Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Auto Technician Shortage

Everyone agrees that America has a big shortage of good jobs you can get without a college degree. Yet I regularly encounter stories about companies or even whole industries unable to hire enough people for the good blue-collar jobs that do exist. I recently listened to an architect deliver a 5-minute rant about how hard it is to hire anyone who can install an alarm system properly. In the course of this rant he explained part of the reason for the technician shortage: the alarm systems he was talking about connect to both phone and internet lines, as well as to the building's electricity supply, and therefore installing them requires a high level of technical expertise. The technology is also changing very rapidly, so skills quickly become obsolete if not regularly updated. In other words the job requires an ability to learn and keep learning that could equally well be applied to getting a college degree, and our society puts huge pressure on anyone who could finish college to do so. Hence, not enough skilled alarm techs.

I was put in mind of this by a story in today's Times about the shortage of high-level auto mechanics:
The shortfall of automotive technicians is not new, but as vehicles have grown more computerized and vocational programs have disappeared from high schools, the situation has become more urgent. No longer is the career path a matter of looking over the shoulder of a patient mentor. Advancing in the profession demands digital skills — a diagnostician who can solve puzzles without physical clues, like an engine bearing that knocks or an axle shaft that vibrates.

John Fox, director of Fiat Chrysler’s Performance Institute, said that the automaker’s United States dealerships could absorb 5,000 technicians over the next two years, having hired 3,000 in the last two. Numbers of that scale give Mark Davis, automotive programs manager at Seminole State College in Sanford, Fla., confidence that his estimate of technician shortfalls — more than 25,000 at American dealerships over the coming five years — is actually quite conservative. Worse yet, there may not be enough training institutions in the country to keep up, Mr. Davis said.
That's 25,000 jobs just at car dealers, positions that pay up to $100,000 a year. The story identifies three obstacles to connecting young people with these jobs: first, the technical difficulty; I know a young man who is pursuing this career, and he has spent four years taking various programs at the local community college. Second, because young people don't grow up tinkering with engines the way they used to; modern cars are just too complex for the average tinkerer to get very far, and anyway those kids are all online playing Call of Duty instead of messing around in the garage. Third, because high schools don't teach this stuff any more.

That last is not entirely true, and there are still vocational schools and programs that teach mechanics and similar skills. But to the extent that it is true I find it infuriating. The weird push American educators have been making to send everyone to college is foolish and self-defeating. There just aren't enough jobs that require a college degree to make this economically sensible, and while I found college hugely enriching and mind-expanding that just doesn't seem to be true for many thousands of students. Instead of forcing all high school students to become "college ready" and funneling hundreds of thousands into colleges from which they will never graduate, we ought to be teaching them knowledge they can use. I do understand the class bias and so on involved here, and I understand which sorts of kids are slotted into vocational programs. But forcing young people to study academic subjects that interest them not at all strikes me as just indulging a different sort of bias, besides the vast waste of teaching skill and other resources.

An educational system should do a lot of things, but one of the key goals should be equipping people to support themselves and their families.


It occurs to me that there is also a geographical angle to this story. Most of those high-paying auto dealer jobs are in the places where lots of people drive expensive cars, that is, prosperous cities. So to get one of these jobs a small town kid has to learn all the skills and then quite likely move a long way from home, which another sort of obstacle.


Unknown said...

Given the complexity of the subjects, I wonder why we shouldn't create college-level technical programs. Why not a bachelor's in Automotive Science? This would solve some of the class issues (including the "college dating crisis"), help dilute populism and spread liberalism and establishment conservatism, help low-level academics keep their jobs, help colleges stay in business, etc., etc. Everybody wins!

John said...

I have actually had the same thought; one problem is the broader requirements that colleges have, things like passing composition and college algebra.

Unknown said...

Well, the comp (and history!) requirements are the things that I thought would help thwart populism, and allow adjuncts their rice-bowls.

kathy said...

Why shouldn't my auto mechNic pass comp and algebra? At UW they made the fashion design students pass chemistry.

G. Verloren said...


So your answer is that because something stupid and senseless happened to you or people you know, the same thing should also happen to other people?

Your automotive mechanic shouldn't have to pass random unrelated classes for exactly the same reason that fashion design students shouldn't have to pass chemistry - because it's utterly senseless. The answer isn't forcing EVERYBODY to pass classes that have nothing to do with their career choice - the answer is ensuring that NOBODY has to do that.

This sort of petty, vengeful thinking of "If I had to suffer this injustice, so should other people!" is a huge problem in this country.

It's like when people complain about fast food workers pressing for the Federal Minimum Wage to be raised to $15 an hour. "I'm a highly skilled EMT working an incredibly important, difficult, and stressful job, and I only earn $15! And you want to give some guy flipping burgers just as much money as I already get?

YES! And you should want that too! Just because you get paid too little for the job YOU do, doesn't mean EVERYONE should get paid too little! And if you give your support and help some guy flipping burgers to earn a fair living wage, then you strengthen your OWN position to demand your OWN pay raise! You can turn around to your boss and say, "Look, I don't have to put up with this crappy pay any more. Why should I or anyone else do this job for only $15 an hour when I could just go work at MacDonald's for the exact same pay with a lot less grief and pain? Pay up or I walk, and good luck replacing me!

pootrsox said...

Discussing with my daughter early this evening the fact that several of her co-workers keep talking about their efforts to get their kids into area magnet schools (NOT charter schools; public magnet schools!) I had an epiphany.

We have arts magnets; STEM magnets; "classical" magnets. We also have sadly maligned "vo-tech" schools, where the inept and the defiant are often warehoused to get them out of the mainstream public schools.

We need to change this focus! We need to redefine and repurpose these scorn-heaped schools as magnet schools! "Send your kids to Rappahannock Motor Technology Magnet! Help them graduate with skills and knowledge that equip them to move into challenging careers right out of high school!" Or "Building Trades Magnet, where young men and women get their high school diplomas learning skills and techniques that equip them to moving into challenging careers right out of high school!"

Oh... and these schools should also offer evening certification programs for adults with or without HS diplomas to learn the same trades and crafts.

I propose these magnet schools also should be established in coal country, and oil country. The former is filled with men (mostly) whose jobs have vanished and who are unequipped to do anything else. The latter is filled with men and women who will see their jobs disappear soon enough as solar, wind, et al more and more replace Industrial Age power fuels.

Side note: I disagree that chemistry is "utterly useless" to fashion design students. Fabric is deeply affected by chemistry. Dyes. Synthetics. Both affect fabric; both can radically change how fabric drapes, how it reacts when cut, how it must be cleaned. Understanding the nature of how fabrics are created should significantly improve the fashion designer's ability to craft actual wearable fashion that looks good and survives multiple wearings.

Anonymous said...

Alright how many people that posted actually work as a mechanic probably none is my guess. its so irritating reading and listening to people talk about things they know very little about! Ha go to college to work as a mechanic lets just stop there its called automotive technician and yes I am a senior master tech 10 yrs exp I have 2 apprentices. I have never made over 54,000 in a yr. every year that goes by car get more and more complex with time to repair, replace, or diagnose goes down! that's right I'm flat-rate. WHATS THAT? I get payed by billable time not the time I actually work yes I can work all day long and get $0 or work all day long and get payed 30 hrs but that's a joke nobody gets that around here and also every tech I talked to online at different dealers. as warranty and dealership policies get worst year by year it leave me and most other senior tech even the new techs just starting out the kind off thinking that is lets just find a different field to get into. buying own tools yep got about 40k invest so far. if your the type that says u don't need to lots of tools even some that are expensive your a hack I'm sorry but you give great did respect to anyone proud of being a technician my intellect and tools make my money. wait go to college spent 30-50k on tuition then I got to buy so much tools to make money lol. that's what I thought too they leave we had a few roll in here. test drive hr dropped back in 2008 I used to get payed .6 hr total to drive before and after diag and repair its now just .2 hr! yep. we don't get payed to read workshop manual, wiring diagram, PCED, or tech assistance, we are only payed by memory. that's right we have to memorize every vehicle all the specs every procedure you name it we get payed by memory only. if you go to the book you just lost your a##. like all other techs I see madder that hell techomeggedon is coming sorry I am interest in leaving do something else is a shame! good luck and good bye