The Next Generation of Techs
When I was first promoted to the fixed operations director, one of issues I inherited was staffing. As our vehicle sales were rising, we were unable to find technicians and advisors to keep up with our growing demand of work. For several years while I was the body shop manager, I experienced a decline of people interested in collision repair. I used to sit on an advisory board for a local vo-tech school to help them develop training and I would hire some of the best students to work in my shop during their summer breaks.
However, for the past several years, vo-tech schools have not been the answer for technicians, particularly body techs. Young people today, at least around us, seem to attend vo-tech while they are still in high school and mostly for a grade that allows them to graduate. The problem with vo-tech schools in our area is they are anywhere from 5–10 years behind on the current repair procedures and equipment needed to fix a late-model vehicle. As enrollment declines and the manufacturers continually make improvements to vehicles, vo-tech schools cannot afford to keep up with the fast-changing vehicles and the instructors at the schools are usually past their prime or do not have the skills needed to keep a job in a production shop. Why would anyone teach for less than half what they could make in a shop? For this reason, several schools have closed their technician programs around us.
As a Ford dealer, we have the manufacturer’s program for service technicians, where, in two years, you come out of school a certified technician with an associate’s degree. Yet for the past several years, Ford has had a hard time filling the classrooms to the point where for a few years we did not have any classes in our area. So, why are we having such a hard time getting young people into this business?
First, I want to make sure that everyone understands that my statements are my beliefs based on my experiences and conversations with others throughout the industry. I believe too many people still see technicians and body techs as under-educated grease monkeys and that any dropout can do the job. This has to change. With all of the advancements in vehicles today, our technicians have to continually improve their skills and knowledge through continuing education and experience. The idea that any high school dropout can become a technician has long since passed. Technicians today have to be very computer savvy with the ability to diagnosis not only part failures but also programming and software issues within the vehicle. And collision technicians have it even harder; they not only need to be able to make the vehicle look good, they also have to make sure their repair is safe for another collision.
Second, I do not believe that as an industry we have done a good job selling the opportunities and benefits of working at a dealership to high schools and guidance counselors. We are one of the few industries that, if you have the technical and mechanical abilities and you’re willing to go through the training, you can make double what your classmates will make after they graduate college. Most technicians and body techs that go through the training to be certified have the ability to make six-figures salaries by their fifth or sixth year in a production shop, if they do good work. I believe that due to the shortage of qualified people entering the field and the current age of our technicians, pay and incentives will only continue to rise.
The day of the shade tree mechanic or at-home body technician filling our shops are gone. These people may be able to get a job changing oil or tires at an independent service center, but not with us. Open the hood on any new vehicle and you can barely make out the engine. Every year there are so many improvements made to vehicles to make them better, more efficient and user friendly. With each improvement, we have to make sure our people are trained to diagnose new issues and repair the vehicle.
I do not know what the future of our business will be but I am worried about who will be repairing our vehicles in the next 10–20 years. Service work has already started to turn for the worse. How many of your service departments or body shops have gotten a vehicle that was supposed to be repaired at an independent service center or body shop only to find out that the first shop caused more damage than they fixed? Unfortunately, that is another one of my pet peeves and is a column to itself.