Growing Technician Shortage What’s the Plan?

Concerns about a growing technician shortage aren’t new, and the problem’s not going to fix itself. We surveyed several industry leaders to get their opinions and well-reasoned solutions.

You might want to pour yourself a cup of coffee. In fact, you may want to brew a pot and call home to say you’ll be coming in late tonight. We have to talk about how to solve a shop challenge that we’ve known was coming, and it’s a big one.

Reports cite estimates of more than 600,000 middle-skill jobs going unfilled across the nation and we look like we’re in this group. We’ve had dozens of applicants for our technician openings and most seem unqualified. The industry-endorsed NATEF (National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation) generates approximately 30,000 graduates each year, and even with a boost from private automotive tech training schools, we’re still in need of new solutions. How did we get here and, more importantly, what can we do?

It’s notable that a century ago, in 1917, the United States Congress established a milestone priority to support hands-on learning titled the Smith-Hughes National Vocational Education Act. While this major federal act was aimed mainly at supporting educating youth for farming and agriculture, it led to successive Congressional support for training our nation’s skilled workers through the 20th century. Yet today, few would question deep concerns about the state of our nation’s skilled workforce.

A century ago, 90% of our nation worked in careers to provide 100% of our food supply; today 10% of our population produces 100% of our food stock. Meanwhile, the U.S. has mostly consolidated around metropolitan settings away from farms and largely relies on vehicles and public transportation. “We say we have an issue. It’s not just an issue, it’s a crisis,” said Chris Hadfield, Director of the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence. “For every two technicians retiring, we have only one new entry coming in.”

Education policymakers and national leaders largely report that what is called Career Technical Education (CTE) is undergoing a renaissance needed in today’s public education. Jarrod Nagurka, Advocacy and Public Affairs Manager at the Association for Career and Technical Education, noted that from “both an employer value and practical relevance to keep kids in school, CTE works. The average high school graduation rate for Career Technical Education concentrators in 2012 was 93%, compared to the national graduation rate of 80% for other students. So a career in technical education benefits students in a variety of ways.”

Well, if CTE is worthy and the nation values it, why have we slipped backwards with our workforce? And perhaps more importantly, what can we do to help solve this for our industry?

Fast forward to 2017 and our current national Perkins Fund under Congress is a distant relative of the Smith-Hughes act. While Europe and other regions of the globe have sustained or grown their skilled workforce education and apprenticeship programs, the U.S. has reduced funding and now faces an unprecedented dilemma.

The Perkins Act is the federal government’s largest investment in technical education, but annual funding reauthorization has remained flat for 25 years. Kimberly Green, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Advance CTE, told us, “Since the Perkins funding has remained at pretty much the same level since 1991, it actually represents a 45% reduction when we factor inflation-adjusted dollars.”

We can see that at the end of a long day of discussions about automotive service anywhere across the nation, we’re likely to agree that public education is facing limitations. And it doesn’t look like reinforcements are coming from public education soon enough. A substantial and largely untapped opportunity is for us to get involved in new ways in our local communities, and there are many schools and young people who need us to reach out to them today.

Bill Haas, owner of Haas Performance Consulting, said, “We’ve been talking about this crisis for a good 15 years to my recollection, but I think it’s taken 15 years to get some people’s attention.” He added, “This problem of not having people enter the industry used to be masked by having enough people move around from shop to shop, but in the industry technicians are no longer moving among shops like they used to.”

Meanwhile, so long as everyday motorists hold antiquated images and myths about our industry, they’re largely unaware of the advancements of today’s technicians. Tony Molla, Vice President of the Automotive Service Association (ASA), observed, “From the general public’s point of view, nobody has had any trouble getting their cars fixed. So it really hasn’t been seen as a problem. But two things have changed. One is that vehicle technology has become much more complicated over a very short period of time and many technicians have had trouble keeping up with it. The second challenge is that the vast majority of techs who are servicing vehicles in our country are Baby Boomers, and I think that the attrition factor is kicking in.” Molla said the emerging problem is essentially finding qualified people with the skills to do the high-end work.

Another aspect of attracting youth into our field is being able to retain them once they’ve joined us. Haas noted, “The really astute shop owners have figured it out. They’re thinking, If I have this qualified guy who has the skills and the knowledge, I’d better do everything in my power to make sure he has no reason to leave.

Haas said that today’s most astute shop owners have improved their technician benefits to now include retirement programs, health insurance, paid holidays and time off with vacations.

Original article published on

Written by Steve Ford

Photo by Steve Ford