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Manufacturers threaten automotive workforce levels

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Alex Kotelnikov, lead technician at Honest-1 Auto Care in West Ashley, works on a tire. Owners of automotive shops in the Lowcountry are concerned that manufacturers choosing to locate in the area will create a shortage of qualified automotive technicians. (Photo/Patrick Hoff)

Boeing, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz are bringing investment and jobs to the Charleston area, an economic boon for the Lowcountry.

For automotive shop owner Sherry Rector, though, having the manufacturers so close is a drain on her workforce.

“As more manufacturing came, the technicians just became more scarce,” she said. “People who were looking for benefits and steady work and everything started going with manufacturing because it makes sense to go out to that type of work.”

Rector, who co-owns three Honest-1 Auto Care shops in the Lowcountry with her husband, Chris Lloyd, said she expects the shortage to grow, unless something can be done.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find the right fit (for jobs),” she said.

Rector said they’ve occasionally had to move cars from shop to shop to get work done in a timely manner. And she said she sees the possibility that the day will come when Honest-1 won’t be able to meet customers’ needs, and she’ll start losing business.

“As of yet, it’s not adversely affecting us, but moving forward it (this shortage) has potential to,” she said.

Brad Davis, community relations specialist for Hendrick Automotive Group Charleston/North Charleston, also said the industry seems to be on the verge of a dire situation.

“Right now, we’ve been able to fill the open positions fairly quickly,” he said. “Not as quickly as we’d like, but fairly quickly. ... We’re not at a critical stage yet, but we’re feeling the pain.”

The employment situation is positioned to become more dire when the new Volvo Car and Mercedes-Benz Vans plants open, Davis said, because the plants will need technicians to do end-of-the-line repairs as cars roll off the line.

Davis said he expects 75 technicians to be pulled out of the job market when the two plants open.

“When that happens, it’s going to be critical,” he said. “It’s going to be every dealership fending for themselves and trying to steal people from one another if you’re not ready for the rush.”

Davis said Hendrick doesn’t have the same trouble hiring technicians that other automotive shops might be having, because Hendrick offers benefits — higher pay, better insurance, better training and an air-conditioned environment — that others might not be able to.

Braden Poole, vice president of operations for Honest-1, said that’s exactly why retaining technicians can be so difficult. Technicians find another shop that pays more or has better benefits, and they take their talent there.

Poole said the shortage is a national issue that is growing at an alarming rate as technicians retire and technology changes.

“What has happened ... is that automotive technology is advancing at an alarming rate, and it’s tough for technicians to keep up with that,” he said. “But what really hasn’t changed is how much a technician makes per hour, so I think that might have contributed a little bit to what we’re seeing as far as available technicians.”

Traditionally, Poole said, technicians are paid a flat rate for the services they provide; but as cars last longer and need less maintenance, technicians have begun asking for salaries or a hybrid of flat rate and salary.

“The trick now for the automotive industry is to attract that technician and somehow give them a reason to come work for you,” he said.

Finding a solution

Rector said she and Lloyd have reached out to high school teachers and vocational schools, worked with S.C. Works to post jobs, and looking into hiring apprentices through the Charleston Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Mitchell Harp, dean of apprenticeships at Trident Technical College, said approximately 120 companies participate in the apprenticeship program, a partnership of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, Trident Tech, Apprenticeship Carolina, local school districts and local businesses.

“The reality is we need to mentor that next generation,” he said. “And ... it takes the entire community.”

Hendrick Automotive Group began taking on apprentices for the first time this year, mentoring nine high school students, because Davis said the biggest challenge for the company is that many technicians are approaching retirement age.

Davis said he expects Hendrick apprentices to stay with the company after they complete their two-year commitment to the program, and Hendrick will help them finish their automotive technology degree at Trident Tech.

Even though the situation isn’t urgent yet for Hendrick, the company is trying to avoid becoming complacent, Davis said. The company tours schools, speaking to students and parents about careers as an auto technician.

“Not all kids need a four-year degree, and there’s some wonderful jobs, like being an auto tech,” Davis said. “You can survive with a high school education. It’s much better to get a two-year degree or trade school and have wonderful, good-paying jobs that are challenging and fulfilling and have a wonderful life without ... student debt.”

Rector said she hopes schools will begin to point students toward trades rather than always pushing students toward a four-year degree.

“I blame it on the education system, grooming all these kids to go to college, and then they get out of college, and they want a career making a lot of money when they don’t really have a skill set that’s beneficial,” she said.

Chad Vail, work-based learning partnerships coordinator for Charleston County School District, said the county is committed to making sure students are introduced to career and technical education classes, especially through the district’s Centers for Advanced Studies.

“It’s an addition to the comprehensive high schools we already have ... so we’ll be able to complement that,” Vail said.

The centers will serve as campuses for the entire region where high school students can learn technical skills during their school day. Instead of having small tech classes at every high school in the district, students will be able to come together at the centers to form larger classes.

Vail said there’s already Center for Advanced Studies on the campus of Wando High School, with plans for two more in the coming years, in West Ashley and North Charleston.

Vail said the school district looks for high-demand, high-wage jobs when choosing programs for the centers. He said students get a career and technical education “completer” after graduating, which is comparable to a college minor but for high school.

“The Centers for Advanced Studies are just another piece of that puzzle in that we can offer much better programming in a lab sense if there’s a central lab for automotive,” Vail said.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 30, 2017, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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