Auto Techs May Fit the Bill

By Mindy Long

Published in Light & Medium Truck. View the story at www.lmtruck.com here.   
 
As car dealerships across the country close, automotive technicians who become casualties of consolidation may provide a solution for light- and medium-duty fleets and repair shops facing a shortage of commercial techs.
 
“There is always a commercial truck technician shortage,” said Mark Oliver, senior vice president of maintenance for Penske Truck Leasing, Reading, Pa., “but the degree of it varies and it varies by geography.”
 
Bob Brauer, vice president of sales and operations for Kelley Fleet Services, Mission Viejo, Calif., said he has had an easier time hiring technicians during the past six months, unlike the past eight years. “We hear that they are getting laid off or leaving dealerships because they were concerned about their jobs. Also, people who left the field for other jobs have lost those jobs and are coming back into the workforce.
 
Neither Chrysler nor General Motors could provide figures on the number of auto techs who have been laid off as a result of closures. Kathy Graham, spokeswoman for Chrysler, estimated that at least half of the almost 800 dealerships that were losing their Chrysler franchise would stay open. “Forty-four percent of our dealerships were dualed with another manufacturer and 88% sold used cars,” she said.
 
Frank Larkin, communications director for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said layoffs are inevitable when consolidations occur. “It is the equivalent of a merger in a large corporation. 

 
There are going to be redundancies and they are going to look to reduce head count,” he said.
Fortunately for technicians, their services are in demand.
 
“We’ve been able to keep most of the folks who have lost their jobs employed by moving them to where the work moves after the dealership closes,” Larkin said.
 
That movement also provides a labor pool for fleets and medium- and heavy-duty repair facilities. 
Tony Molla, vice president of communications for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, said a lot of auto technicians are going to have to find different career paths. “We’ve suggested to these technicians that they consider working in the light- and heavy-duty segments,” he said.
 
He also recommends that truck fleets recruit heavily among the auto technicians.
 
“If I were the truck guys, I would absolutely be advertising to these folks and advertising in areas where franchises are closing. Good, quality certified auto technicians could easily be retrained if a business is looking for someone,” Molla said.
 
Solid Tech Skills
One of the strongest skills automotive technicians could bring with them to the commercial truck sector would be an understanding of basic electronic theories and computer skills.
 
“If someone has good analytical skills and diagnostic skills, those skills are going to transfer over fairly rapidly,” said Carl Kirk, vice president of maintenance, information technology and logistics for the Technology and Maintenance Council of American Trucking Associations.
 
Chris Crowel, director of service training, information and channel readiness for Cummins, agreed. “It isn’t about turning wrenches; it is about using software and personal computers,” he said.
Nevertheless, Crowel said there would be different service information systems auto techs would have to learn how to navigate.
 
Penske’s Oliver said “without a doubt” he would hire auto techs. “We would want to develop them further, but we are very skilled in training technicians. Automotive technicians have a lot of PC diagnostics, but they’d have to expand their electrical diagnostics for the light and medium truck segment,” he said.
 
Christopher Tate, a technician at Mohawk Truck, a heavy- and medium-duty truck service and Thermo King dealer in West Seneca, N.Y., started as an auto technician before moving to the commercial sector. He said he was exposed to both systems during tech school, so the transition was easy. He keeps his skills current by participating in the TMC SuperTech competition and training.
 
Dick Fazzio, service manager for Mountain West Truck Center, a Class 4-8 truck dealership in Salt Lake City, said he continues to have a hard time finding qualified technicians and would consider hiring auto techs. “Even though everybody in town has been laying off, I’m still looking for certified journeyman and engine technicians,” he said.
 
Fazzio is hesitant to train new hires and instead invests in long-time employees. “It is extremely expensive. In addition to paying his wages and losing the revenue for the week, you have classes that range from $150 to $300 a day,” he said. He would be more likely to hire an auto tech who completed additional education prior to applying.
 
The Changes They Face
Automotive techs would be moving from spark ignition engines to compressionignition engines, which Kirk said could be easier. However, auto techs would need to become more familiar with high-pressure fuel systems in diesel engines and more complex emissions systems.
 
Fazzio said that for years the computer technology in trucks lagged behind that in cars. “Then [the] trucking industry caught up and has actually surpassed them. The technicians that are extremely strong in that area have less of an issue adapting,” he said.
 
Auto techs with strong computer diagnostic skills may still need to expand their electrical diagnostics skills, Oliver said, particularly as they relate to detecting antilock brake system fault codes, identifying the root cause of a failure and diagnosing the proper repair.
 
“I don’t think any of those things are insurmountable,” Oliver said, noting that technicians typically undergo regular training to keep up with changing technology.
 
Auto technicians also would have to adjust to a different pay scale when moving to a fleet. “In an auto dealership, it was a piecemeal type of structure and the more vehicles they worked on or the higher the bill, the more money they made,” Brauer said.
 
In a dealership, techs who work quickly can earn more, but slower techs may end up making more at a fleet than they were before, Molla said.
 
“In our industry, technicians are typically paid in a 40-hour work week that is more of a team atmosphere,” Oliver said. He noted that Penske typically operates two shifts a day Monday through Friday and often on the weekends. “We have to make sure our techs are available when our clients aren’t using the trucks.”
 
Fazzio said the pay would be similar for auto techs moving to Mountain West Truck Center. “They would be coming in as entry-level and make a certain percentage of the door rate — the standard repair rate and time needed to complete a job,” he said.
 
Molla said most technicians earn more for each hour of ASE training they have, which he expects would be the same for auto techs and commercial techs. However, he said a tighter economy means fewer companies are sending techs for additional training.
 
Kirk predicts that good automotive technicians won’t have a hard time finding work, either within the private automotive repair facilities or in the commercial sector. “There isn’t going to be a declining volume of service work required,” Kirk said. “If anything, people aren’t going to be buying new equipment, so they will have to maintain their equipment longer.”
 
Ironically, Tate said he is seeing the amount of routine maintenance on vehicles decrease. “You used to have scheduled maintenance. Now people come in with a broken down, big job and want it right away,” he said.
 
While opportunities for auto techs exist in the truck segment, technicians will have to be willing to chase them. “In a lot of cases it may require relocation,” Molla said. “Like any other occupation, you have to be open to opportunities as they arise, and if a good opportunity requires you move, you’re going to have to be willing to.”

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