Involved, With a Capital “I” — Part One

Involved, With a Capital “I” — Part One

Greg McConiga

The front of the brochure asks (rhetorically, I think), “Are qualified entry-level techs hard to find?” Hard? Not the word I’d use. Impossible? Yes. We all know the problem exists; the more farsighted among us have been engaged in hand wringing over this issue for at least a decade. The old “light at the end of the tunnel” has become the headlight of the train. The questions are how did we arrive here, what do we intend to do about it, and when do we start?

I’ll answer the last question first because it’s easy. It’s time. In fact, it’s past time and is rapidly moving on to “too late.” I’m not interested in fault-finding and blame-sorting, although there’s lots of that we could pass around (to quote the “Pogo” cartoonist Oliphant, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us”).

Further, I’m not going to make an emotional appeal. I’m going to make an appeal based on good old-fashioned greed. No altruistic, post-modern feel-goodism here, friends. I’m going to let plain old capitalism drive this discourse.

I’ve sat in on some General Motors interactive distance learning classes, and at the beginning of each class they poll the attendees on several topics, such as your job classification. The results of this poll are instantly tallied, with active bar graphs indicating the response on screen. One of the questions asked is, “How many years of experience do you have?” Imagine my surprise when the graphs appeared, and the group with 15 or more years of experience comprises nearly the entire class! The group with less than five years? Virtually non-existent. Of two hundred attendees, 125-150 or so are in the 15 years plus group, the balance spread in descending order between 10 to 15 years, five to ten years and five and fewer years, with the last being the smallest group by far. This, by the way, has been the case in every class I’ve attended so far. Lots of old, beat-up guys like me (26 years now, but who’s counting?), and nearly no kids coming up to take our place.

We all see very, very few newcomers to the business, and the few that we get are often not capable of being employed in a trade as complicated as ours has become. As such, we treat them poorly, offering sub-standard wages to offset inferior work quality and volume.

The natural result of little or no active recruitment over the last couple of decades is the “aging” of our workforce, and increased financial competition for the capable veterans who can fix cars in a professional and timely fashion. Did you ever stop to think what happens to a business or industry that’s unable to recruit new employees at a rate equal to or greater than the rate of retirement and/or attrition? Not only will we no longer be able to serve the customer, we will enter a bidding war with every other service supplier in our market area. Every business out there, yours, mine, the chains and mass marketers, will be engaged in bidding for and stealing the employees of the other businesses in the market. How else will we man the bays?

I’d like to suggest to you that this boils down to a bit more than just fixing cars; I would suggest that the entire aftermarket’s survival depends on new up-and-coming techs, because without a production staff, without someone turning a bolt or putting a fuel filter on or screwing in a set of plugs, you don’t have a business!

One of the unspoken goals of owning your own business is that you invest the time, money and effort (lots and lots of each!) to create a successful, profitable operation with the hopes of selling it somewhere down the line to someone as impassioned about fixing cars as you are. The selling price is fixed by profitability, physical assets, the customer list, and a bit of “blue sky” thrown in to somehow pay you back for missing all the kids’ ball games and school plays over the last 30 years — you guys all know exactly what I mean — the payoff for all the times the wife guilt-tripped you over missing out on family activities.

Guess what? If there are no young techs, there’ll be no potential buyers for your business, no market for your business! You own something no one wants to buy! If there’s only one guy around even remotely interested, you either keep working it yourself (right up to the point when all your joints quit working, and you’ve got to buy a fork lift to get you out of bed) or you take whatever you can get, because without competitive bidding, your business automatically goes to the only bidder, the lowest bidder by default. Work the business until you can’t anymore and the only thing you get are the proceeds of the auction, less commission, and your “blue sky” and customer list is worth zip.

So, what’s wrong? How did we get here, and how will we extricate ourselves? To begin with, we aren’t known for good starting wages. The youngsters we get are generally diamonds in the rough (if not a lumps of coal), hardly ready to practice the profession of auto repair. You just can’t teach kids enough in a two-year high school or college program to make them productive. Sure, they’ve got the basics down, but they’re years away from being able to work unsupervised. As a result, we tend to underpay our new hire-ins, knowing that we’ll have to absorb three to five years of missed diagnoses, broken parts or parts hung that weren’t needed, not charged for and end up sitting on the shelf The entry-level person’s wage is calculated to offset the costs of on-the-job training that we as employers know we will have to endure.

We all know why entry level positions pay so abysmally, but that won’t help how we look to the statisticians who say to potential new techs (and their parents), “This job pays lousy to start, requires long hours, continuous education and a huge personal investment in hand tools; BUT, if you hang in there long enough, you’ll get past all that and make a better-than-average living.” The only way to correct this issue is to dramatically improve profitability. We will need to be very, very profitable if we intend to out-bid the other guy for the old timers and support two or three young apprentices.

Working conditions, medical insurance, work hours, vacation time, holidays and holiday pay are all going to have to be rethought. If we are seeking to hire bright people to do difficult work, we are going to have to reward them in a manner consistent with other businesses vying for the same person. The old standards we’ve used for profitability need to be re-thought, and dramatically improved. It’s going to take money to fix this problem.

Further complicating the issue for the aftermarket is the trend among the O.E.s to use product-specific, captured training systems to “grow their own.” The few interested and capable parties coming out of high school are being sucked up as fast as they graduate. This is going to be tough to beat. Youngsters are exposed to the latest in tooling and educational opportunities and are indoctrinated with the “advantages” of dealer life (don’t kid yourself, there are advantages). ASEP, T-TEN, ASSET are just some of the acronyms springing up in trade schools around the country.

OK, we know the problem, it’s not arguable, and it’s got to get fixed. What do we do? Next month, I’ll share some thoughts I’ve had about it, as well of some opinions of educators, industry leaders and other interested parties. But be prepared to hear some things you don’t want to hear…

Do you have some input on this topic? I’m all ears. gregmcc@fwi.com

COPYRIGHT 2001 Adams Business Media

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group