Let’s Do Something About the Technician Shortage Instead of Talk About it

The technician shortage continues to stress out shop owners across North America.

Many articles and opinion pieces focus on the shortage’s root cause. But according to Murray Voth, President at RPM Training, the time for analysis is over. Shops need to work on immediate solutions.

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Murray recently hosted an AutoLeap webinar focused on apprentice training and technician hiring strategies that shops can implement today.

In his presentation, Murray discussed:

  • The amplification factor of shop apprenticeships
  • The importance of teaching why
  • Weeks 1 & 2 of apprentice orientation
  • Positional agreements for technicians

Let’s start with the potential impact that apprentice programs can have on the automotive industry.

The amplification factor of shop apprenticeships

Murray believes every shop with three bays or more should have at least one apprentice.

His math on these apprenticeship programs shows a correlated increase in licensed techs joining the industry. A four-year view of this correlation breaks down as follows:

  • If 5,000 shops take on a third-year apprentice, 5,000 more licensed techs will join the industry in one year
  • If 5,000 shops take on a second-year apprentice, 5,000 more licensed techs will join the industry in two years
  • If 5,000 shops take on a first-year apprentice, 5,000 more licensed techs will join the industry in three years
  • If 5,000 shops take on a “green” apprentice, 5,000 more licensed techs will join the industry in four years

Altogether, this amplification would add 20,000 qualified technicians to the industry in four years!

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“But apprenticeships will cost my shop money with no guarantees.” If this is your rebuttal to the idea of hiring an apprentice, you aren’t alone.

According to Murray, the payoff for this investment can happen faster than you think. “I believe a well-trained apprentice can make a shop money after one month of training,” says Voth.

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You now understand how apprentices can benefit your shop’s bottom line and improve the industry. But plenty of work remains to attract qualified tech talent. “What we need to do is become the industry of choice for a whole segment of people,” says Voth.

On the apprenticeship program side, Murray says shops will need to captivate apprentices by teaching them the why behind their technician role.

The importance of teaching shop apprentices why

You hire an apprentice. They come into your shop, excited for their first day.

Once they arrive, the apprentice is surprised to see you have no plan for their program. Instead, they resign themselves to odd jobs around the shop.

During the program, they barely spend time around cars and learn nothing about what it takes to become a qualified technician. Based on this experience, they decide to pursue other professions.

Sound familiar? According to Voth, this is a situation your shop needs to avoid. To develop an apprentice, you need a deliberate plan in place.

Your plan should focus on hiring the right person with natural abilities. That’s it! You can always train them for the rest of the position’s requirements.

Avoid the dreaded scenario above by setting your apprentices up to work on meaningful tasks right away. “I think apprentices should be working on cars within two weeks. That’s what you hired them for,” says Voth.

As you begin to think about what the apprentice’s plan will include, that brings us to Murray’s next point: understand that today’s technicians have far different values for their daily work experience.

A new age for what technicians value and tolerate

Back when you started as a technician, rugged intensity was everything. That approach taught you how to excel in the role.

Now a shop owner, you carry this expectation over to the techs on your team. But to your surprise, apprentices and qualified technicians don’t respond well to this mindset. So what gives?

Murray says that just because you went through extra hardship in your technician days, you can’t expect your team to tolerate that same treatment. 

Workers today value structure in their professional development. They also place a higher priority on work/life balance.

With this understanding, you are ready to work with apprentices. But before finalizing your two-week program, Murray shares a final word of caution: be mindful of the difference between common sense and common knowledge.

Common sense vs. common knowledge

Common sense and common knowledge. Sounds essentially the same, right?

Voth says shop owners hiring apprentices need to understand the distinctions.

Common sense is straightforward. Voth uses the  example of cognitive development for children, who learn through observation. When kids never see images or videos of elephants behind the wheel, they soon determine that elephants can’t drive cars.

In terms of your shop, common sense details don’t warrant much effort. But common knowledge is another story.

Take this example. A new apprentice never once used a broom to sweep in their life. You hand them a broom, assuming they know the proper technique and process for sweeping the shop floor. They look back at you, completely puzzled.

To prepare for this scenario, think about some of the basic tasks you will have apprentices complete. Do they fall under common sense or common knowledge? For the common knowledge items, spend extra time walking them through expectations. Provide a detailed tutorial as needed.

Don’t forget to also teach apprentices the why behind each task! Murray shares the example of an apprentice who forgot to wash wheels before completing an alignment. They didn’t understand that dirty wheels could lead to misalignment after the service is complete. Without this context, they may overlook even the more minor details.

Planning out the first two weeks of a shop apprenticeship program

You now understand the value of differentiating common sense and common knowledge. You also get the reasoning behind explaining the why in every relevant shop situation.

It’s time to put a deliberate program together. For week one, Voth recommends an orientation experience that:

  • Answers “What is the job of an auto service technician?”
  • Establishes respect for the vehicle
  • Teaches cleanliness standards
  • Builds ownership responsibility within the position

With these values in mind,  Murray shares a detailed step-by-step program you can mirror for your apprentice’s first week:

Building off a good foundation, week two will involve more technical learning and application for your apprentices. Voth’s week two agenda looks like this:

More tips to maximize your shop’s apprentice programs

Here are seven more tips to consider for your shop’s apprentice programs and technician onboarding:

  1. Investigate provincial and federal grant money or other tax credits for apprenticeship programs.
  2. Remember that apprentices learn in school how to find problems and repair cars. They don’t learn how to inspect and maintain cars. “It’s important we fill in the gaps that apprentices don’t learn in school,” says Voth.
  3. Get involved in elementary and middle school career days.
  4. Participate in high school shop programs and build relationships with guidance counselors.
  5. Network with contacts in trade schools and vocational colleges.
  6. Study provincial guidelines for what different apprenticeship levels teach and require.
  7. Create a detailed onboarding process for technicians. Account for every requirement, from toolboxes and equipment to employee handbooks, HR support and progress checkpoints on supervised work. Every detail matters. “Put your technicians in a position to win,” says Voth.
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Creating positional agreements for your technicians (the R.O.A.D.S system)

“When you create a position, what is the result you look for from that position?”