Critical Shortage Getting Worse: Area car dealerships, garages struggle to find enough auto techs

nmcautoshop2Except for devoted Luddites who like to work on their older model muscle cars and pickups, the day of the shade tree mechanic has pretty much passed. Radical changes in car technology saw to that.

The mechanical skill it takes to pull an engine block or fix a transmission still counts for something. But these days what garages and car dealerships throughout the region look for as much, and probably more, is an understanding of electronic control systems and computer-based diagnostic tools.

Those changes, and the simple fact that there are more cars on the road than ever, have created job opportunities and the lure of good pay for auto techs – so much so that garages and car dealers are in something of a bidding war to find trained qualified labor. Mechanics – or to use the more enlightened term, auto techs – are in great demand.

Plenty of Available Jobs

“It’s incredible the number of calls I get each day from car dealerships,” said Wayne Moody, instructor at Northwestern Michigan College’s Auto Tech program. “There’s no doubt about it. There’s a critical shortage of qualified labor, and it’s going to get worse.”

Moody speaks from two vantage points – that of a teacher and as the longtime owner of a car repair garage.
“I get calls from all over the region and from the U.P., Grand Rapids and other states.”

Why the Shortage?

Moody said there are several reasons for the continuing labor shortage: Many experienced mechanics have retired, often because of frustration with new technologies. That has created job openings.

The shortage of qualified auto techs to fill those positions, however, lags well behind.

In some cases, negative attitudes persist among young people and their parents about what Moody calls the “grease monkey” stereotype. Another factor is the push to attend college and find a white collar job. That has left many employers in numerous skilled trades looking for workers, as the Traverse City Business News has reported on often.

All of those factors leave automotive tech programs like NMC’s scrambling to recruit students and meet the demand for qualified professionals. NMC’s program is nimble. The school offers two-year associate’s degrees or, for those who want a shorter route to employment, master certifications and other trade designations. The college also works with area high schools and publicizes the advantages of a career in auto technology.

“That’s our job, to get the message out, especially to high schools – and we’re doing it,” Moody said. “But at the same time, it has to be the right person. They have to come to us with some abilities. They need to be able to think on their own, to have analytical skills, critical thinking.”

“Someone who has to be spoon fed all the information probably won’t do as well. There won’t always be an instructor telling you do this, do that. It’s not like an assembly line. The same kind of car you just dealt with, then another one comes in and [presents] an entirely different set of problems.”

NMC becomes a starting point for careers, he added.

“We teach them the basics, then shops hire our students into entry positions,” Moodys said. “Based on performance, employers can decide whether to invest tens of thousands of dollars in training them further.”

(Trained) Help Wanted

So why don’t more young people, or those who want to switch to a more lucrative career, respond and fill that labor shortage?

“In the old days, you got a job at a gas station and worked your way up to mechanic. But now, shops want people who bring skills to the job,” Moody said.

“Trained” these days means someone with the right balance of mechanical skills and an understanding of electronics. And that can be a problem. Moody still gets students who don’t understand that both skill sets count.

“The other day I was talking to the class,” Moody said. “I asked them to put up their hands if they expected to be working on mechanical stuff. Everybody raised their hands.”

“Then I asked how many got into this field to work on electronics. No one raised a hand. But to succeed today as an auto tech, your mind has to be on the two types of technologies.”

Employers these days also value communication skills.

“They’re working on expensive, high-tech cars,” Moody said. “They have to be able to explain things clearly.”

Potential Rewards

The shortage of qualified technicians has pushed up wages. “When I got into this business, you could make an OK living,” Moody said. “But now someone can make really good money. Several (high level) technicians end up making $100,000 plus at dealerships. It’s not uncommon. For those people, dealerships have probably invested $30,000 in their education. Of course they only do that for the real go-getters.”

Auto dealers are willing to make that kind of investment, he said, because they understand the importance of service.

“There’s no replacement for service. The result is that hard workers who are qualified typically make $50,000 to $60,000 after just a few years. “And we have several facilities who’ll buy the tools. I’d never heard of that before. At the end of five years, [the auto techs] own them outright. That might be a $7,000 investment.”

Sometimes employers will even take a chance on those who haven’t finished their basic training courses.

“And last year, there were lower enrollments because shops were hiring people before they were finished the program,” Moody said. “We had a student who hadn’t graduated. He took a job in Grand Rapids at $27 an hour.”
That would translate to roughly $54,000 per year.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, a tire store asked for six to eight technicians even if they had no previous training. And they’re willing to offer them money towards their schooling and to work around their schedule.”

Rich King, fixed operations director at Bill Marsh Automotive Group, agreed that the job market conditions force employers to be more flexible.

“It’s become harder every year to find people,” he said. “We’ve worked with Wayne and hired a lot of good people, but he has only so many students and everyone in northern Michigan is looking for auto techs. We’ve also spent a lot of time traveling to different colleges throughout Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.”

At Bill Marsh, new hires, he said, go through a two- to three-year training program.

“What we want are well-rounded techs,” he said.