Too Many Openings & Too Few Techs—A Crisis With No End in Sight

Too Many Openings & Too Few Techs—A Crisis With No End in Sight

When I interview shop owners or managers all over North America for various articles, they usually end up asking me the same question.

“I need a new technician; do you know anybody good?”

After an awkward pause they often say, “Someone with a pulse?”

From New York City to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, the collision repair industry has too many openings and too few people to fill them. It’s all about supply and demand, and tech schools are enrolling more and more students, but it’s still a matter of “too little, too late.”

A recent study conducted by TechForce Foundation quantifies the growing seriousness of the body technician supply shortage. A non-profit organization whose goal is to get more young people interested in careers in auto repair, TechForce has a steep hill to climb as trade schools close or reduce class sizes.

The growing gap between postsecondary graduate numbers and job openings in mechanical and collision repair is hitting the panic stage, according to the TechForce Foundation’s Transportation Technician Supply Report.

Based on the comprehensive analysis performed by the National Center for Education Statistics with 2011-2016 data, TechForce discovered that the postsecondary supply of new body technicians entering the field has not kept up with the expanding demand.

The schools are trying to fill the void, but it is growing at a rapid rate. This shortage has been getting worse for the past 15 years, but hit its all-time low in 2013, as the gap between the supply and the demand has continued to grow every year.

New technicians breaking into the industry are filling the growth in new positions, as well as replacing those who retire or exit the profession primarily through retirement. They are distinguished from seasoned body technicians who move between employers but don’t add to the overall trained workforce. It's like a bad drought that isn't being helped after some heavy rainfall because the need is increasing and many technicians are reaching the retirement stage.

The TechForce report reveals that auto tech postsecondary graduates have been declining in a big way since 2013.

The number of postsecondary auto graduates decreased by 1,829 in 2016. There were approximately 38,829 graduates for 2016 when compared to the projected Bureau of Labor Statistics demand for 75,900 new techs. Private-sector colleges have experienced the biggest decline while public two-year institutions (mostly community colleges) have stepped up their efforts and proactively increased their recruitment efforts.

So, what can be done to lighten the supply shortage and how long will it take to see some tangible results? Jennifer Maher, CEO/executive director of TechForce, recently said one of the main problems is that the auto tech education system in this country, has stigmatized trade-school education and killing the trades. Prospective students are still holding onto the outdated image of the greasy and sweaty mechanic because parents, instructors and counselors support the theory. Today’s new technicians are compensated well and possess skills that set them up for ongoing success but are burdened by more school debt than their four-year school counterparts. Maher and her foundation are currently creating programs and supporting more students interested in becoming collision repair technicians.

Greg Settle, TechForce’s director of National Initiatives, said that with only a small number of students interested in entering a skilled trade as opposed to seeking a college degree, the competition among all the skilled trades for those graduating students is fierce.

Body repair technicians can make a very solid, middle-class income, but not initially. Five-year collision body techs are pulling down great salaries and commissions, but starting wages are among some of the lowest. This heavily influences what young men and women will focus on when considering a career decision. Add to that the fact that entry-level auto techs are expected to take on their first job with their own tools, and it does not make these careers very attractive when compared to other choices, according to Settle.

In conclusion, without some form of specifically focused collective action, the transportation industry will continue to suffer from insufficiently financed and seriously fragmented efforts to solve this dilemma, Maher explained. A solution requires pooling resources and consistent public messaging, she said, in order to change the perceptions about the industry and construct a talent pipeline for tomorrow's mechanical and collision repair technicians.

It's going to be an enormous undertaking, but unless organizations such as the TechForce Foundation dedicate themselves to solve the root causes of the problems in this industry, the shortage of qualified people will continue to hamstring the industry in many ways.

In the 1950s, there was a shortage of engineers in the U.S. In the 1960s, the country didn't have enough teachers, and in the 2000s, there was a serious need for computer programmers. Those gaps were filled by promoting those careers and getting more young people into the fold. If auto repair programs and tech schools can learn from history and get more people into shops as mechanics and body technicians, one of the industry's major dilemmas will happily go away, and all of us will benefit as a result.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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