Combatting the Technician Shortage

Ways to find & keep good employees.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.

One of the constant issues I hear about from all shops is a shortage of skilled technicians and/or installers.

Why is this and how can we work around or with it? Let’s dive in!

Q: Why is it so hard to find & retain good employees?

We all know that the pandemic has brought about a labor shortage for numerous reasons, and you can blame whomever and/or whatever you want as the main culprit. Still, the fact remains that it is difficult to find help for many businesses, let alone specialty shops like ours.

Pay rate is a factor because it used to be you could hire a technician at a modest hourly rate and let them grow and become more valuable over time. Now the pool of individuals who are interested in working with their hands and with vehicles is smaller than ever, and the workers are expecting more.

Out of this smaller pool you must compete with car dealers, repair facilities and body shops—all of which are also struggling to find help and may be willing to pay sign-on bonuses and offer hefty compensation packages with excellent benefits to sweeten the deal. Small businesses like ours may not be able to match those offers.

Meanwhile, the pool of potential employees gets even smaller as more and more young workers these days focus their attention on tech companies or remote positions that allow them to work from home. In other words, the struggle is real—it is more difficult than ever to find workers to fill our vacant positions.

The other half of that is why it’s hard to retain the employees we do have. This can be an issue because of some of the things previously mentioned, but also because of what younger technicians are looking for in a job these days.

You have likely read many articles on how the younger generations (Gen Z and younger millennials) are not as interested in money as a motivator as they are in other benefits such as time off, flexibility or growth within a company. When viewed that way, how do the positions at your shop compare?

Q: So, what do we have working in our favor?

We have a lot in our corner if you look at the big picture. You just need to use what you can do to your advantage to keep your shop staffed and motivated.

First, we have cool jobs to offer—it’s just that not everyone knows about them. Many young people don’t realize they can make a good living upgrading and restyling vehicles to make them faster, louder or just plain cooler.

So, use this to your advantage, especially on your social media channels. Mention that you are always looking for people to help build these vehicles and that you offer complete training. Our line of work can be much more appealing than getting all greasy every day while changing oil or rotating tires.

Second, being a small business has its advantages over larger companies. Usually with a small company, employees are more than just a number. They can make a difference every day and when they do, it’s noticeable.

I always tell any potential new hire that we don’t work off seniority; instead, we work off production. So, if you are a producer, there is a good chance you will get more money or more perks than those who may have been here longer but don’t produce as much.

This allows potential new hires to feel like they are stepping onto a more level playing field when they get started, and it also sends the message that you are more interested in production than someone just putting in the hours.

Also, a small shop’s family-type atmosphere can be attractive to candidates looking for a place to fit in and feel appreciated. It also lets them get started on a career right away.

More and more young people are realizing that college isn’t necessarily for everyone. It could be because they see so many of their older peers carrying thousands of dollars of debt, at times with nothing really to show for it.

Find those young people looking to jump into a career and learn as they go. Explain that training can be at your shop as well as offsite through manufacturer partners and other industry programs. Then, once they learn one skill set, try to get them cross-trained on something else.

The goal is to find a good person with a good work ethic, and then train them in the skills they need. I much prefer this method to finding someone with skills but who also comes with baggage or bad habits that don’t fit your culture or that can damage the morale of your other employees.

Q: How do you keep them trained & motivated?

Once you do find someone (and yes, they are still out there!) then you have to immediately start planning not only how to train them, but how to keep them motivated.

Training isn’t always easy, but here are a few suggestions. First, look in-house for employees who can train the new person. Have the new hire learn the ropes from a tech who has the skills and embodies the habits you value.

A second option is to work with your manufacturers. Which suppliers provide trainers to come support your new tech and teach them hands-on processes? Do any offer training courses that your tech can attend? Do they have online learning to help get new hires up to speed?

More and more manufacturers are seeing the value in this type of training, so ask around.

A third approach is to find another restyling shop to loan your tech to for training. Ask around if you know other restylers or check with your manufacturer’s rep—they will probably have someone in mind that may be willing to help a fellow restyler.

It really can be a win/win because your tech is getting training and the other shop is getting free labor out of a new person (even if he or she is slowing the trainer down a little bit). Also, the relationship is better if ever there is a favor that needs reciprocated.

Finally, don’t forget to look to SEMA and other industry organizations for training. We at SEMA PRO (Professional Restylers Organization) have been doing some “hands-on training” regionally throughout the country and are hoping to expand the program.

We are looking to host sessions where a few different manufacturer trainers gather at a local restyling shop that also provides some of its own techs to share their tricks of the trade. Other shop techs can attend for free and hopefully pick up a new skill or two in three to five days.

If that’s of interest, stay tuned and follow SEMA PRO on our social media channels, or join at sema.org/pro and become a member so you are in the loop on these upcoming trainings.

Thankfully, the motivation part for a new hire can be a little easier because you just need to figure out what it is that motivates them as a person. A simple conversation may put you on the right path, followed by a line of questions to help you discover the type of person they are and what they find meaningful.

Is it money? Is it more time off? Is it growth? Is it recognition? Is it having a voice? Everyone is different, and if you remain too stuck in your ways and expect to treat every employee exactly the same way, it probably won’t work out in the long run.

So, be creative and try some different things to keep your employees engaged and motivated. Yes, we are facing a shortage of technicians. However, we have some advantages to make sure we keep our industry thriving for many years to come.

Josh Poulson

Named the 2022-23 SEMA Person of the Year, Josh Poulson is the principal of Auto Additions in Columbus, Ohio, which was named Restyler of the Year, 2012-13. Auto Additions offers a complete line of product upgrades including 12V and appearance packages with a specific focus on the dealership segment. Josh is chairman of the SEMA PRO council.

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