• 'A very complex occupation': Auto shops struggle to hire

    By: ALEKS GILBERT, The Index-Journal of Greenwood

    Updated:
    GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) - Last July, in Frisco, Texas, Gerald Sartin realized the problem wasn't limited to Greenwood.

    Sartin, the director of Piedmont Tech's automotive technology program, had gone to an annual conference organized by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.

    Greenwood's auto shop owners are having a hard time finding qualified technicians. At the conference, some statistics were floated that brought home the magnitude of the problem.

    The average technician is 50 years old, Sartin heard. A mere 3 percent of the nation's technicians are between the ages of 18 and 24.

    "Finding a qualified candidate, this has been an ongoing issue," said Allen Rains, general manager of Lakelands Tire and Auto at Beaudrot Road. "The last six or seven (years) have been real difficult."

    The problem is two-fold, according to Sartin and Rains.

    There are fewer applicants than in years past, and many who pursue a career in automotive service find that the job isn't what they had expected.

    Rains began to see a shift several years ago when he was a training manager at a 16-bay shop in Atlanta.

    "One thing that I did notice, when we'd go to career days at high schools, there was the big push of college degree - you got to get a four-year degree," Rains said. "The teachers, they were always talking about it and we're standing over there trying to have conversations with younger kids, and they don't want to have anything to do with us."

    Sartin sees the issue differently.

    "A lot of our students haven't focused in on that that's really what they want to do," he said. Many students are interested in learning how to repair their own cars but don't necessarily intend on making a career of it.

    And those who might otherwise go into the field instead pursue a lightly different track.

    "I think our biggest challenge is probably (that) a lot of people are looking at going into plants and things of that nature, instead of the technical side," Sartin added.

    "There's just not an influx of young people," said Neal Goldman of Reynolds Service Center.

    But Bonnie Corbitt, director of the G. Frank Russell Technology Center, said she has seen a recent uptick in students' interest in automotive technology.

    Two years ago, she added another instructor to the Center's automotive technology department and has seen an increase in the number of students pursuing ASE certification and apprenticeships with local dealerships.

    "We continue to grow in class size and are now even seeing waiting lists for our introduction courses," said Rickey Ferguson, an instructor at the Center.

    The other problem, however, is that shops aren't getting the same caliber of candidates.

    "Only one out of every six or five candidates are going to be a good applicant anyway," Rains said. His shop gets an application every month or two, which means that there are years where only two applicants qualify in a 12-month span.

    Sartin said that enrollment in the automotive program at Piedmont Tech dropped earlier this decade as a result of turnover among program faculty, but has been climbing upward since he took the helm in 2015. The automotive service division currently has 40 students in its degree and certificate programs.

    But some aren't prepared for what being an automotive technician actually entails.

    Rains said that he wants applicants who are at least a little computer savvy, given the ubiquity of software in cars nowadays. Those who aren't can "forget about working on cars."

    Where technicians used to open a manual for guidance, they now rely on computers that can communicate with those in clients' vehicles. Some, such as a Chevrolet Tahoe, can have as many as 60 onboard computers, Rains said.

    Bryson Salters, of Lakelands Tire and Auto, said the biggest challenge of working in an auto shop was learning how to use the software and different codes that he needs to communicate with cars' onboard computers.

    "The technology's moving faster than we can become accustomed to it," he said. "You'll never know everything about a car."

    "There's a lot of challenges for students coming into the program that maybe they didn't realize," Sartin said. "The majority of our shops are looking to truly diagnose a condition, not just replace a part. It's getting to be a very complex occupation."

    Not every shop owner is having trouble finding workers.

    Rickey Timms, who recently began teaching automotive technology at the Russell Technology Center, said that he did not have any trouble finding workers when he owned a shop of his own.

    "But it was a challenge to find people who had the skills," he said. "The ASE certification was a credential I looked for."

    Roy Lee Sullivan, of Precision Tune Auto Care on Bypass 72, doesn't have trouble finding workers, but instead can't hold onto them.

    Intense competition among shops to offer the best prices means that technicians aren't always satisfied with pay.

    Others "might get their hours cut because it's slow," Sullivan said. "I was trying to work full-time, I'm only getting 28 hours right now," some former employees have told him. "I get that."

    But Rains says anyone willing to "work their tail off" can make good money - $50,000 is common for someone with several years of experience and ASE certifications. "My top technician" - with more than a dozen years of experience - "makes almost six-figures," he said.

    But Sartin thinks the main appeal of being a technician doesn't have to do with pay.

    "I like solving problems, I like working with my hands," he said. "To me, I didn't want to work in a plant-type setting, I was wanting to be able to work in a shop, not having to do the exact same thing every day, over and over. I found that a lot of students want that mentality."

    Salters agrees.

    "It's never the same thing," he said. "Every car is something different."

    ___

    Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com

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