Carley’s Corner: What Technician Shortage? – UnderhoodService
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Carley’s Corner: What Technician Shortage?

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People have been talking about “the technician shortage” for years. Many quote old Bureau of Labor Statistics that say there is a shortage of 60,000 technicians in the work force. These numbers are at least 10 years old, if not older, so some are now quoting a more recent estimate that says there is a shortage of 35,000 technicians.

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The problem with quoting government statistics is they are always out of date, and usually not very accurate. Personally, I think all of these numbers are bogus and are based on false assumptions (like the number of technicians needed to service a growing vehicle population). Today’s vehicles don’t require as much maintenance as they used to, and they don’t break down as often.

I would certainly agree with the fact that there has always been and will always be a shortage of highly skilled, well-trained, top-notch technicians. Out of the estimated 773,000-plus working technicians in this country, roughly half (359,666) are ASE-certified, but only 97,805 have achieved Master Tech status. These kinds of technicians are always in demand because they are good at what they do, and they know how to make themselves and their employers money. But I don’t think there is an overall shortage of technicians in the work force. If there were, motorists would have to schedule service appointments weeks in advance and be put on waiting lists to see a technician.

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Most independent repair shops can provide same-day or next-day service for most maintenance and repair jobs. Customers can drop off their vehicles in the morning and usually pick them up by 5 p.m. — unless parts have to be special ordered or the technician runs into a snafu that requires a lot of extra time or additional parts. Wages would also be significantly higher if there were a shortage of technicians in the work force. According to the Economic Research Institute, the average wages for technicians in June 2007 was $43,787 (ranging from a high of $49,752 in New York to a low of $39,024 in Orlando, FL). The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average wages for an experienced technician in February 2008 was $44,387, and $20,500 for an entry-level technician.

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These are not very good wages for a career path that requires a lot of training and know-how, plus a huge out-of-pocket investment in tools and equipment. The average technician spends $15,000 to $25,000 on tools he needs to earn a living (the average is about $160 a week!).

Many other blue collar service jobs pay a heck of a lot better, provide better working conditions (no grease and no hunching over a fender all day), and do not require as much training, experience or investment in tools as turning wrenches for a living. Consequently, fewer and fewer talented young people are seeing auto repair as a viable career opportunity. They would rather work on computers or install home security systems than fix cars for a living.

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What got me to thinking about this issue was a statement I heard at a recent Automotive Training Manager’s Council (ATMC) meeting. Tony Molla of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence said, “Within the next seven to 12 years, 50% of today’s technicians will be eligible for retirement.”

The implication is that over the next 10 years, a lot of the people who possess most of the knowledge and skill in the automotive repair industry will leave the work force — which could create a serious shortage of top-notch technicians who know how to diagnose and repair cars.

Most of these technicians are now in their 50s, and many have bad backs, stiff joints and don’t see as well as they did when they were younger. Turning wrenches takes a toll on the body, and most of these guys have been working on cars for 20 to 25 years or longer.

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Back in 2001, Babcox did a technician survey that revealed the average age of technicians then was 42.5 years, and that 20% of technicians were 51 or older. Most of these guys are still turning wrenches today, and are now seven years closer to the end of their working careers. The question is, who’s going to take their place? The demographics might not be a concern if there were hoards of newbies coming up through the ranks to fill their shoes, but there are not. Many high schools and even some vo-tech schools have disbanded their auto shop programs because of waning interest and demand.

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In spite of the demographics, though, I don’t foresee a rash of retirements among the ranks of today’s aging technicians. Why? Because most older technicians probably can’t afford to retire even though they would like to.

Only about 40% of technicians work for an employer who offers a 401K retirement plan, and many just don’t have the spare cash to save for retirement, whether it goes into a 401K, an individual IRA or a hole in their mattress. It takes every dollar they earn just to pay their monthly bills.

The net savings rate in America is now less than zero. People are spending more than they are earning, and are saving nothing because they have nothing left over to save. The soaring cost of gasoline, utilities, food, property taxes, rent and just about everything else has put many people’s retirement plans on indefinite hold. Another roadblock to retirement (or early retirement at age 62) is the issue of health insurance. You don’t become eligible for Medicare until you are 65. If you can’t get health coverage through your spouse’s employer, you have to buy health insurance on the open market — which is horribly expensive for most individuals and families. Worse yet, if you or your spouse has any “pre-existing” health problems (even relatively minor ones), good luck finding an insurance company that will insure you. If you take your chances and go without insurance, one illness can bankrupt you. That’s the health care system we’re stuck with today. Maybe somebody can come up with a plan to fix it. But until that happens, most older technicians won’t have to worry about how to while away their Golden Years. They will be turning wrenches as long as they are physically able.

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