RECRUITING & RETAINING TODAY’S TECHNICIANS
By Sarah M. Kennedy
These simple strategies for dealing with the scarcity of skilled automotive technicians are similar to those you should already be using with your customers. It begins with keeping the good ones you currently have.
Among the usual conversation topics among networking shop owners (benchmarks and KPIs, marketing ideas, customer service cases, etc.), one subject seems to be getting more and more humorless—recruiting and retaining skilled, quality technicians. Are you feeling the pressure, too? You aren’t alone. The Automotive Service Association (ASA) reported in their early 2017 “How’s Your Business?” feature that 45% of shop owners feel the tech shortage was their number one challenge, only 20% sensed changes in technology were pretty threatening and even fewer (18%) thought profitability was worth worrying most about.
Where are all the mechanics going, and why aren’t enough new ones entering the field? The answers are wrapped up in layered, multifaceted concepts that are not all that easy to tackle. Like all business problems, we must first understand the crisis before creating an action plan.
The good technicians are going mainly elsewhere, meaning they’re leaving the automotive industry entirely. Working on cars is hard. It’s dirty. It’s expensive. What other industry makes its workforce provide all its own tools without billing the client directly? It’s almost as bad as the student loan crisis. The thought of being saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt to then make $15 to $25 per hour is more than off-putting; it seems flat-out illogical. Add the back and foot aches, the standing and lifting and bending, the banged up-hands…and if you insert poor management as the cherry on top, who in their right mind would want to work on cars?
Other technicians are sticking with their tenured dealership careers. Benefits, guaranteed warranty and maintenance hours, paid training, new equipment to work with and cleaner facilities make us independents look like a poor choice to park a big toolbox. A New York Times article published in 2017 explains that warranty work paid for by automakers accounted for a third of earned income for dealerships. Imagine if a third of our vehicle count was promised revenue from a parts supplier? No rejected sales pitches, no timely estimate building, no waiting on a financially questionable customer’s payment and the techs quickly learn how to beat the clock each time. Not a bad gig, huh?
That same Times article stated that, despite dealerships’ ability to invest millions in their look and feel, the technician shortfall will still top 25,000 at American dealerships over the next few years. The techs remaining in the field are going to start retiring, with fewer new techs to fill their places. Nationwide, dealerships have already realized this and have taken action. BMW, Fiat Chrysler and Audi have created their own aggressive recruiting and training programs, and other dealerships have joined the bandwagon. The problem is, dealerships aren’t really doing a wonderful job retaining new hires; it’s still a tough industry, especially for low- and midlevel techs.
Dealerships tend to treat their most-skilled, tenured techs with kid gloves, holding onto them no matter how difficult or expensive they are, making it harder for apprentices to see the light at the end of the express lube lane. This has been a problem for several years now. According to Automotive News back in 2016, dealership practices were to hoard brand-new techs, but they were quickly losing them, mostly due to poor leadership practices. Hiring service writers with no automotive experience and pairing them with inexperienced technicians, overselling unneeded maintenance, overpacking express lube lanes with while-you-wait appointments and offering little growth opportunities puts a sour taste in the mouths of fresh techs. More and more dealerships these days offer some form of an apprenticeship program, and even though almost none deliver, it’s hard for us to convince the new generation to leave these programs and stay in the industry to apply to an independent facility.
What do we do moving forward? Well, let’s first acknowledge that we have probably all helped convince technicians that bending wrenches isn’t the best career choice and correct our retention strategies. Second, let’s catch up to dealership efforts and grow our own even better. Sounds simple, but I have a feeling after suggesting the best ways to tackle this challenge, some readers may find the work hard and even uncomfortable.
Darn Millennials, Right?
Many techs are leaving the industry after several years of experience in the field. “It’s absolutely true!” says David Rogers. As the president of Auto Profit Masters and Automated Marketing Group as well as chief operating officer for Keller Bros., an auto repair facility in Littleton, CO, Rogers has been honing his management, coaching and leadership skills over the last 20 years. Running three companies effectively, and now remotely (he lives in the Florida Keys), is proof enough that he practices what he preaches to shop owners across the country. When we both sat down for a phone interview, I commented on how busy he stays. “It’s a bit of a tangle sometimes,” he laughed, “but it’s all good!”
When asked whether shop owners are justified in feeling a squeeze in the tech pool, he quickly agreed. “It’s a very real thing. It’s not shrinking, it’s nearly gone; and we aren’t heading in the right direction.” Rogers says the problem is threefold. “Being a technician is perceived as an undesirable occupation. News reports portray technicians as dishonest crooks who are trying to trick people. Movies and TV shows portray the job of a technician as dirty, second-class work.”
Secondly, schools are not promoting skilled trades. “We’re losing potential candidates at the high school level,” Rogers says. “America has shifted away from offering quality vocational programs; now the focus is on code writing and programming. These two points mean that we have turned ‘technician’ into a second-class job. The pool that wants to become a technician is already significantly smaller.”
Lastly, the remaining few that do want to become technicians are being snatched up by chains (where they’re hired on the spot and thrown into the quick-lube deep end) and dealerships. “The job is becoming much more reliant on computer diagnostics, so you can’t just learn in your own garage by taking apart an old beater,” Rogers told me. “You have to work your way up through a shop and learn on the job, or you have to go to school, where the dealerships are waiting to poach all the decent candidates. The entire industry is hurting, but the game is especially rigged against independent repair shop owners.”
Many shop owners feel it’s impossible to fully cater to younger millennials. I’ve heard a lot of bellyaching about generational differences in work ethic and attitudes this year, and I’ve had to let go my fair share of young apprentices in the last two years. But Rogers explains that it’s not about age.
“The world wants to make everything about these terrible millennials,” he says. “I employ them in several different companies across the United States and I don’t have the problems everyone is complaining about with millennials. Millennials or Generation X or Generation Y, Baby Boomers…it doesn’t matter. At the end of the month, we all have to pay our bills; at the end of the day we all want to be valued. Through the process we all want to have some respect and dignity in what we do….I love my millennials and can tell you that there are just as many ethical, intelligent and productive people in that age group as there are in any other generation. I think that when you provide the correct environment and the correct incentives, the right culture, all generations are going to feel dignified and enthusiastic.”
It’s You, Not Them
How can shop owners find and recruit decent tech candidates? Rogers explained that this is the part of the process where shop owners do the same thing over and over and expect different results. “If you’re fishing in your kitchen sink, you cannot expect to catch a sailfish. The ocean of technicians is rapidly disappearing,” he continued. “The days of being able to cast a line and catch a trophy are about gone. The better question is, how do owners end up with great technicians? The answer is the same as when the fishing industry realizes that a species is being overfished. What do they do? They supplement their catch with a farm.”
Should shop owners go to job fairs, post flyers at the local vocational school, teach a free afterschool seminar on car basics? Yes, of course! Get yourself out there. Frankly, though, this article isn’t about those little tips and tricks; you can find those ideas with a quick internet search. What most shop owners really need to hear, believe and do is retain from the inside out.
“There’s no simple solution, but your shop has to create a culture of training and growth,” Rogers clarified. “It must be able to identify talent through both advertising and interviewing and then internally. It must be committed to creating long-term career opportunities through effective pay plans and chances for growth. It’s about having a deeper understanding of the principles of leadership. You must create a culture—a real culture, not an illusion—of accountability and success in all areas of your shop.”
We must realize that every day, our staff is watching us either genuinely care for our shop and the team or do as little of the hard work as possible. The team notices if you aren’t training new hires, showing up regularly and giving it your all. “How would it fly if you put up a bunch of pretty policies, offered amazing offers when you’re hiring and recruiting and then you bring them in and it’s just the same old grungy, miserable situation they were in at the last three shops?” Rogers asks. “It has to be a real culture, which means you have to be accountable, too! I have to be accountable; I own the businesses. I can’t go park wherever I want to. I can’t just slip in there in the middle of the afternoon and bring my buddy over and slide him in front of the seven customers that were scheduled this afternoon and say, ‘You know, I need you to take care of my friend’s brakes here,’ can I? Would you respect me if I were the owner of your business and I pulled that nonsense on you? People have to boss when they don’t know how to lead.”
This is where Rogers loses a lot of his shop owners. Leadership is the true key to staff building and retention, regardless of how slim the candidate pickings are. Rogers says in the automotive industry, this is done by getting over the excuses and mastering your role as business owner.
In exploring this concept further, I attended a seminar at The Ohio State University’s Leadership Center called “Best Boss Ever.” I learned the following eight qualities of a “Great Boss”:
They believe in the unbelievable.
They see opportunity in instability and uncertainty.
They wear their emotions on their sleeves.
They protect others from the “bus” (and you may never know; no gossiping or showboating!).
They’ve been there, done that—and still do “that” (clean toilets and take out the trash, for example).
They lead by permission, not authority.
They embrace a larger purpose.
They take real risks, not fake ones.
Bad bosses do many of the things I still do, to be honest (hey, I’m a work in progress!):
They don’t follow their own policies and procedures.
They’re not passionate about their work.
They hold the team or individuals responsible for things without providing the proper training, tools or resources.
They lack their own training and knowledge but seek to hide it.
They create cliques and play favorites.
They don’t acknowledge staff concerns promptly, if at all.
They destroy a good team, causing the best employees to flee and the rest to lose all motivation.
Which set of qualities do you demonstrate every day? The largest lesson here is certainly a daunting one: Improve yourself so you can improve your team. Staffing has always been a challenge for many shop owners, and it’s getting harder.
“Imagine having a revolving door at your shop. I work with a shop owner who, when I met him, had 104 W-2s the year before at an 18-employee shop,” Rogers recalls. “Can you imagine the nightmares, the paperwork, the ordering of uniforms, the emotional distress that the owner and employees were going through? The fact that you don’t even know who’s going to be in that bay in three months? It means possible problems with previous repairs and good customers are now coming to you because they’ve been mistreated by some technician who hasn’t even been there for three weeks because we’ve had two more techs in that bay since then…what a nightmare!”
When you really think about it, then, building a better internal culture is easier than the alternative. “It’s draining, it’s taxing, but not nearly the trouble of going through the revolving door illness. Get busy, do the work,” Rogers stresses. “Get your numbers figured out, get some good optics so you can see what’s going on every day and then when you’re trying to attract people, the word on the street is, ‘Man, you’re going over there for an interview? Phew, you’d be lucky to get in there, that’s a great shop. They don’t have any turnover.’”
One of the best ways to retain good techs is to assure them that they’re a real part of the success of the business. “It’s their success. You gotta get your ego out of the way, shop owner!” Rogers says.
“Your ego is what’s destroying you. My ego was destroying me 20 years ago. I had to grow up and realize that when you’re feeling defensive about something or you get all bunched up over an issue, guess what? That means you’re insecure. Own it. Figure out why you’re uncomfortable in that situation and get to work on understanding it so that you can push your ego out of the way and be a leader.”
How can we train techs to love working on cars and invest in the industry? “It’s about more than money,” Rogers explains. “Take the long-term approach. First, you create a culture of accountability and success. Too often people equate accountability with punishment, with micromanagement. That’s not what accountability is. I’m accountable to my employees, but do you think that means they come and verbally abuse me and punish me if I make a mistake or I misspeak? Of course they don’t. Do you think I do that to them?” Rogers asks. “Well, if I did, I wouldn’t have them.”
As a result, Rogers’ philosophy has earned him an average of 12 years per staff member in his shop, and better performance from each of them every year. “I hate being called a boss; I am not a boss,” he insists. “I used to be. You’ve got to make the job about more than a paycheck. When your team believes in the culture, they really do want you and the business to succeed. In our shop, I guarantee you that our staff doesn’t believe that when we do a great job or have a record week that somehow that makes Dave and Terry [Rogers’ business partner at Keller Bros.] richer or better off. It means they won. It means they can win whenever they want, and it means more for them—not just money; more opportunity, more trust, more freedom, more recognition.”
Rogers says that your reputation as a leader is everything in your community, and the automotive industry in your area is a tight-knit network. As far as Rogers is concerned, “the tool guys, they know. When they’ve seen the same faces around and every year all the boys are anteing up for a bigger box and they’re just coming out to the truck because they’ve got money to burn, they’re happy, they don’t feel stressed out, they’re not coming onto the truck and complaining about their manager or their service writer and how they mistreat them, how they don’t care about them, how they yell at them—all while the owner is rolling up in a Jaguar, parking across two parking places in front of the front door. These are the things people deal with. We have to understand that our problems, our struggles come from our own inability or unwillingness (it’ll be one or the other) to take a look at all those little signals, all those little pieces.”
Be sure to become a genuine, visible part of the team, and encourage your staff to share when the going gets tough. Rogers tells his employees repeatedly, “You never have to burden a problem yourself. You never have to go home feeling like it’s your fault or that you really blew it, as long as you bring it to us; let us know before the car goes out the door. Talk to us. Once you bring it to the team, it’s no longer your problem. It’s our problem, and we will find a solution together. The only way it becomes your problem is if you hide it. If you sweep it under the rug or you put it off and ignore it until it blows up. Oh yeah, then it’s your problem. That was your choice.”
Rogers emphasizes that being a good leader means being empathetic but not spineless. “My technicians know I love them, that I respect them. I’m not coddling them. Don’t get me wrong—the standards to work at my shop are very high. There’s no fooling around, but we base it on things you can control like honesty, transparency, solid documentation,” he says. “The expectation for me for any employee in any of my businesses, not just the auto repair shop, is the same. You will never be perfect; you will make some big mistakes, you’re gonna goof some stuff up. I’ve done it; you’ll see me do it if you work here long enough. I make mistakes. But my goodness, it’s much better if we own up to those things and just tell each other what’s going on, if I bring that problem up and let the management team help me come up with the right solution and I do it openly and fairly. I have a bunch of people who believe in me more, who know that I’m real and that when they make a mistake they can come talk to me. Because I’m going to help them with it, it’s going to be our problem, together now, not their problem.”
Putting out an overpromising ad offering a sign-on bonus may get a tech in the door, but if you aren’t doing everything you can personally to retain these new hires, then good luck. By adopting the eight qualities of a strong leader mentioned earlier, your techs will believe that they’ve found a permanent home at your facility.
“The most important thing is that our employees and customers trust us, that they know we are going to do the right thing by them as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Rogers says. “That’s how I try to lead. I’m not perfect at it, but I do my very best. That’s what allows me to be down here in Florida, where you can catch a real sailfish! It allows my business partner to spend time with his many grandchildren; it allows us the opportunity to live our lives while the business continues to flourish and provide more and more for everybody every year.” Be visible. Be flexible. Outwardly recognize successes and issues that need to be addressed in your shop daily.
It’s Not About the Money
These days, it’s awful hard to afford top-tier techs, let alone retain them. We’re all dealing with the same conundrum: Techs really do need more money—heck, we all do. But how can we afford to pay all the increasing bills? To David Rogers, it all still comes down to being the best version of yourself professionally, which includes knowing your numbers.
“Hiring and retaining quality employees is part of the same process used for improving every other number and benchmark in your shop,” he explains. “You create sustainable success through measurement and accountability. It’s using an effective, incentive-based pay plan to strengthen your team. Make a technician at your shop have a career with opportunities rather than a job with a paycheck.”
Don’t agree to pay a new or established technician a high-dollar flat rate and bonus plan without knowing your numbers! “If you do that wrong,” Rogers says, “it’s a lot worse than just making a mistake; you can tip the boat on your actual business, on your banking. You can’t create a pay plan for technicians unless it’s synchronized with the incentives that you have for the service writers. You can’t create a sustainable pay plan for your team unless you’re measuring daily. You can’t create an effective pay plan until you know which benchmarks your team should be hitting.”
That means knowing your “real” numbers—in other words, sitting down and really looking at an accurate snapshot of the financial side of your business. This is an overwhelming process, and I highly recommend shop owners utilize one of the many top consulting firms around the country. Our shop recently decided that based on our 2017 expenses, including staffing costs, we needed to raise our labor rate to over $100 an hour. Health insurance costs, building maintenance (we replaced the roof and renovated the service department), marketing and equipment expenses had all gone up significantly last year. It was a big step for us, but it will ensure a better chance at making it through the new year in good health.
David Rogers insists that staffing properly using true numbers is no different than making sure your parts matrix covers the NAPA bill. Hiring and retaining techs doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “And it doesn’t happen because of something you heard or read online or some class you went to over the weekend and now we’ve got this all figured out…no no no,” he warns. “I’m sorry to break it to everybody, but the reality is that to be truly successful, whether it’s at the entire business or one category like hiring and recruiting, you have to be fully accountable.”
Find out what your budget is for top, midlevel and apprentice-level technicians. True budget includes their take-home and your additional costs like uniforms, health insurance or other benefits, workers’ comp, etc. Once you have a realistic idea of what you can afford to hire, dive into the pool.
We always have several job posts running, so interviewing one or two candidates per week is not uncommon and enables us to keep watch of the current “puddle.” Last fall, we interviewed a candidate who ran a quick-lube establishment. He had no diagnostic skills, lacked a complete set of tools and didn’t have any certifications. He told us his minimum salary requirement would be to match his current annual income of $72,800. He later e-mailed me asking what our dental, vision, disability and 401k plans entailed. Don’t get me wrong; I think everyone deserves a decent paycheck and all the benefits in the world. I think I do! Unfortunately for this candidate, we had already calculated our budget for a low- to midlevel technician, and it was less than what he required. We politely informed him to work on his skillset and perhaps we might reconsider him later.
It took some time, but we ended up hiring a midlevel technician with an excellent attitude, a near-complete set of tools and experience that not only matched our budget, but enabled us to offer him more money than his previous facility and a health insurance package on top of that. With the added leadership qualities of our management team (transparency, documentation, genuine support), we love him, and he loves us back. He asks my service writer, a former technician, a ton of questions throughout the day, and the writer genuinely helps. In turn, the new tech trusts the writer and provides us with excellent diagnostic and inspection information. Each time the tech completes a successful repair he has performed for the first time (an electrical repair, for instance), the whole team congratulates him and thanks him for his efforts. We reward him with gift cards and goodies to take home to his wife, plus flexibly grant him time off. So, following David Rogers’ advice, we’re using proper recruiting strategies by staying within our numbers and retaining good technicians by creating an internal culture that ensures the staff feels needed, valued and successful. The tech pool is smaller, but it’s not empty!
It Ain’t Easy!
How to best recruit and retain techs? It’ll never happen until you, the boss, become a true leader, an advocate for the team who has a solid handle on the numbers and isn’t letting ego get in the way of success. Look in the mirror. Is your facility super grungy? Are you making promises you don’t keep? Are you abandoning the new hires? Are you clearly training the staff according to your expectations?
This industry is hard for all of us. It’s demanding. It’s dirty. Recognize this with your team every day. Know their feet and backs hurt. Know they need to be paid more time to diagnose tricky cases, or fix stuff that isn’t their fault. Know they need to eat and hydrate more. Know they need a day off once in a while.
“I can never be the biggest shop,” David Rogers told me. “I can never be the highest paying shop because I don’t have the extra two million dollars in cash a year to hand everybody. But what I can do is be the most real and the most trustworthy guy that you have ever met and worked with and that is my goal every day when I get out of bed. I want people to know it’s real and I want them to see me eat my own crow and correct myself and bring my problems to the team just like I’m asking them to do.”
Stay committed to your numbers and to the qualities that make a good leader, and the next time a fellow shop owner grumbles about the lack of good techs, you might find yourself asking him about his stats and leadership strategies rather than grumbling along with him.