SEMA took to Facebook to address the automotive technician shortage with a time-tested game plan for collision shops and schools to follow.
AUTOBODY SOURCE STAFF
On a SEMA Facebook Live chat this March, 30-year automotive aftermarket veteran and ASE Education Foundation educator Donna Wagner gave timely industry insights and advice for automotive program instructors, trainees, and students looking to develop successful collision repair careers. The following is a transcript of the livestream “Filling Your Technician Pipeline: What Your Company Can Do to Help Fill Open Positions.” Content has been edited for clarity.
I’ve had thirty years in the automotive aftermarket and it’s been a great experience. It’s the people that keep me here. I started with the Small Trade Association talking on the importance of vehicle maintenance and repair, and since then have worked in marketing, sales and category management roles for some suppliers. That very experience allowed me to teach the Automotive Aftermarket Management program at Northwood University and it played well into my passion for bringing people into the industry.
After six years at Northwood, I joined the ASE Education Foundation working with high schools and colleges to accredit their programs, so it’s been a great mix of education and bringing industry together with schools.
Promote Good Car Culture
When you look back thirty years, it was a problem then and it’s really come to a head that all these Baby Boomers are retiring. We’ve not necessarily created a good car culture with our young people, and the culture requiring students to attend a four-year college has somewhat dominated too. So we have the challenges of ‘How do we bring young people into this industry?’ and ‘How do we fill these open positions?’.
A lot of what I hear is that shops steal from other shops. But as with all things, if you take your time and develop that talent, they’re going to stick with you. So while it might not be the most popular, the answer is that sometimes you’ve got to grow your own talent. One of the ways you can do that is to work with your local automotive programs.
Join an Advisory Committee
In your community, I’m willing to bet that there is at least one school that has an automotive or medium and heavy-duty truck program. You may say ‘Well, that doesn’t really fit my needs,’ but these kids are learning about working on cars or fixing cars in a collision setting. They’re not 100 percent sure of where they belong. So go in and get to know them. Join an advisory committee. Most automotive programs have advisory committees made up of businesses in the area, so that’s one way to start. If you’re not sure of how to find that school or how to connect with them, the ASE Education Foundation has reps across the country. Visit aseeducationfoundation.org and click on Find a Program, or Find a Rep, to connect with someone like me who can introduce you to your local school.
Speak to a Classroom
Once you’ve engaged with an Advisory Committee, you can do things like donating your time and supplies. I would encourage you to speak with a classroom. From my experience, those companies and individuals who taught in the classroom did a lot to make themselves known. In the automotive industry, we’re all relationship-based, so they are the ones who developed the most relationships with the students and got the students to come work for them.
Find out what the instructor would like you to talk about, but make sure you also talk about your career path. I know of alot of people in this industry who started as technicians or parts people and branched into other careers. Being able to tell your own story and career path–and paying your way through college–is also a really cool thing.
Host an Open House
Work with your local automotive programs to have an open house for the students, with hands-on with the vehicles. That’s where the passion can start to develop. There’s definitely a passion with some younger folks for working with cars, that goes for girls and boys. They’re looking for the type of work that will motivate them. So look for groups like Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H Club and community outreach programs to get kids engaged so they become aware of what the opportunities are.
Hire Interns and Part-Time Workers
Once you start working with a school, look for opportunities to bring students in as interns or part-time workers and make sure you’re paying for that. You’re competing with other industries like fast-food jobs which pay better, frankly don’t require skills, and certainly don’t require a full toolbox. You may have to pay more up front, but that’s okay. Eventually, they will be making money for you and they will see the payback. Long-term thinking goes a long way toward developing talent.
Once you find a student you would like to hire full-time, one suggestion is to understand the generational differences. The accommodations we make benefit everybody. Younger generations often get thrown under the bus, but eventually they grow up. We were once the younger generation and we did too. One of the things I hear consistently is that younger people need acknowledgement. Not that they’re the greatest, the best, and wonderful. But when you walk into the shop, acknowledge that they’re there. Thank them for being there today. Sometimes it’s just as simple as that. When they do something well, acknowledge it. When they do something that needs improvement, acknowledge it and talk to them about how to improve it, and do so in a timely manner. Everybody appreciates that.
Be a Mentor
The younger generation looks to mentors to help them transition from the classroom to the workforce. I often hear from schools that students don’t successfully transition to the shop because of fear of the unknown. Shops can do a great service to automotive students by bringing them to your place of employment and showing them what it’s like to work there.
If they are somebody you’re wanting to hire, assign someone to work with that person to develop them, show them the ropes, give them direction and support. Also, reward the mentor for the work they are doing because, long term, the shops that do this retain more employees. Many, in fact, have young folks and experienced techs looking to their location for work. You develop a reputation as a good employer and employees show up wanting to work for you. The right mentor can do wonders. A bad mentor can break your business and chase folks away.
What Kind of Skills Do Good Techs Need?
What I hear consistently from employers is: It’s the soft skills. They need to show up for work and have a willingness to learn, take the initiative, and work hard. Outside of that, everything else can be trained. Ideally, we would like young technicians coming out of high school to have already had some automotive classes, but they can take those classes once they’re out of school, start developing those skills, and then move into a position.
These soft skills are reinforced through automotive programs. In fact, ASE-accredited schools require that students show up and follow OSHA safety standards, using their tools in the shop correctly. There are over 2000 accredited schools, plus others that aren’t, so I’m willing to bet there is a school in your community.
Help Students Develop a Career Path
When entering any job field, people want to know that they have a career. This is one of the areas that can help transform trade schools. A student shouldn’t have to choose between a four-year school and a trade school. You can start in the trades and if your dream is to work for a parts or car manufacturer, you can certainly do that. So when [shops] bring in new students, sit them down and ask them what they would like to do with their career, and where do they see themselves. Clearly have a career path in mind for them: You want them to advance their skills and be efficient, so communicate that as well. Provide very clear steps for how they progress to the next level. Maybe it’s ASE or OEM certifications, demonstrated skills, or perhaps they have to complete an amount of time worked.
One example is a graduate of a high school program who got his Associates at a community college and finished up with a four-year degree at Southern Illinois University. He worked as a technician and enjoyed it but was totally frustrated that he had no idea when the next pay raise would come or what it took to get it. Once he graduated SIU he got an opportunity to become a product manager for a parts manufacturer, and off he went. My guess is he probably would have stayed had he known what his career path was going to be. So you can literally make or break somebody’s career with your company by not providing them that career path.
Support Collision Training Programs
We’ve seen an increase on our end with automotive programs, but collision programs are closing much faster than automotive and that is concerning. It takes industry to keep those programs up and running. As we talk about retaining techs, it’s just as important to keep those programs up and running. We need the industry to step up and support those programs. Some of it comes down to exposing students to vehicles and the career options they have. If you are in the community, it’s your support as taxpayers that keeps those programs alive and you have a say regarding what happens in that school.
Promote the Trades to Parents & Teachers
Some non-traditional students face pressure at home against a career in the automotive trades, and it’s a mixed bag. I was at an advisory committee meeting recently where it was mentioned that a lot of educators are still pushing their students toward four-year schools, and that’s a problem. So we need to be talking to parents about the opportunities that our industry holds for their young people. I see some positives, but I still think it’s a challenge to get some parents and educators to move those kids into the trades. From my own experience, I have one son who works on Class A trucks and another who manages data for a parts manufacturer. So there is room for both.
I’ve heard from a lot of women I’ve worked with that they were steered away from their dream of working on cars. We as an industry need to talk to parents about these career opportunities. If we can show them that their young ones can get an education, become a technician and pay the bills much sooner than going through a four-year school, I think that’s a great story to tell.
Partner with Your Community College
Through my connections within the industry and with colleges, I am learning more about English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. This is a little-known and off-the-beaten path resource. There are a lot of people moving into this country for whom English is their second language, and sometimes their third, fourth or fifth. While there is a language barrier, they very often have good work ethic and want to work, but sometimes their careers in their home country don’t directly match them with jobs they could do here. Or they may be looking for new job opportunities. So work with your local community college’s ESL administrators to get introduced to people who are interested in automotive. This is a great source for people who want to work.
What Certifications Do Techs Need?
ASE certification is always highly recommended. As an employer, what you want to look for in a student from a high school or college program is an entry-level ASE certification. There are eight entry-level certifications they can earn. These won’t show that they have a lot of experience, but it does indicate their work readiness, that they have completed the coursework and have some hands-on exposure to those skills. It will also show you this student is willing to go above and beyond versus other students who do not obtain them.
Watch the full livestream here.