OTTAWA - The North American automotive sector is innovating to overcome a sharp shortage of technicians repairing and maintaining vehicles for dealerships, fleets and repair shops, making training more accessible, targeting women and veterans and – in Canada – recruiting overseas talent.
In the U.S., the TechForce Foundation, a non-profit that guides auto-tech candidates into training and jobs, warns there were 56,214 unfilled positions across America carried over from 2021 to 2022.
It predicts that between 2022 and 2026, 178,000 new auto-tech positions will be generated by growth in the sector and 413,000 by those leaving the industry for retirements and different jobs. The result is that more than 100,000 auto technicians will need to be recruited by the industry annually through 2026 to make up for that shortfall.
An August 2023 report from consumer information service MarketWatch Guides reports the inability to meet these targets means “longer wait times and high prices plaguing the industry.”
Indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the cost of motor-vehicle repairs in June 2023 was 19.5% higher than in June 2022.
Arthur Lon, senior director-talent management/acquisition, Cox Automotive Mobility Fleet Services, tells Wards that U.S. automotive companies, including dealerships, have responded to the shortage by creating training programs outside the traditional technical colleges.
Such programs are often shorter than the one-to-two-year full-time courses required in the past – sometimes lasting only two months – with trainees taught basic skills needed for their first year of work. Those skills include oil changes, tire changes and brake maintenance.
Cox has run its academy for five years and offers paid trainees free sets of tools (valued at $20,000) once they graduate. They can keep the tools after graduating and working two years for the company
“My teams are going out to various career fairs; they’re going to military bases. Everyone just lights up: ‘I didn’t know something like this existed. This is perfect for me because I want to be a tech, but I don’t have a year to spend in school, and I don’t have (the money) to buy tools," Lon says.
Cox is especially proactive in recruiting job-ready, experienced techs and military veterans.
“The U.S. has a big military, and there [are] a lot of people who go the military path right after high school. Once they get out, they’ve never had to look for a job in their lives. They don’t have a resume; they need help,” he says. “They’re more than capable, so we created a dedicated scheme that targets military bases. Maybe you were in the electronics division, or you’re doing logistics, and you’d like to be working on vehicles. That’s our target.”
Women are another potential labor pool. Just 1.2% of the total U.S. candidate pool for diesel technicians is female – making the population a vast untapped resource, Lon says. Cox has launched a marketing campaign to attract women applicants to its academy based on a video following the training and work of a female graduate.
In one year, the proportion of Cox Academy trainees has risen to 8%.
For Lon, such innovative recruitment practices could be the answer in the U.S., where immigration rules are generally too tight to enable auto companies to recruit techs from overseas, including under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) labor provisions.
In Canada, however, where USMCA rules also apply, immigration rules are looser for other countries. The Motor Vehicle Retailers of Ontario (MVRO – formerly the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association) has launched an international initiative to ease another national shortage of auto-service and body-shop techs. It is working with Canadian international recruitment agency JobGo Solutions to recruit from overseas, with workers on two-to-three-year work permits. Candidates are initially pre-screened via Zoom from their home countries. The focus thus far is on the Philippines, with JobGo managing immigration and legal red tape. The MVRO also tests applicants for technical skills on modern-day vehicles in their home countries.
“Just about every new car and truck retailer I speak to can’t hire an automotive technician today,” Todd Bourgon, MVRO executive director, says. “We know there is a massive shortage....the problem won't be solved overnight.”
His organization has produced a detailed report on the shortage with the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association (CADA). That report concludes that in Canada, auto-trade vacancies are still increasing as workers age and the number of apprenticeships declines. COVID-19 prompted more auto techs to take retirement or switch to remote jobs, Bourgon says. The report notes that by Q1 2023, there were more than 3,000 vacancies in auto trades in Ontario alone – up from 1,500 before the pandemic. Data shows the workforce is aging, with the number of mechanics and technicians over 55 increasing by 13% between 2016 and 2021; for those aged 15-24, it fell by 2%; and for 25-54, it declined by 8%.
While international recruitment helps, the report stresses that government red tape slows hiring, because visas must be sourced via a Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program requiring employers to demonstrate a lack of qualified local staff through a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA). This and other administration/visa/medical costs between 20,000 CAD and 30,000 CAD per recruit and takes between 12 and 16 months to complete, according to the report.