Help wanted: auto technicians in demand, but jobs are going unfilled due to skills gap

July 10, 2017

Parked next to the WyoTech booth in the Colorado Convention Center is a slick white sports car. Complete with the latest tech and modifications, the car is dubbed a computer on wheels by its developers. And it’s 10 years old.

Created by students at WyoTech, a skills-based college in Laramie, the car will be raffled off at the American School Counselor Association’s annual conference, held in Denver this week. The four-wheeled Frankenstein showcases what a few technicians can do to an old vehicle. But because of a skills gap across the country, there is a growing shortage of qualified workers such as these.

“Our industry is in crisis mode,” said WyoTech Laramie Campus president Caleb Perriton. “It’s a lack of technicians. They need help, and they need it yesterday. It’s a full-on crisis, and we have a skills gap that we just aren’t filling right now.”

While the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics projects a 7 percent increase in employment for automotive service technicians and mechanics nationwide from 2014 to 2024, a lack of qualified technicians could prevent these jobs from being filled.

WyoTech attended the counselor conference to emphasize that school counselors should recommend careers in the auto repair industry to their students.

“We focus on training students and want to bring awareness to these counselors,” Perriton said. We want to let them know to think trades. It starts with the youth. We need to get the youth educated.”

Perriton also said he wants students to know that a job in auto mechanics could be a good option for a high-paying career.

“That’s through the high schools to think about this as a viable career path. And we’re not just talking about just getting a job as a technician or mechanic. We’re talking about mortgage-paying, family-sustaining careers. There are a million different opportunities once you get into this industry,” Perriton said.

Automotive service technicians and mechanics earned a median pay of $38,470 in 2016, according to the Labor Department.

The lack of skilled auto technicians is a microcosm of a lack of qualified vocational workers as a whole, said Ellen Golombek, director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The gap is an ongoing issue, and Golombek said there are thousands of mid-skill level jobs going unfilled.

The skills gap is an issue in states across the U.S., and Colorado is no exception. The National Skills Coalition classifies auto repair as a mid-skill jobs. And while mid-skill jobs in Colorado are in demand, there aren’t enough qualified workers. According to a report from the group — which advocates for investment in the skills of America’s workers and includes members from business, labor and community colleges — nearly half the job openings in Colorado call for mid-skill level workers,  but only about 36 percent of the state’s workers meet this credential.

Jobs for auto, bus and truck mechanics are expected to increase in the coming years, with nearly 5,000 expected job openings between the two fields in 2019. But finding enough qualified workers to fill these jobs isn’t easy. According to the coalition’s report, while the number of low skill workers is expected to grow by nearly 4 percent by 2025, mid-skill workers will drop by about 3 percent in the same time frame.  

“There’s definitely a gap in the supply of jobs in Colorado,” Golombek said. “And that comes from a mismatch between what people are learning in schools and what they need on the job.”

Golombek said to get more people working in mid-skill careers, careers such as auto repair need to be destigmatized.

“I think we need to have a PR and marketing campaign change,” she said. “We need to show these are good careers, good jobs. We haven’t done a good job on that as of late.

Although Golombek said there needs to be more changes, Colorado has been more proactive in recent years to add more career tech-education classes to help students find a potential career.

“I think we’re doing a good job compared to the past,” she said. “We’re not telling people they shouldn’t go to college. But not every student is ready to go to college right out of high school. Putting them in these programs help ground them and ready them for for what’s next.”