The Hunt for Technicians

Feb. 19, 2019

"We have 21 locations and we could probably use 21 more technicians.” Tire dealers all over the country can feel Matt Jensen’s pain. As the second-generation owner and president of Jensen Tire & Auto Inc. in Nebraska, the search for technicians is an everyday, every location problem.

This year, Jensen Tire is doing something about it.

His company is partnering with local trade schools, working with them to identify top students. At the halfway point of the two-year program, students with at least a 3.0 GPA earn an interview with Jensen Tire. The Omaha, Neb.-based tire dealer will pick one student in each trade school and reward the student with a starter set of tools and a Snap-on toolbox worth about $9,000.

It’s a good thing for the student, Jensen says, because he or she doesn’t have to scrape together the money to buy tools to finish the automotive program. And once the student graduates, there’s no need to search for a job. The student has already signed a contract to work for Jensen Tire for a minimum of three years.

“The whole idea is to get the best technicians to come and work for Jensen Tire & Auto,” he says.

It was Jensen’s district managers who came up with the idea, and Jensen says it has taken about a year to get approval from the school administrators. “It took that long because it’s something new. The administration has signed off. They think it’s a great idea, and at the same time we’re promoting Jensen, too.” The toolbox features Jensen Tire’s colors — orange and black — as well as the company’s logo. Jensen Tire will award its first three tool boxes in 2020, and hopes to expand to more trade schools in the future.“This will help start filling the pipeline. We think we can bring four to five technicians on each year,” Jensen says.

The company also is working from within to build up its roster of automotive technicians. Jensen Tire built a new corporate headquarters and warehouse in the Omaha suburb of Papillion in 2017, and there’s about an acre-and-a-half of land left on the plot. This summer the company will build a two-bay training center and classroom on the site.

“We plan on growing our own technicians from within our own company, from entry-level positions already on the payroll who want to become technicians,” Jensen says. “We’ll put them through our schooling and hopefully build a pipeline that way. We’ll have our own curriculum. Students will be trained with our trainer and will move from training to stores where they can become technicians.”

Jensen calls it “a large investment,” and says this is the first time the company will employ a full-time trainer. But he also considers these steps a necessity. He’s competing against new car dealers and every other automotive shop for employees. “We’re all fighting for the same technicians.”

How did we get here?

Greg Settle knows more owners need to take initiative like Jensen. Settle started working as a technician in the 1970s and spent 20 years working for Mercedes-Benz dealerships before joining the corporate ranks. In 1991 he drafted a proposal for a technician training program. Why? “Because we had a technician shortage. As a service manager I couldn’t find good young applicants. That was decades ago. Fast forward to today and we still have a technician shortage.”And Settle is still working to address the issue as director of national initiatives for the Tech Force Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to educate students on the possibilities of life as a professional technician.

The U.S. didn’t wake up one day with thousands of fewer technicians on the job than the day before. Settle points to five contributors to the cause.

1. College for all. For generations parents, wanting their children to be more successful than they were, helped spread the message that a college education was the best path to a successful career. A college degree isn’t the only option, however.

“If you talk to people in other skilled trades, all of those trades have exactly the same issue. Nobody is going into those fields anymore, and why not? Because they’ve been told and their parents have been told you’ve got to go to college.” Settle says only half of the nation’s jobs need that degree. (A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce says through 2020, about one-third of jobs (35%) will require at least a bachelor’s degree.)

2. Image problem. Blame it on the grease monkey. Parents still imagine old shops and messy mechanics, even though the modern industry revolves around technology and a good retail experience.

“You go into modern shops, and it’s so different from even 10 years ago. I wouldn’t say it’s a laboratory white coat job, but it’s much cleaner and more high tech than it used to be. Parents and students are still seeing it in that old image.”

3. Hidden potential. The transportation and automotive industries combined have done a poor job of highlighting the opportunities in the field. Mix in a huge demand for technicians, and there’s plenty of room to grow.

“I have a friend who says we don’t have a career ladder, we have a career lattice. You can go in so many different directions. And if you love turning wrenches, you can make a good career of that.”

The problem is, the general public doesn’t know any of that.

4. Changes in the classroom. As the college-for-all mentality set in, schools focused on college-prep and the basics needed for white-collar jobs, and the shop classes of old have been replaced by computer labs.

“There’s no focus on getting men and women into the skilled trades, and there’s no focus on getting teachers for those skilled trades. There’s nobody in the wings qualified to take over. If you have a class where the instructor retires, no one thinks it’s important. That’s what happened thousands and thousands of times across the country.”

5. A chance to experiment. For students who are hands-on learners, there’s power in learning how to dismantle and then successfully reassemble something.

“That’s an amazing feeling of accomplishment, and there are a lot of people who learn best that way.” But with no exposure to automotive, there’s no opportunity for students to learn they have a natural inclination toward the work. “That’s a huge loss for getting kids interested.”

The entire industry has to focus on righting the wrongs, but Settle says when it comes to school, focusing on high school students won’t fix the problem.

“We have to start much younger if we’re going to get kids interested,” he says. “We find that kids are thinking of careers in eighth and ninth grade, and locking it in by 10th grade. If we don’t expose kids to automotive by sixth grade, then the opportunity is lost.”

The need

The Tech Force Foundation serves as the home base for all efforts related to developing the next generation of technicians. It is working to bring together partners in industry and education with potential students to create a unified effort to address the talent shortage.

As part of that, the foundation compiles and analyzes data to track the shortage. Its latest report shows the shortage not only exists, but also is getting worse. Technician demand is on the rise, while the potential supply of workers graduating from post-secondary institutions is decreasing. Not every technician enters the workforce from a post-secondary school, of course, but the decline in completions is worsening the existing shortage.

For this article, technicians are those performing undercar and underhood service, the work performed in typical U.S. tire dealerships, as well as new car dealerships and other businesses that provide automotive services. It doesn’t include those doing body and collision work, or diesel mechanics. It also doesn’t include tire changers.

The Great Recession had a huge impact on the talent shortage, and according to the latest figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry still hasn’t recovered to 2008 employment levels. From 2008 to 2012, the number of new positions for technicians dropped by 62,600. By 2016 48,800 of those jobs, or about three out of four, had been recovered.

And these numbers don’t take into account the need to replace technicians who retired, were promoted, or left the occupation for an entirely new career. It also doesn’t account for technicians who leave one employer for another and continue to do the same work.

The Tech Force Foundation has worked to account for all of those variables, as well as the trends of what’s happening in service bays (technicians needed per vehicle, service hours), the overall health of the economy, and vehicles in use and miles driven. Its goal is to create a true picture of technician demand (see chart on page 22). In 2019, it adds up to 77,886 technicians.

Settle says the government has maintained its employment projection models based on old employment patterns. The government has assumed when an 18-year-old entered the workforce, that person joined a company and never left until it was time to retire.

“They’d show very few churns. We hear all the time now how kids are going to have seven-to-nine careers in their lifetime. We’ve already seen the effect of that. It was a factor of about three that (the old models) were off. For every one person needed, it was basically three.”

Kevin Rohlwing isn’t surprised by those figures. The son of a tire dealer, Rohlwing is senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association. He’s 52, and says many of his Generation X cohorts have left the industry. They were working for baby boomers and grew impatient waiting for their turn to move up and lead. Other industries offered them that chance.

The result? “We’ve got a huge talent gap. We’ve got the boomers and then the millennials, and we’ve got nothing in between.”

Tire dealers need to start cultivating younger talent and recruit people into the industry, Rohlwing says. But they have to show potential for growth down the road.“Dealers are starting to understand that this younger generation is not just going to come in, get a job and work for money. They want to know ‘What’s the path? What’s the endgame?’” He says new entrants have some understanding that they’ll have to work their way up, but they also want to know what’s in it for them. “Just getting a paycheck isn’t enough anymore.”

Tire dealers used to think of health insurance as the differentiator, but that’s not enough anymore, either. Rohlwing says health insurance is expected, and your competitors are offering it.

“It’s a competition for talent. Who’s going to get the best talent? It’s about money. It’s about benefits. It’s about equipment.”

Owners and managers also need to take an honest look at their business’ curb appeal. Nice-looking building, clean trucks and new tools versus unattractive building, old trucks and rusty tools.

Training is another key, Rohlwing says. “Am I going to provide you training, or am I just going to let you shadow somebody and learn a bunch of bad habits and hope you don’t get hurt?

“This younger generation is not fooled. They ask, ‘What can you offer me? Why should I work for you instead of him?’”

Inspire them to come, and stay

Chris Blanchette is director of technical operations and innovation for Bridgestone Retail Operations LLC. On any given day Bridgestone employs 15,000 technicians at its Firestone Complete Auto Care, Tires Plus and Wheel Works stores.

“We need these individuals to be interested, engaged, educated, and we’re willing to do a lot of that ourselves,” he says. “We feel an obligation to provide that to our teams.”

Blanchette says there’s more to it than having “a funnel and inspiring young people to get into the industry.” For example, the company realized that the constant search for good help can be exasperated by a bad boss.

Employers have to provide a good place to work supported by “the latest and greatest” equipment and with leaders who  know how to help technicians succeed and thrive.

“We want to inspire people to come into the industry, but also stay in the industry.”

John Marshall is doing his part in Dayton, Ohio, to entice young people into the automotive field. Marshall, the corporate secretary of Grismer Tire Co., has been in the tire industry for 50 years, and says hiring has “always been a challenge. Everybody’s always looking for good help. I’d say it’s become more critical in the last three or four years.”

And it was about three years ago Marshall had his first conversation with a local school board member about the need for automotive technicians. The school board member was intrigued, and introduced Marshall to the school’s high school automotive teacher.

He’s since gone to many more schools. He meets school board members and principals, and groups of teachers when he can. Most are unaware of the demand for technicians, and Marshall talks about “the fantastic opportunities in the trades, not just in automotive. These fields can be lucrative, and there’s tremendous demand.”

When it comes to automotive services, he shows his technicians earn more than some who pursue a college degree. He also points out “you’re not going to send your car to China to be repaired.”

Marshall is doing more than lip service. He’s hired high school students to work part-time at the company’s 24 Grismer Tire  & Auto Service locations, and he’s set up a program to sponsor interested students who choose to move on to the automotive program at Sinclair Community College in Dayton. Students pay for their classes upfront, but can earn a refund from Grismer Tire when the term is over. The reimbursement amount is dependent on the grades they earn. Typically, the company has two or three students enrolled at Sinclair every year.

The nation’s low unemployment rate has compounded the problem of finding technicians. In Dayton, it was 4.6% at the end of 2018, slightly higher than the national rate of 3.9%. Marshall says it makes sense to try to recruit younger people to the trade.

“We’re thinking of going into maternity wards.”    ■

The one thing every tire dealer must do

In building a pipeline for local technicians, Greg Settle says there’s one place every tire dealer should go: back to high school.

“The biggest thing is relationships with your local high schools. Meet the high school shop instructor. See if you can serve on their advisory council. Get involved with them.”

Settle says the classroom might need a tire machine, and a dealer might have an older one to donate after upgrading to a newer model. “Get to know the instructor. Show them the opportunities at your business.”

That one relationship can make a difference. Plus, it shouldn’t be that much of a stretch since tire dealers often are already connected to their local schools, supporting fundraisers and sponsoring sports teams and other school activities.

Settle says it won’t take much for the instructor to start talking about your business, exposing students to you.

About the Author

Joy Kopcha | Managing Editor

After more than a dozen years working as a newspaper reporter in Kansas, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, Joy Kopcha joined Modern Tire Dealer as senior editor in 2014. She has covered murder trials, a prison riot and more city council, county commission, and school board meetings than she cares to remember.