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Qualified automotive technicians in short supply

In December 2005, Hinds Community College (HCC) in Raymond and Gray-Daniels Auto Family of Jackson unveiled a new program aimed at alleviating a shortage of automotive technicians through a work-study program. Gray-Daniels donated $150,000 toward the endeavor that calls for students to rotate every eight weeks between the HCC classroom and the work environment at Gray-Daniels. The dealership will provide scholarship funding in return for signed work agreements from the participating students.

HCC president Dr. Clyde Muse was understandably pleased with the new “Automotive Technician Enhancement Project,” citing Gray-Daniels’ reputation for hiring “a highly-skilled, technically-trained workforce.” HCC, which currently offers its program during the day, will add evening classes in order to pursue non-traditional, adult students in the program.

HCC will market the program and partnership through direct mail to prospective students, high school recruiting visits and a Web page, while Gray-Daniels, one of the largest automobile dealers in the state, will join the college to create and place advertisements.

The monkey wrench

It is not only Gray-Daniels who is finding it an ever-increasing challenge to recruit qualified service personnel. Across the state and the nation, well-trained automotive technicians are much in demand, and the shortage shows no signs of resolution in the near future. HCC automotive technician instructor Steve Miller said the shortage has grown more acute over the last few years, and the data shows that the nation currently needs approximately 34,000 technicians to meet current demand. Worse still, that deficit could be growing by as much as 10,000 technicians per year.

Automobile dealerships in Mississippi are definitely feeling this growing shortage, even those who receive assistance from their automobile manufacturers. Edwin Vickery is general manager of Mercedes-Benz Porsche of Jackson. Vickery said both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche help his dealership find qualified automotive technicians. But that’s not to say he doesn’t face challenges.

“We get most of our techs from one of these skilled vo-tech centers that train automobile technicians,” Vickery said. “UTI is one of them — they have offices all over and are a good source. Mercedes-Benz and Porsche have a program where they will help you get those techs.

“We don’t have a lot of turnover, because we’re in the specialty car industry, thank goodness. But, we have seen some loss of techs due to the Nissan plant (in Madison County). However, some have gotten over there and didn’t care for the hours, or whatever, and we have gotten some of those techs back.”

North Jackson Dodge does not enjoy Vickery’s position. It must recruit — and keep — qualified automotive technicians, a proposition that grows tougher all the time. The dealership is currently building a brand new facility on site, representing a $5-million-plus investment. In addition to a state-of-the-art showroom, parts boutique, espresso bar and other amenities, the new facility will house 30 new service stalls, all of them air conditioned. Pat Keating, general manager of North Jackson Dodge, said the investment in the service department is needed and is expected to pay immediate as well as long-term benefits.

“It’s a real challenge to find good service technicians,” he said. “We anticipate that the new, air-conditioned stalls will help in this matter. We not only need to find qualified technicians, we have to keep them once there here.

“You can’t run a business without good employees, and you’re not going to have satisfied customers if you don’t have happy workers,” Keating said. “We want the new facility to be an incredible experience both for our customers and our employees, too. It’s the employees’ faces that the customers see.”

Good hands, good mind

According to Miller, the automotive technician program is a tough one. “Oftentimes, a student who makes the minimum score on their ACT is going to struggle in our program,” said Miller, who added that the majority of HCC’s (approximately 75%) automotive technician students come straight from high school. “The program is demanding and requires an analytical, logical mind. It’s about more than being good with your hands. Students need good hands and a good mind.”

Miller said one of the things that excites him about the Automotive Technician Enhancement Project is that it will also pay for a recruiter dedicated to the automotive technician program exclusively.

Retention is not only on the minds of dealers. Automotive instructors are also concerned about attrition, and Miller is expecting that the dedicated automotive technician recruiter and more focused marketing will help keep students here.

“The recruiters at Hinds do a great job, but there still is a need to reach more students about the automotive technician program here,” he said. “With the recruiter and targeted marketing, I hope we keep some of our students. We are losing too many to out-of-state programs.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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