The auto industry learned something troubling last year: Mamas won't let their babies grow up to be auto technicians.
Servicing autos could be a lucrative career for many high school kids. But the grown-ups in their lives-mom, dad, teachers and guidance counselors-are clueless.
The result? Mom disparages the career, and dad takes up the cry: ``Think about a real job. Something that will let you work with advanced technologies.''
Manufacturers and retailers have had a problem recruiting young people for years. And it's getting worse. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that auto retailers will need 35,000 new technical employees every year through at least the end of this decade. And that doesn't count sales and marketing personnel. Figures from the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) suggest many retailers already are in a bind. The average car dealership in the South expects to hire an average of 1.6 people in the next six months, according to NADA.
``It's a never-ending battle for us,'' said Roxanne Coats, vice president of operations at Crown Ford in Nashville, Tenn. ``We're always advertising for somebody.'' Last year the dealership ran radio spots that advertised not Explorers or F-150s but the dealership itself as a good place for a career.
Not on the radar
``What we find is that young people just don't have us on their radar screens,'' Ms. Coats said. ``They want a professional career, and they don't think of this as a profession.''
She knows the dilemma personally. Although her father, Charles Coats Jr., owns the dealership, she went to college for a degree in nursing. She worked as a flight nurse and as an emergency room nurse before her career change in 1991.
Recruiting young people is an old problem for car dealers-as well as many automotive service shops-but the skills they look for in workers are evolving. Dealerships seek a higher level of employee than they did a generation ago, said Mike Moran, who represents Ford Motor Co. on the board of Auto Retailing Today in Washington, D.C. Auto Retailing Today is an industry association whose mission is to tackle the personnel crisis. More technologically advanced vehicles require more technologically skilled service personnel, he said.
If it was hard to woo C-average high school kids back in the 1970s, imagine now trying to attract computer-literate achievers to the wired dealerships of this decade. ``Lube jobs are not what the dealership of today is about,'' Mr. Moran said. ``What we're seeing is that kids seem to know this, and adults don't.''
Last year, Auto Retailing Today commissioned a national telephone survey to learn what young people think about automotive career paths. Researchers learned that 78 percent of the teachers surveyed had never discussed the value of an automotive job with students and 52 percent of the guidance counselors queried do not discuss it.
Half of the teenagers questioned in the survey said that if they obtained a job in sales or finance at an auto dealership, they would expect their friends to have a negative reaction. And 46 percent of them had the same expectation about a job as a dealership service technician.
The career option fares badly at home, too.
Although 80 percent of the young people surveyed said they trusted their parents for advice on career choices, parents proved as unenlightened as counselors. The survey showed that 58 percent of the teenagers were well aware that auto technicians are in big demand in the industry but only 53 percent of parents knew.
And while 69 percent of the kids knew that a master technician can earn $70,000 to $100,000 a year, only 53 percent of parents knew. The bottom line result: Only 2 percent of the teenagers surveyed said they had any interest in an automotive career.
Denise Patton-Pace, Auto Retailing Today's executive director, has spent a year piecing together an industry assault on the issue.
The association membership-it includes virtually every auto maker and major retail trade group-has ponied up a million dollar war chest to begin reaching out to young people.
Informing the adults
``What we're seeing is that the kids in high school and college often know more about what goes on at a modern dealership than the person who's supposed to be offering them career guidance,'' Ms. Patton-Pace said. ``To reach those young people, we now realize we're going to have to change the ideas that the adults in their life have.''
Mostly, the campaign will be an educational challenge. The group has created a Web site, www.autoretailing.org, to be a clearinghouse for job information for the industry, she said.
The redesigned site, which launched Feb. 18, connects readers to employment materials from all of the auto makers, as well as public relations material about what an automotive career offers.
National technical certification groups will post material on how to become a certified technician and how to talk to a trainer to get more information.
But the mission is not merely to enhance retailing public relations, Ms. Patton-Pace said. It is also to generate job candidates.
During this year's NADA convention, Auto Retailing Today will unveil another plan for battle: a link with the U.S. military (see story below). The military already is a huge training ground for automotive technicians. Military vehicle technicians receive ASE certification in the same sort of work that dealerships and auto service shops need to have performed.
According to Ms. Patton-Pace, the new military linkup will create a natural flow of candidates, giving retailers access to trained technicians who may be looking for civilian opportunities while creating a new job avenue for the military's outplacement services. The campaign, dubbed ``Hire the Heroes,'' will get underway during the NADA convention, at which Army and Marine Corps representatives will help staff the Auto Retailing Today convention booth.
Auto Retailing Today also is creating media materials that will go to school guidance offices around the country.
The biggest hurdle retailers have is the image of the business as an unpleasant environment. Through the schools, Auto Retailing Today hopes to convey a sense that auto dealerships offer good salaries, decent benefits and intellectual stimulation, Ms. Patton-Pace said.
``The teenage child in a family that recently purchased a new vehicle is probably pretty well keyed into the reality of life at a modern-day dealership,'' she said. ``Anyone who has been into a dealership lately knows that we're not talking about dark, run-down work environments. Service shops aren't grease pits.
``We've got to reach beyond the people who have an out-of-date perception of the business and the career possibilities.''