The automotive service industry faces a harsh reality
by Jacques Gordon
Earlier this week I watched a webinar hosted by Pete Meier, Technical Editor of Motor Age magazine. The panelists were all well-known and respected in the industry, and the discussion was relevant and well worth watching. If you missed it, look here: http://tinyurl.com/ll57bg7
The discussion topic was “The Next Generation,” and Pete opened by asking the panel about the growing shortage of qualified technicians. Part of the conversation focused on training for new technicians, and someone noted the fact that technicians are trained very differently in Europe, more specifically, Germany. That’s something we’ve known for a long time, but how many of us really know how the Germans do it?
The word “technician” in Germany defines a profession, and professional technicians are employed in 348 different occupations. Professional technicians train in the Dual Vocational Training System, a national apprenticeship program that lasts about three years. It includes classroom lessons in business theory, academics and communications, along with the technical skills specific to a given occupation. Much of the Dual Vocational Training System was written into law in 1969, but formal structured apprenticeship programs have existed in Germany for centuries and have consistently produced highly-skilled workers.
High school graduates seeking an apprenticeship must pass an entrance exam. About 80% of the price of an apprentice’s training is covered by the company that offers them a contract, mostly small- to medium-size companies, and local government covers the rest. Apprentices receive partial pay during training, and those who complete the program (about 25% drop out) are ready to work the day they graduate. From there they can look forward to steady, lucrative and potentially life-long employment. Companies are willing to pay for training because they get highly-skilled labor with a good work ethic and a sense of company loyalty. Government investment is justified because it maintains a national labor force ready to compete on the world market. Some parts of the training are the same for each occupation, so the work force is trained to a national standard that really fits German industry’s needs.
Vocational training is popular in Germany; about 60% of all male and female high school graduates apply for it. In 2011, there were 1.6 million apprentices training in about 600 thousand companies under roughly 1 million certified trainers.
The American-style technician training couldn’t be more different. Whether they’re in private or state-supported post-secondary school, auto tech students pay for their training and invest at least that much again in tools. For most, there is little guarantee of employment upon graduation, and while they gain a fair understanding of automotive technology, there is no national standard of capability, so prospective employers don’t know what to expect from them. Few are actually productive the day they finally go to work, and few will earn the salary that recruiters often dangle in front of them. They’ll go to work in an industry that requires them to seek additional training on their own time and expense, and they’ll probably work at several different shops before finally (if ever) finding a permanent home.
As I watched the webinar panel discuss these and other reasons for the growing shortage of quality technicians in our industry, I thought of a famous scene from the comic strip Pogo created by Walt Kelly so many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
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