High-tech cars making the pool of mechanics smaller

The challenge isn’t finding jobs; it’s finding candidates with the required skillset who can adapt to an industry that’s evolving at warp speed

Originally published May 15, 2017

We spend a lot of time questioning where technology is headed in the automotive industry as it concerns those who make and buy the vehicles, but what about the impact it has on those who maintain them?

With the emphasis shifting more and more to computerized vehicles and diagnostics, how is this affecting students who were traditionally, perhaps, less academically inclined? We always heard the “head to the trades” line for the kids who were flunking traditional core education, but those skills are now vital in this industry. For both dealerships and independent garages, it’s getting increasingly difficult to find qualified technicians, as senior mechanics head into retirement at the same time the automotive industry creates a need not just for bodies to work the tools, but also for minds capable of handling the tech. How do we bridge this rapidly expanding chasm? Where will shops find skilled technicians?

Alan McClelland is the dean of the School of Transportation at Centennial College in Ontario. He started out on the tools himself, and there is perhaps nobody who better understands both sides of the equation as it moves forward at increasing speeds.

“We’ve seen a huge shift over the past 10 to 15 years,” he says. “Once, a shop had a lot of routine work that could be performed by rout, leaving the specialty work, the tougher diagnostics, to those with more advanced abilities. That routine work is shrinking, and fewer technicians are going to be able to remain productive without advanced training.”

That training encompasses an ever-growing field of study, some of it largely unheard of, or at least uncontemplated, even a generation ago. Things once considered soft skills – communication, teamwork, critical thinking, problem solving, and adaptability – have surged to the fore.

Centennial College works closely with the automotive industry, offering programs staked by most of the major manufacturers. To stay cutting-edge, they have Sector Advisory Boards involving all aspects of transportation. Graduating students who are job-ready is essential to the college’s success, and this time of year is crucial to coordinating the efforts of what is being taught and how it will be applied. At a recent meeting, a government relations representative from General Motors admitted to McClelland the challenges of figuring out what the industry needs to have taught when it’s changing so rapidly.

“We realize the act of learning is as important as the learning,” McClelland. “To be job-ready, they need an increasing suite of skills.”

Mechanic and Centennial professor Chris Muir agrees. He still straddles both worlds, and has been immersed in what he calls the turbulent time starting in 1995 as the industry moved away from carburetors to fuel injected systems. “On-board diagnostics changed everything. We need technicians who are computer savvy but are also great on the tools. You have to love it, you do. The challenges and stresses are increasing, but if you want it, it’s a fascinating time to be coming into this.” Like most apprentice programs, the early years are for weeding out the weak. You will be tested.

Is it possible, or even suitable, to train a kid who has pure tool savvy to “get” the computer diagnostic part of the industry? Or to teach a kid who is a computer genius how to work the tools? McClelland notes an increase in university graduates who are entering Centennial programs with a great academic background in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), another reason to support your children in staying with these areas in the younger grades. Much of our future skilled work will need these programs, including many of the vocational ones that were once considered a safe haven for students looking for ways to get these core subjects.

Centennial features programs in all areas of transportation, including aviation, heavy-duty equipment, motorcycle, and truck and coach. The challenge isn’t in finding jobs for graduates; it’s finding candidate students with the required skillset who can adapt to an industry that is evolving at warp speed.

Every technician working in all of those programs must be academically robust as well as mechanically capable. Those programs Centennial offers that are partnered with industry heavyweights create an atmosphere that is mutually beneficial to both: Centennial structures learning on current requirements, and the industry can specify and tweak those requirements. On both sides of the equation, the word “adaptability” comes up with increasing frequency.

McClelland is blunt about ideal students. Those who possess better academic readiness rise faster and have more flexibility in the work world. “There is a dire shortage,” he states. His message is echoed in my discussions with several independent shops and two dealerships. Finding a well-qualified technician is indeed getting very difficult. On the flip side, being that well-qualified technician means having many, many options.

Dean McClelland is succinct in his faith in the future of the transportation industry. “You can’t offshore this work. These vehicles have to be serviced right here in our communities; all this equipment does. There’s never been more opportunity for students who want to join this industry.”

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One response to High-tech cars making the pool of mechanics smaller

  1. Pat says:

    Being a great diagnostician is a huge part of being a technician now. You have to have the math and science skills before you even make a start.
    We have to take away the stigma of being in the “dirty trades.” A good auto tech, plumber, or electrician can easily make six figures a year, and do jobs on the side for extra cash. Plus, once you earn your ticket here in Ontario, it’s good all over Canada.
    Great article Lorraine!

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