Even the most high-tech automobile is, at its core, a machine. And machines break sooner or later, sending most owners into a dealership or independent garage for service. But lately, and no pun intended, there’s a wrench in the works: a shortage of qualified mechanics. This comes just as the proliferation of electronic controls for the engine, suspension, steering, brakes, and nearly everything else has made already complicated motor vehicles even more so.
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics says an average of 76,000 mechanics are needed each year between 2016 and 2026, both to replace those retiring or leaving the industry and to fill some 46,000 projected new openings. Employment in the field dropped by 10 percent during the Great Recession, bottoming out at 587,510 jobs in 2010. It has only recently come close to its 2007 level, with 647,380 mechanics employed in 2016, according to the BLS. Today, Americans are driving a larger vehicle fleet more miles than ever as mechanical and electronic complexity have outpaced improved vehicle reliability. The result is a labor shortage that has increased workloads among existing automotive technicians and is leading to more hassles for customers.
The challenges facing the industry are numerous. Although pay can be competitive after a few years of turning wrenches and reading diagnostic scanners, the job requires a deep commitment to learning the necessary mechanical and digital skills. The tools of the trade are expensive. Plus, enticing today’s tech-oriented youth into a profession that requires getting their hands dirty can be difficult.
“We’re working around a bit of a culture shift from years ago,” says Gary Uyematsu, national technical training manager at BMW of North America. “It used to be that people would work in a lawn-mower-repair or tire shop, but there’s not so much of that anymore. Years ago, if you worked at a gas station, you changed oil and worked with cars. Now, you sell candy and chips.”
BMW’s New Jersey training center is reflective of the changes in the industry. Housed in a sprawling complex in the forested suburbs north of New York City, its long, high-ceilinged gallery is flanked by several pristine classrooms, each with a small seating area at the back of a large service bay. At one end sits a spotless, state-of-the-art paint and body shop, its walls a brilliant white. Instructors work with anywhere from six to 12 students in almost lab-clean classrooms, and they’re generally more focused on computer equipment than greasy mechanical parts.
Stakes are high for BMW and other carmakers, as service departments are big moneymakers for dealerships. According to a recent report from the National Automobile Dealers Association, service and parts brought in about $110 billion in 2016—nearly 12 percent of dealers’ total revenue. A dearth of qualified technicians imperils dealerships’ satisfaction ratings and revenues, as customers often have difficulty securing appointments and need to endure longer wait times, according to BMW.
To address the tech shortage, schools, manufacturers, and the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence—an organization responsible for certifying technicians in vehicle diagnosis and repair skills and for accrediting automotive-education programs—have developed partnerships to encourage and help potential technicians to join the industry. The Lincoln Technical Institute—a national vocational school offering programs in automotive technology, HVAC repair, applied health sciences, and other hands-on disciplines—has linked up with Audi, BMW, and Fiat Chrysler. Robert Paganini, president of LTI’s Mahwah, New Jersey, campus, says that the majority of students who participated in its prestigious Audi apprenticeship, which adds an extra two months onto a 13-month program, found jobs within the VW Group after graduation. But participation in a manufacturer-specific program isn’t required for job placement.
“I have more automotive job orders than I can fill,” says Nella Santangelo, director of career services at LTI Mahwah. “There’s a major shortage of technicians, so I don’t have to fight too much for salaries. Opportunities are better now than 25 years ago.”
She admits, however, that salaries tend to start on the low side, about $10 to $15 per hour, but can get up to $30 or $40 per hour.
According to the BLS, median annual auto-tech pay was $38,470 in 2016, but how much a tech makes depends on the individual, with top-tier salaries cresting $64,000 per year. Not bad considering the U.S. Census Bureau puts median household income at $59,039.
Peter Tahinos, senior vice president of marketing at LTI Mahwah, says that after working for five to 10 years, talented techs could even make six figures. It all depends on the dealership or shop, its location, as well as the sort of vehicles it services: Higher-end cars typically mean better pay for technicians.
Paul LeBlanc, who with his father and brother owns Paul’s Auto Repair, an independent shop in East Hartford, Connecticut, says the pay structure has a lot to do with how techs make money—or don’t. Warranty work, which is prevalent at dealerships, earns a lower hourly rate, and techs are often pushed to finish it quickly. Although LeBlanc has trouble finding qualified techs for his own shop, his workers are subject to a pay scheme that he says works well for them and encourages studied diagnosis and careful repairs. “The dealerships want those jobs in and out the door as fast as possible,” he says. “You should see some of the stuff I get that’s been serviced at dealerships.”
Educators at LTI and BMW are also trying to get students to look at the automotive-technician field more broadly—as a launchpad to better-paying opportunities down the road. Santangelo gives an example of one LTI student who went to work at the Mercedes-Benz dealership in Manhattan, eventually transferring to a service sales position that paid six figures. “Then again,” says Ken Ramsey, one of BMW’s instructors in New Jersey, “a lot of people get into this because they don’t like sitting at a desk. A lot of guys are shop forever.”
“There may not be a specific job or industry that is pulling would-be techs away from the auto industry,” Tahinos says, “but there is so much emphasis by parents and educators pushing kids toward going the traditional college route that many young people are unaware of the opportunities and the career paths available to them in the auto industry or any of the other skilled trades. Many are also unaware of the high-tech nature of today’s vehicles and the fact that being a technician today involves a lot less grease and grime and a lot more computerization and electronics.”
Auto repair, done well, has always been a thinking person’s vocation. Working through problems requires logic and inference and, now more than ever, the ability to troubleshoot difficult-to-diagnose digital malfunctions. Jeremy Stephens, an assistant professor at the Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College in Bowling Green, says roughly 80 percent of repairs today are electrical, having to do with sensors and emissions-control systems. But the job still has a tough physical element that turns some people off.
“To be honest, I want to do something else,” says Juan Novo. Now in his late 20s, Novo had only toyed around with a project car and attended trade school before going to work at a dealership in Orlando, Florida. He then enrolled in classes at BMW’s training center. “I don’t want to get my hands dirty; I’m too cute for this,” he says. “But I’m already committed.”
“I love working on cars, but it’s a hard life,” says Ricardo Davila, a tech from a Mini dealership in Rockland, Massachusetts, who also recently participated in classes at the BMW training center. Davila had 20 years of experience at an independent shop before going to work for a Mini store, but he was still a lower-level tech within the hierarchy. “If you’re smart enough to do this, it’s better to do something else,” he says. “It’s not easy, and you have to spend a lot of money on tools.”
Indeed, mechanics are usually required to buy their own tools. Go to any automotive repair shop and you’re likely to see a Snap-on truck outside the service bay at least once a week, selling to and settling accounts with technicians. Costs can run well into five figures, although usually stretched over a period of years. LTI has a deal with Matco Tools to give students discounts on a basic starter set, but most new techs can expect to pay a few thousand dollars before they even turn their first wrench professionally.
Students in BMW’s entry-level classes learn basic skills, such as how to read torque wrenches and vernier calipers and how to operate modern wheel-balancing machines, while the upper-level students dig into the more sophisticated computer-diagnostic arena. Acquiring new competency and ASE certifications is an important part of an auto tech’s career development, particularly as cars become more software-driven. Manufacturers such as BMW offer continuing education as a benefit of employment, but some employers require techs to pay for it themselves.
“In the old days, you might flip open a repair manual and look at the wiring diagram—you could fold the whole thing out on four pages,” says Ken VomSaal, a tech at a Maryland BMW dealership, as he works through a stop-start-switch problem on a BMW 7-series set up in one of the classrooms.
Now, wiring diagrams are too large to print on foldouts; they’re all on the diagnostic computer. “Reading wiring diagrams now is like learning another language,” he says.
Tech-school instructors and career counselors tend to blame flagging interest in automotive careers on three main factors: first, the job’s age-old grease-monkey stigma; second, high-school counselors pushing four-year university degrees as the ultimate goal for most students; third, millennials’ resistance to the older generation’s efforts to teach them about cars.
“Hollywood hasn’t done us any favors in terms of how people view [us],” BMW’s Uyematsu says. “The auto technician is often depicted as someone who’s not the most highly educated.”
But today’s vehicles contain dozens of interconnected computers, so it’s nearly impossible to repair a vehicle without hooking it up to expensive diagnostic equipment or at the very least a laptop computer. A technician still needs to know how to strip down and reassemble mechanical components without damaging bolt threads, warping flat surfaces, or cracking soft metal, but also how to operate and interpret these many-layered computer applications. This is what has transformed the profession into a highly technical one in which digital skills can translate into successful problem solving. It’s also made cars less accessible to do-it-yourselfers, making the need for skilled technicians all the more acute.
“We’re not mechanics; we’re automotive technicians,” says LeBlanc, the independent shop owner. “You practically need to be an I.T. guy to work on new cars. It’s gotten to the point where it’s more computer-focused than mechanical.”
Tech-program staff see school counselors as a stumbling block to getting more students interested in automotive careers. Terri Tchorzynski, a counselor at the Calhoun Area Career Center in Battle Creek, Michigan, says some advisors just aren’t aware of the opportunities in the automotive service field. Nascent collaborations among schools, manufacturers, and the ASE should help, but it’ll take time.
High-school counselors, for their part, seem to be changing their tune. Tchorzynski says that many in recent years have shifted away from universally pushing four-year-university education. “When I graduated in 1997, the mentality was that to get a good job, you needed a degree,” she says. “But students who do on-the-job training with specific companies can end up making more than students who spend four years at a university.”
Attracting millennials is proving to be its own challenge. Educators say this first generation to be immersed in digital technology and culture from childhood has a lack of interest in cars and mechanical things, even though they would be likely to excel at the increasingly computerized aspects of the trade.
Santangelo says LTI addresses the problem by emphasizing soft skills—written and verbal communication, critical thinking, personal responsibility and presentation, punctuality—as well as the mechanical skills many in this generation are missing, having never tinkered with their own cars.
But what if the automotive technician’s trade doesn’t catch on with millennials? The myriad diagnostic menus that the advanced students at BMW’s training center have to scroll through to troubleshoot their classroom 7-series inspire an interesting question: Why couldn’t a robot mechanic plug a connector into a port on the side of the car, then prompt a wrench-wielding human to do the dirty work?
“As far as repair shops go, we will still need people to fix brakes and suspensions and do body work,” says Bruce Belzowski, managing director of the Automotive Futures group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, “but there will probably be fewer people involved in diagnosis. Those who are will need a higher level of computer training.”
Trish Serratore, senior vice president of the ASE, echoes the continuing need for individuals who have strong technical and diagnostic skills. “You can always get dirt, salt, and crossed wires that will give the computer a bad reading,” she says. “Then you’ll need a human to step in.”
For now, though, the industry’s immediate need is for more technicians. To get them, manufacturers and educators are just trying to get the word out to people who like cars and technology.
“I think it’s important for people to know that fixing cars is not your father’s mechanic job anymore—it’s very technical and requires an ability to work with your hands and use your brain,” Serratore says. “We need to let our young people know that this is still a viable career option for them.”
Article by Car & Driver