The Automotive Technician Shortage

a person working underneath a car

For decades, aftermarket executives, educators, shop owners and technicians themselves have lamented the shortage of auto service technicians, and warned about its impact on the industry's ability to adequately maintain and repair the growing number of motor vehicles in the United States. Clearly this is a major concern, considering that two-thirds of the $250 billion in annual aftermarket sales is from vehicle service and repair.

Very few people would argue that there isn't a shortage, but the definitions of a shortage vary. We've heard for many years that the industry has an estimated shortage of 60,000 technicians. There are currently 837,000 auto service technicians in this country, so a shortage of 60,000 would mean the industry needs 7 percent more technicians. Some believe that number means "qualified" technicians, others say entry-level technicians are needed, too. Right or wrong, it is an estimate that is repeated all the time.

AAIA conducted extensive research and analysis of existing data with a broad historical perspective to support or explain the perceived shortage of technicians. What we learned is interesting and surprising. Of course there is a perceived shortage. So, is there a real shortage? We'll present our findings, and you can be the judge.

Babcox's most recent "How's Business" study of repair shops showed that 40 perce Looking at the Shortage Side

Babcox's most recent "How's Business" study of repair shops showed that 40 percent were looking to hire a qualified technician. When Brake & Front End magazine asked shop owners if they were currently looking to hire a technician, 64.5 percent said "yes."

The International Automotive Technician Network (iATN) asked its members in an online poll what position they see themselves in five years from now. An alarming 22 percent said they would either be retired or working in an industry other than automotive.

A similar question posed in a reader industry-trend study by Motor Age found that 37 percent would be retired or in a completely different industry in five years.

Among the factors and trends that support the case for a growing need for technicians:

100 percent placement rates for automotive students from training programs;

light vehicle registrations continue to rise, especially those more than five years old;

more miles are being driven, per vehicle and in total;

average age of vehicles is rising (9.1 years);

higher technical skills are required of technicians;

there is a negative image of the industry;

greater competition for young people from other industries; and

more technicians are retiring.

Validating the Shortage

AAIA market research began a technician study by attempting to validate the strongly-held belief of a technician shortage and to quantify its extent. However, validating the claim of a 60,000 shortage was not possible for a number of significant reasons. Primarily, there are a variety of methods to analyze a labor shortage - all of which could give a different outcome. Even if each of these methods was used to analyze the situation, often what determines a shortage is subjective and unique to an individual consumer (not shop owner). A situation one consumer might consider a shortage another might not. For example, a shortage would exist if it took an unreasonable amount of time to get one's vehicle fixed, but what constitutes an "unreasonable" amount of time?

As a result, the project evolved from quantifying a specific number to determining if there was a generally recognized shortage, and if so, to what extent it existed.

For decades, aftermarket executives, educators, shop owners and technicians them If a shortage of technicians existed, we might expect to see an increase in the cost of repairs to cover the cost of increased technician compensation.

There are several approaches traditionally used to define and assess a labor market shortage. If there is a shortage, based on the models that AAIA analyzed, symptoms would be apparent based on how shop owners responded to a shortage. If shop owners were unable to hire the same quality technician at the same wage rate and benefit scale as their current employees, they would either hire equally qualified technicians at higher wage rates or better benefits, or they would offer the same wages and benefits but would only be able to attract lower-quality workers than they usually hire. If this happened, all or some of these symptoms would appear.

 Work Quality and Timeliness

Work Quality and Timeliness

If a shortage of technicians existed, we might expect to see a decrease in the quality or timeliness of repairs, greater dissatisfaction with repair work performed and an increase in consumer complaints.

Not too many years ago, auto repair topped the list of consumer complaints. Times have changed. Complaint reports from Better Business Bureaus and the Consumer Federation of America reveal consumer satisfaction improvements for our industry. The maintenance and repair industry is ranked third by the BBB, while the Consumer Federation of America ranks it fourth after auto sales, household goods and home improvement as categories generating the most consumer complaints. Auto repair was the number one category in 1996.

The Cost of Auto Maintenance and Repair

If a shortage of technicians existed, we might expect to see an increase in the cost of repairs to cover the cost of increased technician compensation.

Since 1999, the Consumer Price Index indicates that motor vehicle maintenance and repair has not increased that much compared with other services.

In the past decade, the cost of motor vehicle maintenance and repair has only increased 46.4 percent - less than physicians, hospital, airline, legal work, financial services and college tuition.

The largest portion of the male workforce is currently between the ages of 40 and 49, the heart of the auto service technician demographic.

Technician Pay and Benefits

If a shortage of technicians exists, one might expect to see an increase in the pay and benefits of working technicians to retain current technicians and attract new ones.

The average median weekly earnings for a technician are 7.5 percent below the national average.

The most recent technician's salary survey conducted by Brake & Front End reports the average technician is earning $32,620, up from $28,487 in 2000. Entry-level technicians earn an average of $25,018 and the most experienced technicians earn more than $40,000.

An estimated 20 to 25 percent of technicians receive no fringe benefits or retirement plan, and less than half are covered by a medical plan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and iATN. The Brake & Front End survey reports that 58.2 percent of technicians receive hospitalization and 56.4 percent receive major medical benefits.

The average technician works about 44 hours a week.

Supply vs. Demand

A shortage would exist if the total quantity of technicians demanded exceeds the total quantity supplied. Some factors that don't support greater demand than supply:

  • Longer lasting parts
  • Lower frequency of repair
  • Fewer crashes and accidents
  • Greater reliance on computer diagnostics

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that since 1980, the supply of technicians has been growing at an annual rate of 2.6 percent per year, while the demand for technicians has been growing at a rate of 0.7 percent per year. Because the data does not show a disparity between supply and demand, it suggests that a 2.6 percent increase in the supply of technicians satisfies a 0.7 increase in demand.

Looking Ahead

While the technician shortage debate rages on, keep an eye on the aging baby boomers who will be starting to retire in staggering numbers in the next ten to 15 years. The largest portion of the male workforce is currently between the ages of 40 and 49, the heart of the auto service technician demographic.

This demographic trend will affect most industries, but there is a silver lining for our industry if we take advantage of it. The children of the baby boomers are now impacting the job market. This "echo boom" is another significant spike in U.S. population demographics - and makes an ideal target for future auto technician recruitment.

Whose Definition?

The definition of a "qualified" technician is highly subjective, and there is no consensus. After all, what's the opposite: an unqualified technician? How many industries are looking for unqualified people? So what constitutes a "qualified" technician? Is the criteria years of experience, ASE certification, years in vocational school, college or all of the above?

Creating industry consensus on the definition of a "qualified" technician could be a logical follow-up to AAIA's preliminary research and lead to a comprehensive and quantifiable profile of a professional automotive technician.

An Unanswered Question Remains

So what is the bottom line? Based on shop owner testimonies, technicians are hard to hire and retain. Based on market research models, car repair turnaround and costs have remained steady or declined. These seemingly disparate facts have to be aligned before the industry can move forward - to stop the shortage, or let the shortage rumor go.

Reprinted with kind permission by the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.