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R. L. Polk & Co.’s Ask the Industry: Are We Doing Enough to Attract the Next Generation?

For this edition of Ask the Industry, we asked executives representing a number of market segments including manufacturing, service and training: Are we doing enough to attract bright young professionals to this industry? If not, what more needs to be done? And, what are the dealerships doing that we can’t or haven’t?

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Last month, aftermarketNews.com Publisher Jon Owens wrote about the National Automobile Dealers Association’s (NADA) new national recruitment efforts with Oct. 24-29 being proclaimed “Automotive Career Week” in 14 states. This announcement was just one of many highlighting the OEMs successful (read: financially supported) recruitment efforts. Is it just a matter of good publicity or are the dealerships and OEMs doing a much better job at recruitment than the aftermarket?

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For this edition of Ask the Industry, we asked executives representing a number of market segments including manufacturing, service and training: Are we doing enough to attract bright young professionals to this industry? If not, what more needs to be done? And, what are the dealerships doing that we can’t or haven’t?

Vonda Lee, Beck/Arnley’s Director of Product Management, Smyrna, TN:

Are we doing enough to attract young people to this industry?

The short and easy answer to this question would be “no,” but as a member of the Car Care Council Women’s Board Recruitment and Retention Committee, I have a few more thoughts on this particular topic. The automotive aftermarket is one of the most diverse industries in the world when it comes to job opportunities. For example, the college graduate who just finished his or her degree in business, engineering, marketing, accounting or computer science, can find a place in our industry. The same applies to the high school graduate who wants to go to a technical college in various fields. We need to tell all of them that the opportunities are endless. One can work his or her way to the corporate CEO level of a manufacturing company, or be the owner of one’s own repair shop, or manage computer systems for someone with six jobber stores.

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There is a false perception when it comes to the automotive aftermarket, that you have to wake up with grease under your nails to be a success. We have a responsibility to get the word out that our industry has a bright future for young people today, no matter what field of study they’re interested in. I’m proud to say that the Car Care Council Women’s Board, through networking, scholarship programs and informational packets to local high schools, has brought, and will continue to bring, information regarding our industry to young people today. We need to do a lot more of that, across the board.

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Tony Molla, VP of Communications, ASE, Leesburgh, VA:

I don’t know if we ever do enough. The challenge is that, while the NADA is doing a great job, there are lots of other players out there who have been working on this issue for far longer.

We tend to want to talk to the students. What we really ought to be doing is talking to the parents. Most kids are influenced more directly by their parents than any other source. Also, we [the industry] tend to focus on developing things like scholarships for students. ASE takes a slightly different tack. We tend to give what resources we can muster, by way of scholarships, to the instructors, because if you think there is a shortage of technical students you ought to take a look at the shortage of instructors. They are dropping like flies and not being replaced, unfortunately. That’s another part of the challenge. It’s getting harder and harder to find qualified instructors who are going to be able to teach the students.

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We certainly need to do more to reach out to young people, their parents and the guidance counselors about the host of opportunities that are available in the automotive industry. We tend to focus just on technicians, but virtually any career path you want to think about has its place in the automotive industry – you’ve got engineering, you’ve got sales, marketing, accounting. It’s all there. I think most people don’t really appreciate the depth of opportunities available in the automotive industry. I’m a good example. I started out turning wrenches as a technician with a degree in journalism. While the college degree helped, it’s always been my technical background that has helped me land the jobs I’ve had. It’s always given me the edge over other applicants.

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The car manufacturers do a wonderful job of providing resources to the schools within their purview, mostly AYES schools. They give them cars and equipment and some of the equipment manufacturers do the same thing. I know it’s a lot of money and difficult to justify the ROI, but if the industry could help the schools get the resources they need in terms of tools and equipment, then it would go a long way toward convincing the school boards that this is something worth funding.

Also, I think it is incumbent upon the industry to pay attention to what is going on at the national level with respect to things like government loans and grants. We need to re-evaluate how we’re spending the money and what is most effective.

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Cordell Riley, Vice President of tortal.net, Director of Training for Meineke, Charlotte, NC:

We can always be doing more. There are a couple initiatives underway right now that I don’t think have come to the surface yet, which are trying to raise the awareness of the viable career options that are out there. I think we need to go back to the starting point – to the parents and the high school guidance counselors – to make sure they know about the viable career alternatives that the automotive field offers. You talk to a lot of parents and guidance counselors today and they still have that old ‘grease monkey’ image in their minds. At the same time, there is a wealth of opportunities, ownership and management opportunities, that young people have available to them [in this industry]. So I think starting back at the parent-guidance counselor level and making sure that those individuals know about the opportunities that are out there is key.

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Also, the DVD that was created, ‘Life in the Fast Lane,’ was a great starting point. How do we get more people to view that?

I do think to some degree a better marketing/advertising campaign about the opportunities out there is definitely worthwhile. Where those funds come from, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s definitely a worthwhile effort. The shortage of qualified people for the available jobs in this industry is only going to get worse, so I think that a marketing campaign of some kind is needed.

Mike McHugh, Executive Vice President, Universal Underwriters, Overland Park, KS:

There’s a challenge in the aftermarket in that there is no one voice on this issue. NADA is the voice for all franchise dealers and they have a pretty strong program in conjunction with the manufacturers through AYES, which we support. On the aftermarket side, there really isn’t a cohesive, industry-wide program to attract young people.

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I think NADA works very closely with its state and metro associations, and that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where they get the local dealer involved. That’s where they hook up with the local technical institutes to set up these programs that are supported by AYES. There is, I think, a much closer partnership between national and local associations. And of course, the OEMs are spending a lot of money on the AYES program. With the three of them working together, it’s been a very successful program. I’m not sure it can be duplicated on the aftermarket side, but I think a lot can be done.

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The best way to attract people into this business is for local businesses to get involved in their high schools and to make themselves available to work with guidance counselors so they can have access to these students and talk to them about a career in automotive technical work.

There’s this stigma in our society that anything less than a college education is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the trades really need good people. The thing about fixing an automobile is, you can’t ship that to India. People 10 years ago were pushing technically oriented students into computer software design and now, a lot of those jobs are gone. They are overseas. The automotive technician is very much a highly technical individual. He’s no longer the stereotype of turning wrenches with grease under the fingernails.

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Summary by Amy Antenora, managing editor:

The individuals I spoke with for this week’s topic were generous with their time and comments. While it is impossible to include their comments in their entirety, it’s important to note how both Molla and McHugh gave credit to the numerous non-profit and for profit organizations such as AYES, SkillsUSA, NATEF and UTI that are working hard to train this industry’s next generation. There is also GAAS, people like Steve Hollein, Pete Kornafel and numerous others who dedicate their time and resources to this cause. It’s also worthy of mentioning that while in Las Vegas during AAIW, Universal Underwriters announced the formation of its own scholarship initiative, which will work with associations on a national and local level to link students not only with funding, but also with internship opportunities.

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The aftermarket, challenged to represent a number of segments, is doing a good job of illuminating the diversity of this industry. As Vonda Lee pointed out, there are opportunities in the aftermarket for professionals trained in a variety of disciplines – business, engineering, marketing, accounting and computer science, to name a few. This is also one of the few industries where you don’t need a college education to succeed. Thanks to the training and certification efforts of such organizations as ASE, technicians are able to excel and benchmark their skills and experience.

Without a doubt, we have enough resources and enough passionate people to ensure the success of this cause. Not to discredit the efforts of those who are working diligently to recruit young professionals to the aftermarket, but it’s not enough. A nationally organized, aftermarket-specific push is needed if we want to ensure the continual growth of this industry.

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To read Jon Owens column, “Publisher’s Perspective: Where Have All the Students Gone?”, click here.

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