Auto tech industry's pipeline of professionals dwindling
David Smith hoped for a long career in the oil and gas industry, but when he got laid off last year, he searched for a different job that would be in high demand.
The most promising opportunity he found was beneath the hood of a car.
“There's a vast new business going on in automotive,” said Smith, 43, of Claysville. “Not only dealing with hybrids, but also electric. There is an abundance of performance shops.”
Smith started Rosedale Technical College's automotive technician program last year, bucking a trend in which fewer people are entering the trade. The program has had a significant drop in enrollment the past few years, underscoring the challenges for auto garages and dealers who face a shortage of trained workers.
The number of jobs for auto technicians and mechanics is expected to increase 5 percent over the next decade, according to the Labor Department, but experts say the pipeline of trained professionals is dwindling.
There are no precise data to quantify the extent of the shortage, although dealers and industry analysts agree that it is approaching crisis levels. It has become so critical in Western Pennsylvania that a task force is being convened to develop a region-wide strategy to recruit and train people for the profession.
Officials from the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association, Community College of Allegheny County, The National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, and other trade-school programs will meet to discuss the issue at the CCAC Boyce Campus in Monroeville on Oct. 6.
Trades generally have struggled with a worker shortage as young people steer increasingly toward white-collar professions rather than traditional blue-collar jobs. Between 2003 and 2013, enrollment in degree-granting institutions like four-year colleges increased 20 percent, compared with a 12 percent increase for trade schools, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education.
Nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania's contractors reported having difficulty finding skilled workers, and many of them expect the labor market to get tighter over the next year, according to Associated General Contractors of America.
But the increasingly advanced skills required to work on today's high-tech automobiles and low starting pay have made matters even more difficult for garages, said Harry Hollenberg, a partner at Carlisle & Co., a consulting firm in Concord, Mass., that works with automakers.
“Cars are basically cellphones with wheels. You need folks with a more technology background and hopefully who can be doing more than turning a wrench,” Hollenberg said. “Today, it's almost impossible to work on a car as a 16-year-old. You need such specialized equipment and training.”
But perceptions of the job remain stuck in the past, evoking images of grease-covered mechanics with dirty fingernails rather than brainy professionals in white coats that kids — and their parents — might strive to emulate, Hollenberg said. Those old perceptions have made it difficult to attract students to auto tech programs.
Also, other trades pay better.
The median hourly wage for an auto technician last year was $18.20, compared with $24.45 to work as a wellhead pumper in the gas industry, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Enrollment in the automotive technology program at Rosedale Tech has declined 28 percent in the past four years, said Dennis Wilke, Rosedale's president. Meanwhile, there has been a 28 percent increase in enrollment in the diesel technology program, driven largely by people seeking opportunities to work on heavy trucks and on generators, pumps and hydraulic systems used by natural gas companies.
Experienced auto technicians can earn a six-figure salary. But employers have not done a good job communicating that potential to workers, nor mapping out a path for advancement, Hollenberg said.
That has not only hurt dealers' recruitment efforts but has led to high turnover rates as frustrated workers leave the field after having been stuck for too long in low-level jobs, such as changing oil and rotating tires.
“A lot of dealerships don't really have a good program set up to pull people through the express lane program,” Hollenberg said. “They hire people, they say they're going to bring you up, but there's no specific program after six months, after nine months. People get frustrated and they leave.”
When asked which improvements they would most like to see in their auto shop, service technicians surveyed by Carlisle in 2014 said they would most like to have better communication with their manager. Better training wasn't far behind, ranking third among the improvements listed.
Dave Shannon of Jim Shorkey Auto Group said he wants his technicians to know they can build a career at his dealerships. Shannon, who oversees the service and parts operations, said he offers starting pay around $12-$13 per hour, better than the $9-$10 an hour an entry-level tech could get at quick-lube shops. Nearly all of his higher-level technicians have been promoted from within, Shannon said. It's cheaper and easier than recruiting from the outside.
“We've figured out that we can take someone from a detail department or wash bay and put them into a quick-lane position, and then move them into a main shop,” he said. “We try not to steal technicians, because that can get pretty brutal and costly.”
But addressing the shortage will require more than just individual dealers bumping up pay and promoting employees, said Dave Amati, director of business development for Pittsburgh Auto Dealers Association. Rather, it requires a more coordinated, region-wide effort to change perceptions of the industry and connect students with job opportunities outside of their immediate neighborhood, he said.
“We need to bring scale to the issue,” Amati said. “It has to be a regional effort.”
Zephaniah Ferguson said he hopes to have a long career servicing cars. Ferguson, 18, of Penn Hills recently enrolled at Rosedale Tech.
He said he knows someone who works at a Goodyear service center and earns a six-figure salary, aspirations he has for himself.
Ferguson is fine with starting out at a low entry-level wage. But he expects to be given advancement opportunities within the first couple of years.
“It is true that when you start out, you don't make as much,” Ferguson said. “But if you're willing to put in the work, if you just keep doing it and your work ethic is there, (then pay increases will come).”
Smith plans to open his own garage. He graduates from Rosedale Tech in November and is eager to put his training to work. He understands it will take him a few years to get established, but he's already building a pipeline of potential customers through friends.
“I think it's an outstanding field,” Smith said. “You can't lose in this field.”