Being a part of the automotive service industry today is the outcome of my experience for the last three decades (3.8 to be exact), in part due to the changes that drove the hiring and firing of millions of us involved in industrial and automotive service and maintenance. Having a front row seat for the last 30 years has forced me to come to the realization that our concerns about the attitudes of up-and-coming generations have been profoundly shaped by my generation’s workplace experiences. Wondering how we will get younger workers interested in taking jobs in service and maintenance is a major topic of discussion no matter where I go or who I talk to. The complaints and concerns I hear from shop owners involve the lack of a strong work ethic, the lack of job loyalty and a sense they (younger job seekers) do not want to be involved in anything they assume is dirty or may be dangerous. Shop owners do not know what their problem is. Fortunately, the problem lies not with younger generations, but with the companies and management philosophies of the last 30 years that disregarded and devalued the role of service and maintenance personnel and their importance to keeping a business running.
Joining the industrial workforce in the ’80s landed me my first good job. It was with a support division of a Fortune 500 company that maintained fleet shops, machine and welding shops and all service and maintenance for a large testing facility. Where we are today started with management mentality that began to change in the ’80s. The company I worked for (like many others) was fond of adopting operational philosophies that seemed to change every time management did. With each new administration, there was a new way to save money. This usually involved eliminating or changing maintenance departments and personnel: You name it, Just in Time, Lean Staffing, the Customer is King, etc., etc. The one thing they all seemed to have in common was the view that maintenance and service departments were overhead, and as such, added no value. So to them, the best way to go about this was to outsource and lay off maintenance and service workers the minute there was a crisis. This type of management philosophy saw no need to hire or train new people for these jobs, leaving them with the notion that they could easily hire an experienced person with minimum difficulty or expense. Eventually, most companies decided to outsource their maintenance and service needs to outside companies. When you combine this new mindset with the massive relocations and closings in small and large communities of businesses and local industries during the ’80s and ’90s, the extent of the cumulative damage to service or maintenance employment opportunities now becomes clear. For 30 years, this caused a constant roller coaster of getting hired for a couple of years, then laid off, then hired again — the only catch was, the next job was in another city. This type of insecurity was a new thing for people in service and maintenance positions. The effect, in the end, was easy to predict. Fathers and mothers were telling their children, “Don’t bother to go into the trades or take maintenance jobs. There are no good jobs around here. Those jobs just lead to closed businesses and factories. Think about a career in computers or something else instead.”
Business thinking in the ’80s and ’90s devastated a whole generation of trained technicians, who, in turn, taught their children not to work in the same professions. Community colleges and high schools stopped teaching classes in the trades. Why teach classes no one wants to take? By the mid-2000s there weren’t enough skilled service and maintenance technicians to go around, and as a result, all types of industries are now watching their older employees retire. There are not enough skilled people to fill the jobs currently available, and it’s only going to get worse.
For many of us, the solution arrived when we decided to pursue a career in the independent automotive aftermarket service industry. We had the skills and discipline. DIY was quickly going away, creating an opportunity to get into a business that might not be so cyclical. Where you could, to a great extent, control your own destiny. The success of early endeavors drew many more of us to the automotive service business looking for freedom and stability. We have done an excellent job of creating a robust industry with opportunities for growth and prosperity. Maybe it’s time to take control of our own destiny as an industry to study the mistakes of the past and create a path or curriculum that allows younger people to discover the career choice of service and maintenance still provides a path to steady employment and financial independence.
In a backhanded way, we created this problem. Maybe it’s time to stop complaining, and do something about it. The products and techniques required for the increasingly complex nature of performing these services is creating the need for some type of certification and training to ensure job candidates of tomorrow have the verifiable skills and knowledge to perform as technicians of the past and present, automotive technology do. It would benefit us as an industry (we will be around for a while) to create an entry-level path to becoming a certified automotive service technician who is responsible for the maintenance on complex, high-tech vehicles. If it sounds very specialized, it is.
Everything seems to be going in that direction, why not automotive service as a specialized skill with levels of certification from a recognized industry association or coalition? Perhaps something like that may happen in the future. But for now, reality is a harsh mistress — as I was told by the HR guy the first time my job was eliminated — and smaller groups and independents with a need for trained technicians still need to survive. Because so many service facilities today are associated with large chains, facilities have evolved into state-of-the-art facilities that are equipped with the latest in innovative equipment and diagnostic tools. These companies will have their own philosophy and training dedicated to their own needs. For the rest of us, the need to hire technicians may mean changing how we recruit, train and retain talent.
Trained technicians want to work for companies with good reputations, up-to-date facilities and (in the current market) demand good salaries. To do that, you must be among the best in your field and able to meet customer and employer expectations the first time every time, while staying technically up-to-date. Retaining these technicians is just as important as hiring them, and some groups provide benefits like signing bonuses, additional training, tools and assistance with school debt. On-the-job training can also be a powerful way to keep technicians. Shops that offer limited training for fear of losing technicians end up having to deal with an even more frightening scenario: what if they don’t train technicians, and they stay. With the pace of change we are seeing in transportation service technology today, in-house training programs may be the only way to survive and stay relevant.
To widen the future labor pool of service technicians, it would benefit service providers to reach out to local schools with vocational or work training curriculums and get in front of the students to let them know of the opportunities available to young people looking for a profession. Hiring and retaining technicians while keeping an eye on future needs will be one of the biggest challenges for the aftermarket service industry of the next few decades, and only time will tell.