For those entry-level jobs, Penske prefers to go right to Universal Technical Institute’s (UTI) Phoenix campus and invite a select group of students to come and work part-time to get their foot in the door for about $10 an hour. While they’re still doing coursework, students get a chance to see automotive work from the real-world perspective of a money-making shop while the auto group has a chance to observe which of the students they want to hire fulltime.
Nobody is promising them a rose garden. “They’ll start off cleaning the garage and we can get a feel for their work ethics,” said Wiggins. That’s pretty low on the totem pole when you consider that an associate’s degree at some of the top automotive technical schools can take two years to complete and cost upwards of $23,000, plus additional expenses for advanced class work in a particular make.
Many, if not most, of these graduates are headed for jobs that initially pay about the same starting wage as Penske. Once out in the real world, many also face the second stage of their qualifying process: working to become ASE-certified mechanics as they gain experience on the shop floor. For trustworthy mechanics that stick with the profession and advance to master status, and maintain scrupulously clean driving records, there’s a real upside.
Several technical schools say that slightly more than half their graduates wind up at dealerships, while hosts of newly minted automotive technicians take positions with the after-market companies that specialize in hiring entry-level workers for low-paying positions. Too many dealers and service managers simply miss the boat when they overlook fresh crops of new graduates that come into the job market each year.
What Smart Dealers Do
“Every new car dealer wants to whine that you can’t find technicians,” said Don Reed, a fixed operations consultant at DealerPro. “And they whine because that’s what the dealer hears from the service manager.
“The service manager often has this narrow-minded approach to recruiting,” added an exasperated Reed. “If he’s a Ford service manager, he’ll say, ‘I can only hire a Ford technician. I can’t hire a GM technician,’ which is absolute nonsense. Problem number two: They’re looking for the highest skill level; an ASE certified master technician. There’s no question that those guys and gals are scarce.
“Dealers need to look at lower skill level technicians. There are several benefits: They’re a lot easier to steal from somebody else and they make you more money because they have a lower cost. You hire an A mechanic at $25 an hour, a C for $15 an hour, and your labor rate is $75 an hour. So you’re paying $25 to get $75 or paying $15 to get $75.”
That’s why so many dealers are getting beat out in this business by the Jiffy Lubes, Wal-Marts, Midases and Goodyears of the world, said Reed. The smart dealers are going straight to technical schools and junior and community colleges to hire entry-level mechanics. They’re often eager to learn on the job and are really motivated by performance-based pay plans. “I hired some techs from UTI and had great success with them,” said Reed. “Dealers need to sell the benefits of working for a new car dealer better. Their mechanics don’t have to work nights like at Firestone or Wal-Mart. They don’t have to work on Sundays, while the after-market is open seven days a week. A new car dealer can offer a five-day workweek and pay for holidays, and a lot of them have health insurance as a benefit. They can also offer paid time for factory training programs.”
There are also some benefits for dealers to consider when hiring from some training schools. Some states offer hourly job subsidies for new hires, something that a state dealers’ association could clarify quickly.
“Dealers don’t do much training,” added Reed. “On product skills they have to send technicians to regional training centers for that specific type of repair, but that’s really a small part of the picture. The lion’s share of service work today is maintenance; it’s not heavy repair. In the 70s, it was just the opposite. There was more heavy repair work and less maintenance.
“With new warranties and better cars, it’s primarily a maintenance world now. Things like tire rotation, front end alignment, shocks and struts, and that sort of thing. That requires the skill level of a C-level tech. You increase your income through repair, not overhauling transmissions. You get a remanufactured transmission and slap it in the car. So the growth opportunity you have is there for every dealer in the country.”
It Takes More than Know-how
Gary Campbell is about to lose one of the six automotive technicians who works on his lot in Orland, California. The mechanic has found a job closer to home at a franchise operation and the independent dealer knows it’s going to be a struggle to recruit a replacement. “We’re desperate for technicians,” said the dealer, whose rural location can make it tough to find qualified mechanics.
As a result, Campbell prospects wherever he can, including with his contacts at the regional junior college. There, he can find top students to intern at the dealership while they get their ASE certification and pass their final round of courses.
“We also work with the local high school auto shop teacher for summertime employees,” said Campbell. “That way we can evaluate them, see how they work. We haven’t had much success running ads in the paper because we’re in a small community. We have a good relationship with WyoTech, but they’re 100 miles south of me in Sacramento.” Their graduates aren’t always inclined to head that far north to earn $10 an hour as an apprentice.
As a rule, the automotive schools are quick to acknowledge that starting wages in this business are often low, particularly in areas of the country where the cost of living is relatively low. They also like to point out the upside for top students.
“It varies from state to state,” said Leigh Taylor, director of career services at the University of Northwestern Ohio, which sees its graduates scatter out across the country. “We have students making everything from the minimum wage to $27 an hour in New Jersey and New York. Around $12 to $15 seems to be the norm, and two or three years later, they get up there to $18 to $25 an hour.”
“We have associate’s degrees and diplomas,” she added. “And you can get qualified in alternative fuels; all the natural gas and e85 and propane tanks, diesel and agricultural technology. We have auto diesel, automotive high performance and HVAC.”
An associate’s degree at Northwestern usually takes between 18 months and two years to achieve. Students also need to purchase tools for their profession, but Snap-On Tools has a deal that provides a 50 percent discount on their lines.
“About half of all graduates end up in dealerships,” observed Bill Kingery, vice president of career services in Lincoln Tech’s Indianapolis school, where an associate’s degree costs about $22,000 “for everything.”
“We have our Top Gun program where we require them to go to a dealership for their internship,” he added. “They spend the last two months of schooling at the dealership. That’s one way to get them placed. If we have a student that comes from out of state, we contact companies in their area.”
For those who don’t end up at a dealership, there’s a range of companies that often hire mechanics. “The car auctions hire auto and collision. Then there are all the national chains: Firestone, Goodyear, Midas. You could even have them at NAPA or places like Advance Auto Parts.”
Just because they start at the bottom of the profession doesn’t mean they stay there. Said Kingery: “My niece’s husband graduated from Lincoln 13 years ago and now works for Toyota,” said Kingery. “He makes over $70,000.”
Even for low-wage positions, most dealers have requirements they can’t bend on.
“Driving records are very important; so are clean habits. Dealers really want to screen a little harder,” said Taylor.
“A company cannot hire someone they can’t insure,” said Kingery. “And an insurance company may say no more than four points on a license or X amount of speeding. The higher-end dealerships have higher requirements. A BMW dealership may only allow 2 points. My advice would be that if they’re planning on automotive, their career starts now, not when they graduate. Of course, a lot of these students like cars and of some don’t drive them very well—speeding, drag racing and so on.”
The Importance of Professionalism
The best students graduate with more than the basics in auto mechanics. They also start work with a clear understanding of how to communicate with customers.
“Dealerships are looking for professionalism and customer service,” said Taylor. “The best students know what to do, but also are able to go up to the customer and be articulate about what they’re doing. They want to have that student explain why they took an extra three hours when they thought it shouldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes. We need people to communicate.”
To help them, students get a chance to run through mock interviews. At Northwestern, they take a special class that helps prepare them for the real world. There’s a job search available as well as job fairs.
At Universal Technical Institute, most automotive technicians graduate with a diploma, while the Avondale campus offers an associate of occupational studies degree, said Ray Wheeling, UTI’s vice president of the custom training group.
“The average tuition is about $23,000,” said Wheeling. “That can be much higher depending on additional electives they can take for Ford, Toyota, BMW, and diesel and so on.”
“Every campus has an employment services department that works with students from the day they arrive on campus until they graduate. We do one or two job fairs a year,” said Wheeling, where up to 30 different companies appear to size up students.
“We stress professionalism on campus, in their attire and behavior. We’re getting them ready, with an emphasis on professionalism. We even grade them on it. By the time they leave, they’ve had professionalism hammered into them.”
Maybe one or two of those graduates should think about heading to Orland, where they’d find a grateful dealer waiting for the right mechanic to come along.
Vol 5, Issue 4