Editor's note: Rob Kealey is a field consultant for Dealer Service Corp. in Boca Raton, Fla. Although his comments—which appeared in Automotive News—are directed at the service operations of new-car dealerships, they point up a critical problem facing many establishments that provide automotive service.
Auto dealers are heading for a train wreck. In these good times, a crisis looms for their customers and maybe their business survival. Very soon, franchised new-vehicle dealers may not be able to service the vehicles they are selling. Some of them are there now.
There is an estimated shortage of 60,000 technicians nationally, and technical staffs are becoming too slim to match customer demand.
Horror stories are surfacing, such as the one about the Massachusetts car dealership with a new 28-bay facility and only two technicians.
The pool of available people, let alone qualified people, is getting smaller.
More and more shops are hanging on to poor performers because the loss of a warm body outweighs the effect of poor performance.
High-potential youngsters are not becoming automotive technicians because being labeled a "grease monkey" is so unappealing that they are being steered away by parents, counselors and even people in the business. Even interested youngsters face a large investment for tools.
Educational programs, which might bring new talent into the fold, are limited by the variable quality of high school technical curriculums.
Poor-performing students sometimes are steered to the "manual trades" as dumping grounds.
Post-high-school programs are expensive, and dealership programs are inconsistent, burdened with unrealistic expectations and often not up to the task of bringing people into the business with a reasonable expectation of success.
Competition among employers for a scarce work force is unrelenting; even related industries such as airlines are recruiting dealership technicians. As vehicles become more complex, they are harder to service; more education is needed. At the same time, older experienced technicians with vast knowledge are retiring. Factory certification programs such as DaimlerChrysler A.G.'s Five Star and Ford Motor Co.'s Blue Oval have raised the bar by setting service performance and customer satisfaction standards.
So what do we do to throw the switch and put the train on a different track? How do we increase the talent pool and satisfy the demand for quality service?
The role of the automobile technician must be viewed in a new light.
As technology becomes more intricate, the technician moves from the class of "laborer" to that of "knowledge worker," the same as computer technicians, paramedics and surgeons.
Peter Drucker, noted management and economics analyst, refers to individuals who, because of the complexity of their tasks, perform both knowledge and manual work as "technologists."
Recognizing the auto technician as a technologist—as a professional rather than a commodity—is the starting point.
High-potential youngsters must see a career that will lead to financial security and intellectual stimulation. They also must see a career path that will take them through their work lives and not leave them high and dry as they age.
Dealers must not count on manufacturer programs to supply a technician pool. They must help develop viable technical school programs such as the one being done by Cecil County School of Technology in Maryland.
Manufacturers must support dealers' efforts to bring new people onboard by offering easy access to training and supporting local educational institutions with wide availability of current technology.
Lastly, dealers must take a hard look at what they have to offer in relation to nonautomotive businesses in their markets.
Does the high-potential individual who would make a terrific auto tech opt to become a terrific computer technician because of benefits, working conditions or the cost of entering the profession?
The train is rolling; it's time to throw the switch!