Solving the technician shortage involves a multi-pronged effort that involves parents, industry involvement in local AT programs, mentorships, apprenticeships and more
It’s no mystery that qualified automotive technicians are in short supply throughout the transportation industry. It has has changed dramatically over the last 50 years — so much so that its new apprentices require an intensive formal education in order to become the next lead technician at your auto repair business. Long gone are the days when you could hire someone out of high school, have them clean the shop and then expect them to gradually learn the trade at the same time.
Today, owners and managers of auto repair businesses seem to agree on two key points. First, locating and hiring qualified technicians is more difficult than ever before. Second, attracting eager young students to this industry is equally challenging. This industry needs to address these challenges head on. Here are several practical, proven ways to help alleviate this shortage.
Step One: Advisory Committees
Getting more involved in your local automotive training community is the first vital step toward addressing the technician shortage. Seek out automotive training programs at the nearest high schools, community colleges, and vocational schools. All these schools and organizations have advisory boards that shape the training and goals of future technicians. Reach out to these schools and organizations, ask to be a guest or board member, get involved and offer input and assistance.
Advisory committees are made up of professionals like yourself and they provide vital feedback to schools and other training organizations. Your timely, meaningful advice helps to guide the training and grooming of aspiring technicians.
Savvy leaders at any school welcome your input because it helps them improve their curriculum to produce qualified apprentice technicians. Constantly improving the quality of the curriculum ensures the long-term success of the training program.
The bottom line is that your experience and input is more valuable than you may realize.
Step Two: Help with Outreach and Recruiting
Community College programs and instructors are publicly funded and stretched thin. Offer to help with high school visits and other recruiting outreach events. Bring one of your technicians or one of your apprentices to these events. Your presence usually has a huge impact on prospective apprentices.
Talk to parents or guardians about the rewarding career of our industry. They often have no clue how sophisticated vehicles are today and a technician’s earning potential can exceed six figures in a major metropolitan area.
Two-year college degrees are great — as an educator, I recommend one. But we all know that this industry values vocational education, certification, and experience above a college degree. Although parents and guardians like the idea of an associate degree, a child often asks if college Math or English is required to earn a certificate or become an apprentice. The answer is: College level Math and English skills are nice but often not required.
Step Three: Apprentice and Mentor
The third step is to develop an effective apprentice mentorship program at your repair shop. Basically, a mentorship provides the apprentice an opportunity to apply their learned knowledge into the practical skills that you want them to master. At the same time, it enables you and your mentor the opportunity to evaluate your apprentices’ learned skills and work habits.
Ultimately, the success of the apprenticeship is dependent upon the quality and structure of the mentorship program. Years of experience have shown that hiring an apprentice to clean the shop or shuttle customers around is one of the fastest ways to discourage someone from working for you. In fact, it may also drive them out of the auto repair trade altogether.
A shop owner or manager should collaborate with a qualified educator and their master technician to develop guidelines and skillset goals for the apprentice.
Prudent bosses clarify in advance how they will compensate mentors or existing technicians for training and overseeing apprentices. Paying fairly for oversight time is a realistic investment in the overall health of the shop as well as an effective way to boost employee loyalty.
Apprentices’ Wish Lists
Today’s job prospects expect competitive wages, reasonable benefits, a safe environment, and a warm, welcoming work atmosphere.
Prospective new hires may be wiser than you think. For example, they likely know the local cost of living and “subsistence” living is not part of their plans. Some bosses not only overlook the cost of living, they also lack a realistic sense of what companies are paying today. For example, I realize that starting pay varies from one job to another and from one region to another. But here in the San Francisco Bay area, starting pay for unskilled labor at one of the major fast-food chains is $20+ per hour!
The point is that these students have decided on a career in automotive. They have taken the first step by enrolling into automotive classes with the goal of an apprenticeship. This young person should not be considered unskilled labor; therefore, compensation needs to be appropriate to retain them in your shop and in our industry.
Offer a pathway and support for continued education so the Apprentice and Journeyman Technician have goals to work towards. For example, Apprentice level 1, 2, & 3 and/or Journeyman level 1, 2, & 3.
To attract and retain apprentices and professional technicians this industry needs to charge a fair price for our services so we can pay our technicians and apprentices a living wage with some level of benefits.
Hire apprentices sooner rather than later. For example, hire an apprentice while they are still in school and adjust their work schedule to accommodate their school hours.
All too often, shop owners who procrastinate discover that the more-promising job candidates have already been hired by another local shop.
Avoid pushing an apprentice too hard, too soon. Time and experience are the keys to boosting the efficiency of every worthwhile new hire. Demanding too much, too soon, from an apprentice is a fast way to usher them out the door — and possibly, out of the trade.
Consider creative ways to incentivize new hires to improve their efficiency and meet their learning goals during their apprenticeship. For instance, offer reimbursements for things such as school tuition and tool purchases. Provide allowances for commuting costs such as gasoline stipend or a commuter pass.
Be willing to accept that you will get some students/apprentices that just won’t work out. Also be willing to accept that you will mentor and train some apprentices that will leave you someday. This is our reality, however, if you don’t let this discourage you, you will find a rock star or two who will stay with you for a long time.
Don’t cut yourself and the apprentice short by offering to hire them full time before they finish school just because you need a full-time technician now. You shorten their technical knowledge and limit their potential. In the long run this does more harm than good for your business.
Finally, promote patience and cooperation between apprentices and experienced employees. Sometimes older technicians become cocky and impatient: They forget that they were once apprentices, too.
Across the country, the most successful auto repair facilities have met these needs. In fact, meeting these needs helped them survive and thrive during downturns in business. Supporting their local training programs and training apprentices is part of their business model. These shops are never caught shorthanded looking for a qualified technician.
- Reach out to your local high school and or community college program and offer to help with outreach.
- Offer to be on the advisory board for your local automotive training program.
- Offer to mentor students as apprentices.
- Seek advice from someone with an automotive educational background to help you set up an in-shop mentoring program tailored to your business.
About the author
Tom Broxholm, a Detroit native, entered the trade in 1975 and worked for 19 years as a professional technician. He has maintained Master Technician status for the past 48 years, and in 1995 he was awarded “Engine Performance Specialist” by ASE for achieving the highest Engine Performance (A8) score in the nation. After becoming a community college automotive professor at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, he was promoted to Skyline’s Automotive Program Coordinator in 2015 and retired as a full-time professor in 2023.