The technician shortage in the automotive industry is well documented. Techs are leaving the industry for more lucrative positions that are easier on their bodies and easier on their loved ones.
So the aftermarket is tasked with a fairly large challenge: How does it keep skilled, passionate, hardworking professionals in the industry?
The challenges are laid bare for all to see. Just a few examples: There is (perhaps overwhelmingly) a lot to learn, salary may not be what it should be at some shops, there’s a stigma around those working in the industry that it just can’t seem to shake and the physical demands of doing the job can quickly catch up to you.
These challenges call for creativity. Many are pinning hopes on the fact that the electric and electronic revolution will draw the interest of those who never would have considered themselves a gearhead or a person who would be in the automotive repair industry. But even for these folks, their brains and ability present many options in front of them. And when they see a lack of creativity and flexibility in how a repair shop operates compared to other sectors, they have every reason to look at other opportunities to utilize their skills and capture their interests.
But some in automotive repair are indeed thinking outside the box. They’re looking for ways to inject flexibility and a better work-life balance.
In one creative approach, some are looking at their shop hours, focusing on the four-day workweek. That’s an approach from Kinetic Auto Service that has so far been successful.
Erin Vaughan, the Regina-based owner, came to the idea after conducting a round of ‘stay’ interviews.
“It’s asking your staff the same questions you might ask in an exit interview,” Vaughan explained.
She went to them with about two full pages of questions. Each and every one of them asked to try a four-day workweek.
“They wanted to have more training, which we always need, and they wanted sick days,” Vaughan added.
Vaughan, the 2020 Shop of the Year Award winner from CARS magazine, didn’t waste any time acting on the suggestions.
“Two weeks later we moved to a four-day work week,” she said. “We implemented a new learning program: Shop Pro from Learn Pro, that feeds them training every day. And we gave them sick days.”
Vaughan’s team now works four, 10-hour days from Monday to Thursday. They work 9.5 hours on the floor, with half an hour a day, or two hours a week, spent on training.
They’re off Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Erin Vaughan, owner of Kinetic Auto Service in Regina
Facing the challenge of retention
Shop consultant Rick White has several clients who are already working in this format.
He says the passion for cars isn’t the same as it was back in his day — and there are also a lot of other jobs people could be doing.
“We come from an industry that works our people to death. We want them to work six hours, six days a week, and it really isn’t sustainable for a long period of time,” said the founder and president of 180Biz. “You know, in the summertime, the shops are really hot. It’s super easy to go work at Target for $18 an hour, and it’s warm in the winter, cool in the summer and you’re stocking shelves. So if we want good staff, we have to have a better work/life balance.”
Even with the extra day off, automotive technicians still have a physically demanding job. A 10-hour day sounds taxing. But Vaughan said her staff quickly adapted and wouldn’t go back.
That’s not surprising to Alan Beech, who runs Beech Consulting, a coaching firm for auto repair shops. Hard work comes naturally to most techs, he observed.
“The modern technician is very focused on producing hours,” Beech says. “They’ll usually be on some sort of bonus plan for billable hours, so they get very used to it. They want to beat the clock, they’re used to being focused, working hard and they get very strong at it. They get game-fit very quickly.”
There are benefits to the shop as well. White says his client shops have noticed more efficient use of time as a result of the change, “I’ve seen sales go up in shops because they’re getting more work done in four days than they were in five, because of that extra two hours.”
Beech says it’s a matter of shops having only four periods of start-up and shut-down in a week, instead of five, with the same total hours.
“If the work is scheduled and it’s there, then you can work through and keep your chain of thought. It costs shops money every time we come on or off a job. So if you can stay on the job it’s much more efficient,” he explained.
Vaughan’s shop is running better too, just a few months in. “Productivity has increased. I think it’s because everyone is so focused,” she observed. “They have three days [off]. They’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, damn, I didn’t get my laundry fixed that week’ or ‘When am I going to do that task?’ Now they have a weekday off, too, so they can go to doctor appointments and errands [during] work hours.”
“We come from an industry that works our people to death. We want them to work six hours, six days a week, and it really isn’t sustainable for a long period of time.”
The four-day workweek has become a popular topic of discussion in the corporate world. It’s easier to implement a compressed work schedule in companies where people are working out of the office, rather than a shop floor where customer service leads the way.
Still, there have been many benefits found by going from five to four days at work. A U.K. study found that there was reduced stress and illness in the workforce compared with a five-day working week, following a six-month trial period.
The study was carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., Boston College in the U.S., and the London-based think tank Autonomy, as well as 4 Day Week Global and U.K.’s 4 Day Week Campaign.
In what was the biggest trial of the idea, 61 companies and nearly 3,000 employees took part in the trial run, which ran from June to December 2022.
The study reported that 39 per cent of employees were less stressed after the four-day working week trial. Seven in 10 (71 per cent) had reduced levels of burnout at the end of the trial.
“Likewise, levels of anxiety, fatigue and sleep issues decreased, while mental and physical health both improved,” the study said.
It further called the trial “a resounding success,” noting that 56 of the 61 companies will continue with the four-day week (92%) and 18 confirmed the policy will be a permanent change.
It found that company revenue stayed about the same and staff departures dropped 57 per cent over the trial period.
“For many, the positive effects of a four-day week were worth more than their weight in money, the report said. “Fifteen per cent of employees said that no amount of money would induce them to accept a five-day schedule over the four-day week to which they were now accustomed.”
Recruitment platform Talent.com reported that a survey it conducted showed that nine in 10 (93 per cent) Canadians are interested in a four-day workweek. More than half (57 per cent) said the concept would be in their top three choices of benefits offered by a company.
That mirrors results of a Robert Half survey that found 91 per cent of Canadian senior managers polled said they would support a four-day workweek for their team. Offering workers the option of a four-day workweek could support employee retention, productivity and well-being, the study found.
“Productivity has increased. I think it’s because everyone is so focused.”
Preparing for the shift
A shop that wants to transition to a four-day workweek can’t ignore the importance of using modern tools to operate at peak efficiency.
“It’s easy [to instigate a four-day working week] if you take a shop like mine: One that’s already running digitally,” Vaughan said. “For example, all our communication is by email, we’re already doing online payment, we’re appointment only, we’re doing DVIs [digital vehicle inspections]. So our shop was already set up this way.”
Beech noted that the modern shop is already positioned to make this shift thanks to increased digital technology and customer-focused programs like touchless drop-off and pick-up.
“Today we have valet, pick-up, delivery, online payment, touchless pick-up – so shops are well set up for this sort of change now,” he said.
As for how a shop should prepare its customers for the shift, Beech offered some recommendations.
“You need a system for online payments, a system where the customer can get hold of them outside of hours, so they don’t lose the potential for work and proper signage on the store,” he said.
As for that signage, Beech suggested something that says, “We work a four-day workweek so we can support our families. If you want to get a hold of me, you can reach me on this number.” That makes it easy for clients to get in touch, ensures the shop doesn’t lose out on potential work and helps existing customers feel supported.
One other way to introduce a four-day workweek to customers is during a summer trial run.
“That’s one thing. Start it as a trial for the summer, and just never go back,” White suggested. “What we want to do is, come springtime, you put a sign out that says ‘Dear clients, to let our team enjoy the summer months, come summer, we’re going to go to a four-day work week’”.
Of course, a lot of people are afraid that if they’re not open on Friday they’ll miss out.
“On that sign put an emergency number or an after-hours number. It doesn’t mean you’re going to open the shop and fix the customer’s car out of hours, but it means you have a way to take the call, get the appointment and get over the fear of missing out,” White said.
“I do recommend that contact number though, to make your clients feel better.”
While Vaughan has yet to see a downside at Kinetic Auto Service, White and Beech caution owners about techs working at other shops on their extra day off.
“Down here, you sometimes get a tech who then wants to start moonlighting,” White said. “So I was very clear with my guys that fixing cars on their off hours or another shop was a conflict of interest and a fireable offence.
“But we also said, if they had someone who wanted them to work on the car, they could bring it to the shop. We gave them a bonus on it and they didn’t have to work nights, they didn’t have to deal with someone coming to their house all the time and they didn’t have to worry about liability.”
“It costs shops money every time we come on or off a job. So if you can stay on the job it’s much more efficient.”
All three were enthusiastic about the benefits of a four-day workweek for shops and techs alike. In an industry under fire from so many angles, Vaughan sees this as just another smart progression to take.
“If we want this industry to continue, we have to get a lot better,” she said.
“We have to become professional businesses, that know our numbers, that take care of people, and ensure that we’re creating a long-term industry. If we don’t, our techs are going to all leave and we’ll be screwed. And I like them all. I want them to stay.”