more severe skills shortage in the near future. “Our studies show that we can expect a turnover rate of up to 30 per cent in the next five years. Shop owners must sponsor apprentices to grow their own future talent.”

“Many in the industry believe that mandatory certification would go a long way toward attracting more young people to our trades,” McCormack continues. “Automotive Service Technician, Collision Repair Technician and Automotive Painter/Prepper were compulsory trades in B.C. from 1996 until about 2002. The MacDonald Report (review of the Industry Training Authority), released in May 2014, included a recommendation that the government take another look at making some trades compulsory. We believe the automotive trades are worthy of this consideration.”

“There are currently a few major problems with training,” continues AIA’s Miksik. “For one thing, apprenticeship program completion rates are low because trainees are often lured to high-paying, low- and medium-skilled positions in other industries with lower barriers to entry, such as the oil and gas industry.

“As a means of encouraging apprentices to complete their training, AIA is working with the ACCC to emphasize the pay, stability and mobility benefits of trade certification. Another key issue is that the former CARS Council has disbanded due to a lack of funding. This program used to deliver on-line, just-in-time training on a host of technical, management and HR skills, and AIA is now exploring the possibility of taking over the management of this training delivery.

“On a positive note, the consolidation in warehouse/distributor and supplier networks (e.g. NAPA) is improving the delivery of product, process and management training to installers, and the growth of chain retailers (e.g. Canadian Tire, Active Green & Ross, etc.) is now having a similar effect.”

Samalea and McCormack agree that one area that needs to be addressed immediately is targeting young people early in their education to promote the automotive service trade as a viable profession.

Teaching the New Generation

“We need to start to focus more on students in elementary levels of the education system . . . to show them that being an automotive service technician can be a rewarding career both from a financial and a job satisfaction standpoint,” says Samalea .

“We need to get to the kids and key influencers in careers in schools and educate them that this is not the old automotive sector where you are up to your elbows in grease and that is the best you can expect from your career,” McCormack adds. “This is a highly technical career.”

Automotive service shop owners also need to be more aggressive in offering competitive salaries and to take an active part in training and educating new apprentices and hires, and support continuous training and upgrading of skills. “The automotive service industry in B.C. seems to suffer from a uniquely acute degree of apathy toward training compared to other provinces,” McCormack adds.

“The industry has to understand that to attract and retain high quality technicians comes at a price and the driving public also has to realize that the complicated piece of technology sitting in their driveway needs technicians with a high level of skill to be able to correctly diagnose and repair it.”

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