DETROIT — New-vehicle dealers have heard numerous alarms in recent years that they face a shortage of experienced service technicians as baby boomers retire and fewer would-be techs enroll in training programs.
The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) calls technician retention the "hottest topic" of the dealership performance improvement programs it sponsors.
The shortage could become even more acute. Technicians dissatisfied with their compensation or work environment are finding greener pastures in other fields, often for higher pay.
Moreover, as auto technicians acquire skills to work on advanced driver-assist systems, electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, they become even more valuable to other industries that also face a shortage of highly trained technicians. They are potential candidates for poaching by industries such as heavy equipment, heavy-duty diesel, railroads and aerospace.
A survey of 35,000 car dealership technicians by Carlisle & Co. found that one-third plan to leave their jobs within three years. The survey did not break out how many plan to retire, move to other auto-tech jobs or change industries.
But Harry Hollenberg, a Carlisle partner, said dealerships will need to hire 20,000 to 25,000 technicians annually over the next few years to cope with the shortage, and defection from auto retail is a significant factor.
"Therein lies the challenge for our industry," Tony Molla, vice president of the Automotive Service Association (ASA), told Fixed Ops Journal, a sister publication of Tire Business.
"An individual trained at a high level on the electronic side becomes very attractive to other segments of our economy, such as aerospace and fleet operations. We are competing for the same level of talent with other, more complex industries."
Dan Jentel worked as a technician for seven years at Marquardt of Barrington, a Buick-GMC dealership in suburban Chicago, rising to the journeyman level. Now, though, $50,000 worth of automotive tools and testing equipment sit idle in his garage. Instead, he maintains industrial machinery at a company that makes office supplies.
The factors that drove Mr. Jentel from the dealership echo frequent complaints from technicians: weekly pay that varied based on the workload and whether he could beat the clock under the flat-rate system, shrinking labor times for warranty repairs that reduced his pay and uneven distribution of work assignments that penalized more experienced, skilled technicians such as him.
Mr. Jentel said he would fight to finish tough jobs on tight schedules, while less experienced technicians were turning more hours on easier jobs.
"I did a lot of engines, and (General Motors) would shorten the labor times," Mr. Jentel said. "You would ask for more time because you want to do the job right, and they would tell you, 'There's nothing left for it. This is all GM will pay at this point.' It didn't matter if every bolt on the cradle broke, that's what you get."
Daniel Marquardt, an owner of Mr. Jentel's former dealership, said he agrees that shorter labor times for warranty work are "making it more and more difficult to acquire and retain skilled technicians."
"For the manufacturers to (use) factory labor-time studies to justify shorting technicians versus actual times is just wrong, and I think it's morally bankrupt," Mr. Marquardt said.