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Rapid retirements open up more mechanics jobs than there are trained people to fill them

Slip into a new car today and you will see gadgets and features that didn’t even exist in most models five years ago – GPS navigation, Bluetooth technology and backup cameras – all of which now typically come standard.

And as the technology of a car, both in the body and under the hood, becomes more and more complex, the job of an auto technician becomes more demanding.

“It’s a very technological world we live in with automobiles,” said Peter DeLacy, vice president and general manager of DeLacy Ford in Elma. “Wrenches are required, but computers are key.”

That means new employees must not only be good with their hands – they also must be familiar with computers. For those with the skills and training, there are good jobs available, said those in the field. The challenge is getting younger people interested in preparing for those jobs.

“There are good jobs available for anyone who has the training and the drive,” said John Slenker, regional economist with the New York State Department of Labor in Buffalo. Slenker said with more auto technicians retiring at a faster rate than most other jobs, more jobs are becoming available.

But the requirements of the job are constantly changing, something Ryan Bodenburg has seen first hand. Bodenburg is a technician for Western New York Ford who’s been doing the job for 14 years. He said repairs are now largely computer-based, and technicians today work mostly through laptops to diagnose and correct problems.

“Vehicles are built a lot better than they were when I started,” he said. “The vehicle is built to not fail, and when it does fail it’s not always easy to identify the cause.”

The computerization of the industry has another effect.

“I don’t think people initially understand the level of difficulty of the job,” he said.

Add to that the pressure from dealers and customers to fix problems quickly and effectively, Bodenburg said.

That pressure will only increase as cars become more advanced and new technology is developed. Jay Galligan, director of service operations for West-Herr Automotive Group, said new features like Wi-Fi and full surround sound will become more common. And while he said he doesn’t see self-driving cars or hybrids becoming the type of car driven by the masses, technicians still need to be familiar with how to fix those new models.

“We need people who are more technical, who can think through a car and think through a solution,” Galligan said. “There are so many complexities you have to manage, and we need more people to do that and we need a different kind of people to do that.”

Finding those people has become more difficult. Galligan said local “mom and pop” type auto shops are being phased out as some are unable to keep up with dealers who have the technology required to work on the newest models. But, he said, those shops are where many larger dealers found qualified technicians.

Greg Gaulin, owner of Gaulin’s of Williamsville Auto Repair and chairman of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence board of directors, said he believes there will be a steady decline of locally owned repair shops. It’s partly due to repair shop owners retiring, and partly due to the cost of owning a shop.

“When the majority of us got into the business 30 years ago it was much more affordable,” he said. “The cost of training a technician to be able to service the things he needs to service and understand the complex systems – there’s a cost to that.”

Bob Gugino, owner of Bison Automotive on Kenmore Avenue, said he sends his technicians to training regularly to keep up on the changes to cars. Most technicians, he said, now need that additional training in addition to more tools.

Gugino, who is on the advisory board for the BOCES program, said BOCES courses are designed to ensure students have the basic skills that will set them up for success once they get into the more complicated systems of a car.

“It’s important to know how to take the tires off and work with nuts and bolts, but the guys that are a cut above are the guys who can do brakes and suspensions but also get into the electronics of it,” Gugino said.

He said that while the auto repair courses usually have steady numbers, he’s seen cases where only a few members of the class end up wanting to push forward and make a career out of it.

Both Gugino and Gaulin said business has been good, but Gaulin added that it’s difficult to put a “Help Wanted” sign in the window and have someone who’s qualified walk in looking for a job. Gaulin added that he believes there is more of a tendency now to push high school students toward going to college as opposed to getting into a trade like auto repair.

Different organizations are offering new programs to attract and train a younger generation of technicians. WNY Ford Dealers have launched the Ford Future Techs program, which will provide vehicles to schools and resources so students in an automotive repair class can work on modern technology at younger ages.

Gaulin said the ASE works with high schools to give students an idea of the opportunities available in the field. The organization also offers student certifications that are good for two years, and has a program that takes students in an automotive program and puts them in a dealer or repair shop to expose them to a working world environment.

Galligan says his job entails more recruiting than it did in the past to convince kids and parents that working as a technician is a career with opportunities to make money.

Cars are only getting more advanced and the need for qualified technicians is only increasing, they said. That evolution is reflected in the cars, in the people who fix them and in the people who are challenged to find enough qualified mechanics to meet demand.

“I used to be five percent recruiting. Now I’m about 40 percent recruiting because I need to get the right people in and I need to get more people in,” Galligan said. “The demands of this industry are more than they used to be.”