As vehicles become more sophisticated, there’s an argument that the sensors and computerized systems that reduce maintenance actually mean qualified auto repair professionals are even more in demand. The latest federal job outlook shows a slight decline over the next eight years. But other studies show a shortage of qualified and highly-skilled auto repair workers “increasing in severity” by 2024.
“Although demand is strong, with 642,000 auto/diesel/collision techs needed between 2020 and 2024, the shortage continues to worsen. The good news is these careers have been deemed essential by the government, and the transportation industry is organizing to do something about the shortage,” says Jennifer Maher, the CEO of TechForce, an industry-supported nonprofit that champions careers as auto technicians.
The workforce began shrinking about 15 years ago, around the time high schools started eliminating trade-type classes such as auto shop because of funding limitations, among other downward trends, says Chuck Searles, president of the Automotive Management Institute, which provides industry-recognized credentials.
“Kids don’t quite tinker on their cars in the backyard like they used to. The interest is not as far reaching,” he adds. “There’s still a hot rod and racing culture, but not as it was in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.”
Having started as a service technician himself and working his way up to a corporate level job, Searles says he knows first-hand the opportunities available to those interested in the industry.
“Not everybody has to go to college to have a great living,” he says. “If you have a toolbox and wheels, you can get a job anywhere you go…and it’s a good living.”
“There’s an Analytical Aspect to the Job”
The past couple decades have been a “quantum change” he says, especially when it comes to the perception of the job. When it comes to repairing cars in this day and age, a “technician” is a trained professional with postsecondary and factory training. A “mechanic is trained by their father or people around [them].”
“When you talk about a ‘mechanic,’ you think of someone in a garage, dirty overalls, a ‘grease monkey.’ But a ‘technician’ doesn’t just replace a part. They diagnose the problem behind the failure in the first place. They don’t just hang parts. They do a better job at figuring things out. There’s an analytical aspect to the job when talking about ‘technicians’ that has absolutely changed,” he says.
Considering how car design and manufacturing has evolved, it’s easy to see how the jobs around the car industry have also. Automation in manufacturing assembles vehicles in a “modular” way, as one unit, that includes the radiator, condenser, grill, and airbag sensors, for example. This can make it more difficult for a repair professional to access key components, because they need to remove a lot of pieces to get to one part, he says.
When consumers bring their vehicles to a shop or dealership for repair, the diagnostic computers that “speak” to vehicles requires the technician to know more than the basic knowledge that may have sustained a maintenance career previously.
The computers don’t exactly explain what’s wrong with the car, Searles says.
“What the computer in the vehicle and the diagnostic computer do is spit out a stream of data, and it’s up to the technician to determine what that chunk of data really means. There’s a complexity of scan tools that have gone up, even for simple stuff you wouldn’t think of,” he says.
Something seemingly routine such as changing tires are more difficult with tire sensors. Specialized equipment, and specialized training, are needed to prevent the sensors from breaking when tires are changed.
Collision technicians who do body and framework also have to special training. Take for example a crash that damaged what’s known as the advanced drive assistance system (ADAS), which is used in self-driving modes. This system has blind spot monitoring and collision avoidance that require that the sensors are aimed precisely.
The Path to a Job as an Auto Technician
For training, postsecondary and tech schools are good options, Searles says. So are programs like the Tennessee Promise, a scholarship program that pays the tuition and fees for students with financial hardships so they can attend community or technical college, which can lead to an associate degree or certificate in an automotive program.
The Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification is an industry standard; earning the role as a Master Technician indicates a professional with a high level of experience and training. Continual training like that offered by third parties and auto manufacturers help repair techs stay current. This is especially critical as the technology in vehicles advances.
“Technology is outpacing availability of training to meet that need,” Searles says. “Think about what a car can do. Like self driving. Think about a tech who hasn’t gone back to training since 2000. The game has changed a lot and if you have to learn on the go, that’s tough.”
To meet the needs of the repair industry and the vehicles it serves, he advocates for a plan that starts at a young age. Programs at least in high school, and then post-secondary education and training, with an organization that sponsors future technicians along the way.
Job seekers should also set goals: whether in terms of training or their journey into an automotive career path through the repair shop, into the dealership, equipment manufacturer or companies that make the parts for vehicles.
But that education and training program are just the foundation. What really leads to success, Searles says, is coaching and mentoring.
“There are really cool programs where post-secondary education students are partnered with shops and they get a chance to work with a tech in a shop and be mentored along the way,” he says. “You can have all of the training in the world but if you don’t have someone showing you the ropes, it’ll be a hard road.”