EWING TWP., N.J. — New-car dealers in New Jersey were alarmed.
Amid a growing industrywide shortage of service technicians, the 451 franchised dealerships in the state lacked a collective plan to identify, train, hire and retain talented techs for their shops.
So this year, the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, or NJ CAR, created an apprenticeship program for aspiring techs. The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development gave the initiative substantial seed money: a $907,000 grant.
"It had been nagging at me that we didn't have a pathway on how to train technicians, as the flow of new techs has slowed and the exodus continues," NJ CAR President Jim Appleton told Automotive News.
Throughout the next six years, NJ CAR estimates, as many as 12,000 veteran techs will retire or otherwise leave their jobs at member dealerships. The apprenticeship program aims to help fill these vacancies and reduce tech turnover, Breanna Datello-Esquilin, NJ CAR's director of workforce development, said. More than 45 apprentices have gone through the program, she adds.
"You're not just losing [young technicians] to another dealership, you're losing them to another field," Ms. Datello-Esquilin said.
"They get discouraged after the first six months of working at the dealership and they leave, because we are not working hard enough to keep them. With proper recruitment, training and retention, job satisfaction will come."
The apprenticeship program promotes technician careers, recruiting candidates from New Jersey technical schools and community colleges. It assigns apprentices as entry-level technicians in dealership service departments, where they work with and learn from veteran techs.
Apprentices earn $15 an hour. During apprentices' first six months on the job, Ms. Datello-Esquilin said, the program supplements the $11 to $13 an hour that dealerships generally pay newly hired techs.
"We wanted to get the dealerships reimbursed for the difference so they would pay these new technicians $15 per hour, where before they typically wouldn't," she said. "In these six months, they would get on-the-job training and become better, so they are worth that $15 per hour." After six months, the dealership pays the apprentices $15.
NJ CAR also is working with schools and colleges to modernize their tech training curricula while it helps member dealerships and dealer groups create their own apprenticeship programs.
Ms. Datello-Esquiling said she has placed six apprentices at Dayton Toyota, in South Brunswick, N.J., which is starting them as junior lube technicians. The dealership has created a dedicated training facility with its own instructor. Dealership technicians also are training apprentices several evenings each week, after their workdays end. NJ CAR is supplementing those techs' pay to provide instruction, although Ms. Datello-Esquilin declined to say how much.
Hail to the state
"It's one of the best programs that I've ever seen," Michael Dooley, Dayton Toyota's fixed operations director, said.
"Kudos to New Jersey for realizing that automotive technicians are in a crisis mode now." (The state labor department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the tech apprenticeship program.)
"For six months, maybe up to a year, I haven't been able to hire a single tech," Mr. Dooley added. "We've tried numerous ways of finding them — through advertisements, job fairs and by other means."
Mr. Dooley said the NJ CAR program has enabled him to hire the six apprentices and enroll another 10 techs at his dealership in the program, so they can learn new skills as they gain experience.
"Each apprentice is working alongside mentors who observe and instruct them on what to look for while doing a certain job," he said. "It could be brakes, tires or diagnostics. It's real-world experience, with real technicians doing it every day. We realized we could mentor a student better than any school instructor could."
During the evening sessions, Mr. Dooley said, the apprentices work under their mentors' guidance on vehicles that service customers have dropped off, to relieve time pressures.
Of the six new apprenticeships at Dayton Toyota, he added, one has moved up to a flat-rate pay plan and "the second one will not be too far behind him."
Justin Moran, 33, said he is thriving in the NJ CAR program as an apprentice at Sansone Toyota in Avenel, N.J. Mr. Moran left college to start a business with a friend that distributed and repaired cellphones.
"We were amateurs, so we didn't really know how to run the business," Mr. Moran said. "We basically ran it into the ground. I found myself with no career and two kids to feed. A friend sent me a posting on Facebook by NJ CAR for a position as an apprentice at the dealership, and I felt it was a good thing for me to learn.
"I had never even picked up an impact gun, but now I'm able to change brakes, I can do tire rotations, alignments, oil changes and even some troubleshooting," Mr. Moran added.
"One day, we were learning what a voltmeter does, and the next day I was using one on the job."
Mr. Moran's workday at the dealership runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. He attends two evening training sessions each week, from 6 to 9 p.m. He said the apprenticeship is helping him to embark on a clear career path at the dealership.
"I like a job where if you put in the hard work, it's going to pay off."