A Plan To Solve the Technician Shortage

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

A Plan to Solve the Technician Shortage 

By Cecil Bullard, Owner and CEO, The Institute for Automotive Business Excellence

Cecil Bullard

I do not believe that anyone who works in the Automotive Service and Repair Industry would argue with the fact that there is a shortage of good technicians in our industry. In fact, nine out of 10 shops that we work with today (of for that matter in our industry) need a good technician and I would also say that for 10% to 20% of those shops, the lack of a good tech is a serious problem causing them to lose customers, profits and sleep. If this isn’t a wakeup call to our industry, I don’t know what one is.

Twenty years ago, if you ran an ad for a technician you would get 10 or more people (many qualified) looking for a job. Ten years ago, if you ran an ad for a technician you could count on five to eight responses within the first week. Today, you feel lucky if just one person answers your ad that has any experience in the industry and has actually worked as a technician. Many shops have been running ads for months and have yet to land one viable potential employee. Recruiters, job sites, Craig’s list, Indeed, word-of-mouth and all of the usual methods are not working.  

Recent surveys and articles in the industry point to the fact that 73% of shops need to hire one or more employees in the next 12 months and that for 85% of those, it would be a technician. Two years ago, there was a shortage of 75,000 technicians and as of February 2022, I have heard that this number is now over 125,000.  

In order to come up with a viable solution, we need to examine the problem and determine why this has happened, why this continues to happen and why it is getting worse. We need to think outside of the box and act now to prepare a viable future.

Why we are in this position?

As much as 29% of the technicians are over 55 years old and they are aging out of the industry, and this has been going on for many years. According to recent surveys, only 15% of our industry is under 35 while 29% is over 55. We need double the new technicians just to replace those who are aging out.

In the ’50s and ’60s and through the ’80s, students who had a difficult time sitting in class and learning in a traditional way (ADHD, dyslexic or just hyper-active) were funneled into the shop programs in their schools, where there was more hands-on learning and a lot less sitting and listening to lectures. Most of these students did much better in this environment and became the bulk of the workforce in our industry today. There were others who loved all things mechanical and/or had natural talent and these people also added to our workforce. 

In 1980, every high school and junior or community college had an auto shop program.  

Becoming a mechanic was easier back then. Vehicles were less complicated (easier to understand), you had to learn a lot less (I remember when we had one repair manual/book for diagnosing and repairing cars and trucks. And, I remember when a second book was added for Asian cars and trucks) and the investment in tools was less, when compared to wages. If I remember right, even back then it was deemed a blue-collar job and therefore not as attractive financially or status wise as going to college and becoming a professional. Parents who had children that wanted to become a mechanic were often disappointed and tried to talk them out of this misguided path and back into a college or university.

When I met my wife, her father was a college graduate and a professional. He was a salesman for a medical company, wore suits and never got his hands dirty. He earned a lot of money in his position and was looked at by his peers as an important person. Both of my wife’s parents visibly slumped when we told them we wanted to get married. They tried to talk my wife out of marrying me (a lowly mechanic with dirty hands, an uneducated man) and it took many years before I was fully accepted into their family. However, they were very proud when I went back to school in my late 30s and graduated with two degrees, even though I have never earned a nickel with my college education.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, schools started to run out of money and started stripping programs out of their curriculum, and auto shop programs disappeared from most high schools and many community colleges. Students no longer had the ability to go into shop programs and experience the joy that comes from taking something broken apart, putting it back together again and making it run well. This funnel all but dried up with the closure of these programs. These programs are coming back but it might be too little too late.

During this period, technical schools that taught automotive sprouted up, but you had to really have a thing for working on cars (really love them) because they were expensive and becoming a mechanic was not as socially acceptable as becoming a lawyer or professor.

There are several problems that have led us to where we now stand in our industry, with eight of 10 shops in need of a good technician, but I believe that it boils down to this: It is not cool to be a technician and it doesn’t pay as well as becoming a professional (at least that is what most parents believe). The picture of what a technician/mechanic is and what they can earn is just not good enough in our current society, so many potential great techs never make it into the industry. Instead, they are funneled into universities where they are put tens of thousands of dollars into debt, and into degrees where they will never be able to earn a decent living, because these jobs are more acceptable and carry more prestige.

We have undervalued ourselves as an industry and are considerably less than like industries. My plumber charges me over $210 per hour. My electrician charges me $250 per hour. My lawyer charges me $500 per hour and if I really calculate what my doctor charges, it exceeds $700 per hour. The average labor rate in our industry is $125 when it should be at least $250 per hour. 

So, here is the simple solution. We make it cool to become a technician/mechanic and we dramatically increase the pay for every technician in the industry immediately. Every Automotive Service and Repair business in North America moves their labor rate up $20 per hour, tomorrow.  

We use $10 of this to increase the pay of every technician and/or mechanic working in our shops immediately. We make it financially appealing to come into our industry by moving the wages up substantially. If every shop (or 90% of the shops) do this, it would change our industry for the better dramatically. We start new technicians, who are learning, at $25 to $35 an hour or $50K to $70K per year (a real living wage where they can support themselves and buy tools) and we pay veteran A-technicians $45 to $65 per hour or $90K to $130K per year. This would make working in our industry much more attractive and begin to pay people what they are really worth.

We are not done yet. We take $5 of the increase and make sure we have a full benefit package. Medical, vacation, dental, a reasonable amount of sick days, a good retirement plan, all national holidays off with pay including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, as well as anything that other professional jobs offer.

We take the other $5 of the increase and join a non-profit organization that will market to the mothers and fathers out there (and potential technicians) and let them know that being a technician in a modern shop is a cool job, is financially viable and every bit as professional as becoming a lawyer, doctor, dentist, programmer or professor. Also, this organization would be set up to create scholarships for those entering the field and to put them into mentoring programs with the best shops (the shops supporting the organization) in our industry. Can you imagine the impact if the majority of the shops got behind an advertising campaign that shouted the benefits of being a technician and the industry could provide amazing jobs and amazing pay?  

Lastly, every shop owner books an appointment at a college, auto tech school or high school and ‘volunteers’ their time to talk to the students, teachers and administrators about our incredible industry.

If we do not make a change, the wave that is currently hanging over our heads will break and shops all over the industry will close because they cannot find anyone to do the work. If we keep doing what we have always have done, we will keep getting what we have always gotten.  

And, even if we act now, it will take five to 10 years to really turn the tide. So, if we want to be a viable industry, we better get started making it cool to be a technician.

I encourage you to attend AAPEX in November where solutions to the technician shortage will be discussed during training sessions. I’ll be there leading two sessions geared toward service advisors on Nov. 3: Sales Success Strategies and Workshop, Part 1, from 9:30 a.m. – Noon, and Sales Success Strategies and Workshop, Part 2, from 2 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

I hope to see you at AAPEX!

Cecil Bullard has spent most of his life in the Automotive Service and Repair Industry as a Tech, Service Advisor, Manager and Owner of multiple successful businesses, and as a consultant, trainer and teacher. He believes that there is unlimited opportunity and potential in today’s shops and that your business should be designed and run to give you the life you want. He is currently CEO of the Institute and RLO Training. He has trained and mentored thousands of owners, managers and service advisors and helped many achieve financial and business success. His newest venture is a Learning Management System called GEAR for Shops, making quality training affordable and available to the Industry. He has published over 100 articles and has been a featured speaker at AAPEX, VISION, STX, ATE, and numerous other conferences throughout the industry.

Sept. 13, 2022