Good Help is Hard to Find, Retaining It is Even Harder

June 3, 2024
Meeting employees where they're at.

Anyone who has driven down the main drag near their home likely has seen the signs on the marquees of the fast-food eateries that promise to pay $15 an hour or more. As the unemployment rate remains at near record lows—just 3.7% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for February—there just aren't enough workers to go around. 

The automotive aftermarket's labor market has been tricky terrain for some time, but the new reality of low unemployment is further making it hard not just to find good help, but to retain the best workers. 

"A lot of this can be solved by just having better management," explains David Fadayel, owner and operator of Perfect Lube in San Carlos, California. "After the pandemic we needed to go back to the drawing board and see what we were doing right, but also figure out what we were doing wrong. We really had to take a hard look to see how we can progress." 

Fadayel tells NOLN that the pandemic truly upended the entire service industry, and he has seen from the frontlines how businesses big and small alike are struggling to find employees. 

California Dreaming Means Paying Up 

For Fadayel, the problem is further exacerbated by the highest cost of living in the continental United States. A dozen of the nation's most expensive cities for cost of living, including housing, are in California. Coupled with a labor shortage, Perfect Lube, which averages about 25 cars a day, now finds itself in a perfect storm that makes it harder to retain workers. 

"The cost of living in California is just insanely high," Fadayel adds. "But I know that things aren't really much better across the country. Inflation has really taken its toll on the staff." 

For Fadayel—and probably many other small businesses—the easiest option is to pay more, which can mean raising prices. That model has worked for fast food, and just about the rest of the service industry. That can impact the bottom line, as some customers may put off an oil change, stretching the time between other automotive services, yet it may be necessary to keep the shops staffed. 

"There is a burger joint down the street paying $21 an hour, and that's the starting pay," Fadayel continues. 

Higher pay is just one part of the equation, however. Offering flexible hours is now increasingly necessary. Likewise, those who show greater initiative are often rewarded with bonuses or other incentives. Many shops are now offering employees tickets to a ball game or other small price bonuses, while lunch is provided on Fridays and/or weekends. 

Such encouragements further help employees feel like part of a team and to take the job more seriously. At the same time, it could be wrong to assume that the staff expects management to pull their weight on the shop floor. 

The techs are hired, and possibly promoted, based on their skills. Many don't expect to see the boss looking over their shoulder on the shop floor, and instead expect the owner to be looking at the big picture. 

"When I worked for a previous small business before moving to the quick lube industry, I'll admit the owner never showed up. I worked there for seven years and never saw his wife," adds Fadayel. "The business still ran, and it did well. So, when I first took over this business, I was very hands on, but I realized you have to step back. Otherwise, the business will suffer, and that's not going to help keep employees." 

Cutting Loose the Dead Weight 

Many a shop has likely had a tech who isn't cut out for the job, or who just brings down the morale of the other employees. Such individuals aren't worth retaining, even in an extremely tight job market. 

"Fortunately, I've never had to cut anyone loose," Fadayel admits. "I think we're particularly lucky, but so many people are living paycheck to paycheck that they see that they need to pull their weight. That is what it is like in California. They're willing to work, just not for peanuts." 

Finally, Fadayel says it comes back to good management. If the shop runs like a well-oiled machine, employees are able to do their job, pay their bills and come back for another shift. 

"We have to make sure our employees know they're special, and their work is appreciated. We do that and we don't have problems keeping them," he says. 

Courtesy of Gold Flat Express Lube & Car Wash
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