The Auto Tech Problem

Confessions of a Community College Dean

A couple of years ago, when we started seriously planning to hand The Wife’s car down to The Boy, I started researching cars to figure out what to get her as a replacement.  We got the replacement, but along the way I fell into various YouTube wormholes around cars and haven’t really escaped.  There’s an entire world of car discourse, some of which is much smarter and funnier than one might expect from the ostensible topics.  (Here, I’ll tip my cap to the late, great “Car Talk” on NPR.)  As the car market went off the charts in the last two years, I’ve enjoyed seeing some industry veterans try to make sense of it all.

All of which is by way of explaining why I follow “Car Dealership Guy” on Twitter.  He presents himself as the CEO of a dealership or set of dealerships (it’s not entirely clear) offering perspectives on the industry and tips for consumers.  This week he pointed out that there’s a terrible shortage of automotive technicians in the industry, but he’s not sure why it’s so persistent.

It’s not any one thing, but I can point to a persistent contributing factor.  The industry is dominated by small shops that don’t want to spend money training somebody else’s technician.  As a result, they tend not to band together to fund scholarships for vocational schools or community colleges with auto tech programs, even though they would all benefit if they did. That pushes the cost for training onto the student, despite low starting salaries in the field.   It’s a variation on what political scientists call a collective action problem.

Culinary programs make a striking contrast.  Most restaurants are small businesses, too, and entry-level salaries aren’t always great there, either.  But they’re much more likely to have local associations that sponsor scholarships.  They seem to take the existence of competition as a fact of life, and many have figured out that when a town or city becomes known for having a lively restaurant scene, everyone wins.  I’ve spoken with restaurateurs who have beamed with almost parental pride when one of their former employees has opened up a place of their own.  Yes, they compete, but they’re aware of being part of an industry with common needs.

Health care is similar.  Hospitals tend not to be small anymore – the small ones get gobbled up by larger groups of hospitals – but the nursing shortage hits all of them.  They tend to cooperate with community colleges to ensure that there’s a consistent pipeline of good new nurses coming along because they know how badly they need it.  A hospital that has to survive while paying visiting-nurse salaries across the board is going to struggle.

For a while, the world of cars was relatively stable.  Mechanical innovations happened incrementally, so there wasn’t much need for updating skills.  That allowed more senior mechanics to stick around for a long time, and it kept the need for continuing education relatively subdued.  But as hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles have come on the scene, and computerization of cars’ innards (that’s the technical term) has increased, the skill sets that people need have expanded.  A single dealership could deal with internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrids, and ev’s on the same day.  That’s new.

A business model that was reasonably defensible when technology was stable – basically, every shop for itself – is struggling when technology is changing quickly.  The technology isn’t going to slow down.  Local cultures can be resistant to change when circumstances do, which is pretty much where we are now.

Mechanics aren’t born; they’re trained.  They come from somewhere.  If the industry wants to generate more of them, it needs to start thinking more like an industry and start working with education partners.  We’re here.

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Tuesday, October 18, 2022