Demand for Technicians Expected to Intensify as Vehicles Add Driverless Capabilities

Nearly 40 years ago, William Sasser walked out of Westside High School and directly into a career as an auto mechanic. But that sort of thing doesn’t happen much anymore.

Despite the occupation’s favorable job security and high earning potential, fewer young people are choosing it as a career. The result is that the typical service technician looks a lot like Sasser — a man in his mid-50s less than a decade from retirement.

“We’ve been looking for good mechanics for years,” said Sasser, the owner of Sasser Automotive, a Mr. Transmission franchise. “You can’t pull into any garage or dealership in Augusta that isn’t facing the same problem.”

The Automotive Service Association’s recently released “How’s your Business?” survey showed that the largest percentage of respondents — 45% — cited the industry’s labor shortage as their No. 1 concern. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 237,000 jobs in the automotive repair field are expected to open up from 2014 to 2024.

“Roughly half the people fixing cars and trucks are baby boomers, and they’re going to be retiring in the next seven to 10 years,” said Tony Molla, vice president of the Texas-based ASA, the auto repair industry’s trade association.

As is the case with many skilled trades in the United States, the pipeline of automotive technicians has shrunk as parents have steered their children toward white-collar occupations.

“There is a societal bias against the trades,” Molla said. “Part of the problem is we haven’t done a good enough job of explaining how the opportunities have changed. The parents are the ones we need to convince, not the students.”

Entry-level technicians with basic training typically start out at $25,000 or below, but those with advanced experience earn much more. Those specializing in heavy machinery or luxury-car brands can earn six-figure salaries, Molla said.

According to federal labor statistics, automotive technicians in the metro Augusta area have a median annual salary of $43,070, which is on par with the median for all occupations: $43,450.

Repair shops and car dealerships have long dealt with the labor crunch by poaching technicians from one another and picking up mechanics from shops that close. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of mom-and-pop repair shops decreased by more than 5,700, and the number of dealerships fell by about 4,000 during the same period.

Demand for skilled technicians is expected to become more urgent in the coming years as today’s highly computerized, semi-autonomous vehicles evolve into the “driverless” cars of tomorrow.

“There is more computing power on a car today than there were on the first five space shuttles,” said Travis Weathers, an automotive teacher at Evans High School, one of three Columbia County schools offering auto repair as part of the schools’ Career Technical and Agricultural Education curriculum.

Programs at Evans and Harlem high schools are certified through the National Automotive Technician Education Foundation, enabling graduates to get entry-level jobs at service centers and serving as a pathway to advanced degrees at local technical schools such as Augusta Technical College or at national for-profit institutions such as Universal Technical Institute or Nashville Auto Diesel College.

Grovetown’s auto program is pursuing certification through the foundation. Richmond County Schools spokesman Kaden Jacobs said the county offers automotive repair at three high schools: the Academy of Richmond County, Cross Creek and Hephzibah. Students at Bulter High School are allowed to take the classes at Hephzibah.

The Aiken County Public School District offers auto classes to all county students through the Aiken County Career & Technology Center on U.S. Highway 1, district spokesman Mike Rosier said.

Augusta Tech has nearly 100 students enrolled in its automotive technology program, which offers a degree in four full-time semesters or over six night-school semesters, said Jim Price, dean of industrial and engineering technology. Those not wanting the full degree can obtain technical certificates of credit in specific systems, such as brakes or powertrain.

Local auto dealers and repair shop owners sit on the advisory committee and end up recruiting many of the students, Price said. Others open their own repair shops, he said.

“We have students who are entrepreneurial in that aspect,” Price said.

Unlike typical four-year liberal arts students, more than 95% of automotive technical school students have jobs waiting after graduation, Weathers said.

Weathers went through the Augusta Tech program and worked for the former Bobby Jones Ford dealership before becoming a teacher. He said local dealerships are constantly seeking students to put through their brand-specific training programs to become master mechanics. Attitude is as important as aptitude, he said.

“They’ll train the students on what they need to know,” Weathers said. “They just want someone who shows up on time, has a good work ethic and can pass a drug test.”

One Evans student who could show promise in the industry is senior Isabelle Mata. She plans to attend Augusta University next year and major in cybersecurity, a discipline becoming increasingly important in the automotive industry thanks to telematics systems — such as GM’s OnStar — that can remotely control many automotive functions. Last year, hackers made headlines after releasing a video showing them remotely hijacking a Jeep Cherokee through the internet.

Mata, one of the few girls in the advanced automotive class and the school’s 2016 homecoming queen, wouldn’t have made a connection between cybersecurity and cars had she not been given the opportunity to get her hands dirty in the school’s garage, where she learned, among other things, to replace the ignition coils on her own car.

“I really just wanted to learn more about cars for myself, just in case, because I’m the type of person who likes to do things myself,” she said. “And then from there I got more interested in the automotive industry.”

Sasser chose the profession partly because he grew up in the automobile business. His father, Carl, worked for dealerships for several years before buying the Toyota franchise now owned by the Milton Ruben auto group.

“I am, true at heart, a very good mechanic,” said Sasser, 56. “I enjoy the mechanical aspect of working on cars and fixing things.”

With more than 36 years of service as a Mr. Transmission shop owner, Sasser is among the oldest franchisees in the system, according to the brand’s owner, Illinois-based Moran Industries Inc. The typical ASA member shop is 22 years old, and 89% are family-owned businesses ,such as Sasser’s.

Though Sasser has never left his original Gordon Highway location, the business today is different because most cars on the road are more electronically complex.

“We probably spend $10,000 a year just updating our scanners,” Sasser said.

Cars break down less often than they used to, but when they do, he said, they are more costly to fix. Sasser said repair costs will continue to rise as automobile functions increasingly fall under computer control systems.

For example, before automatic transmissions were computerized in the late 1980s, a typical transmission overhaul would run about $400, with 90% of the cost being labor. Today, Sasser said, an overhaul runs anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, with more than half the price being nonnegotiable parts costs.

“There is no wiggle room anymore,” he said. “It is what it is.”

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