Technician shortage continues to put pressure on automotive service shops

Industry insiders tell KMOX it's a high tech job without high tech image and compensation
Help wanted signs out at auto repair shops
Photo credit Megan Lynch/KMOX

ST. LOUIS (KMOX) - Automakers are boosting the technology they put in their cars. The shops that service those vehicles are having a hard time finding qualified people to work on them. Honda is the latest automaker to announce plans to convert its vehicle lines to electric or zero emissions in coming decades. Who will work on those high-tech vehicles? The industry continues to struggle to find enough trained technicians.

"There's a continual chronic shortage of trained technicians across the nation in our industry," explains Mike Behrmann, Director of the School of Automotive at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "Some estimate that it's well over 6-hundred-thousand technicians are needed in automotive... diesel... collision parts of our industry over the next few years."

Behmann says demand is expected to increase at a time when fewer young people are entering the industry, "the students in high schools, they're not exposed as much to many of the opportunities available in the automotive industry... or in several of the career and technical education areas."

Behrmann tells KMOX schools have shifted focus to core curriculum instead of developing machine shops, welding programs, automotive programs.

Then there's the stigma. The man or woman you may call a "grease monkey" is handling one of the most sophisticated pieces of equipment out there. Some vehicles have as many as 7 different computers on board.

"If you look at the number of lines of computer code to run and operate today's modern vehicle it far exceeds airlines, computer networking systems, any of those areas by far," Behrmann says.

Another speed bump, the upfront expense for people to enter the industry both in terms of education as well as equipment.

"To become a technician, the technician may have to invest 10, 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars into a set of tools." points out Behrmann. The latest figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics show the median annual wage for automotive technicians is $44,000 a year.

"We're behind," says Behrmann, "and we need to move more aggressively in taking care of these technicians."

To keep their bays staffed Serra Honda in O'Fallon, Illinois reaches out to people just starting their training, "We try to grow our technicians in a manner of speaking. We're always looking for young minds that want to get into the industry." Service Manager Mike Cullum takes advantage of a partnership beween American Honda and Ranken Technical College in St. Louis to mentor the newest technicians.

The service department of dealerships are the profit centers, so it's worth their while to make an investment in tools as well.

"When it comes to the specialty equipment, we purchase every technician a laptop to use whatever software American Honda requires, the interfacing devices used to communicate with the cars, all of that is purchased through us." Cullum says the service department does help with some basic tools as well, "it kind of gets passed along as they learn and grow so it doesn't require an investment from them to get their foot in the dealership."

He does expect salaries to grow. "In the younger crowd I think they have an advantage when it comes to the technology in these cars, they're going to be the ones that are going to exceed what we pay some of the older generation of techs." Cullum says the diagnostic skillsets in 5 years will surpass technicians who have been working for decades, and the best technicians will be able to name their salary.

Industry analysts say shops will need to invest in training, tools and compensation to keep techs in their garage and consumers driving in.

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