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There’s a nationwide shortage of skilled workers in all the trades, but the auto industry is especially in a panic because the folks who fix our cars are aging out, and not enough people are coming in to replace them.
Fixed operations director Harry Haigh has worked at the Best Chevrolet dealership in Hingham for close to 20 years. And there’s one thing he’s noticed over time.
“It’s been difficult for us to find qualified people, and I think it’s been a little bit of an issue for people wanting to get into the industry,” Haigh says.
And that’s for a number of reasons. Technicians need to buy their own tools, which typically run about $30,000. The technology has also become much more complicated. We essentially drive computers now. And then there’s the flat-rate pay model. Every car manufacturer decides how long each repair should take.
“If you take less time than what it pays, you’re good," says Haigh. "If it takes more time, you still get paid what the flat-rate time says. And being a new person coming into the industry, you’re not going to beat the time. It’s an antiquated system but it’s the only system we have.”
The starting annual salary of an auto tech is $35,000 to $40,000. But if you’re not getting paid for those extra hours, you’re losing out. Haigh says his dealership provides a base salary and has created its own supplemental pay plan to make sure their employees get compensated for all their work. But most dealerships don’t do this.
A nationwide survey by Carlisle & Co. recently found that technicians are miserable — so miserable that almost a quarter of them left their dealerships last year. Another 25 percent left the industry altogether. Unstable pay and feeling undervalued were major reasons. MIT labor economist Tom Kochan says there’s one way to change that.
Having "much more of a team oriented approach where the technicians had more control over inspection, quality control, and delivering it to the customer,” would do the trick, says Kochan, If you have a system in which the mechanic has "to look the customer in the eye and say ‘this car has been fixed, I fixed it,’ you would have a very different kind of relationship and a very different kind of retention with employees.”
A return to the neighborhood garage model could boost morale and trust. But another sticking point is getting young people interested to begin with — and convincing parents that their kids don’t need a 4-year degree to get a job, says Paul Bresnick, a professor of General Motors Automotive Service Education Program, or GM ASEP, at MassBay Community College.
“It's hard work. You've gotta love it, you've gotta want it, you've gotta love cars. Many people think that their child is too good for that,” Bresnick says.
At MassBay, students can major in Toyota, GM, Jeep/Chrysler or BMW. Bresnick jokes that it’s the state’s best kept secret, which doesn’t help the cause. But, he has seen a slight uptick in student interest. For freshman Amanda Leonardo, who is the only woman in the program, coming here was a natural pick after studying auto body work at her vocational high school. She adds that the newer technology makes the work less physically demanding.
“It's definitely becoming a lot less like grunt work, and more, [sic] with electrical, you have to do a lot of testing and measuring, so it's not as much 'heavy lifting,'” Leonardo says. “So, it makes it a little bit easier for people who don't have as much muscle strength,” she adds, laughing.
Muscle mass jokes aside, one thing’s for certain: There’s a demand. And everyone agrees that changes need to be made in the industry to attract and retain talent. In the meantime, calling all motorheads.