Auto Mechanics in Demand in West Michigan as the industry continues to face challenges from a global parts shortage.
The Grand Rapids Community College Auto Technology Program is the biggest trainer of technicians in West Michigan and almost every person who completes the program finds a position in the industry.
“We get calls and emails all the time from dealerships, independent shops,” Brett Atchison, the head of the GRCC auto tech program, said.
While retirements of older workers is playing a role, Atchison said more needs to be done to get young people interested in the field.
“For decades, we’ve been telling students they have to go to four-year college and get a degree and we haven’t put enough emphasis on the skilled trades,” Atchison said.
Jamie Carlson, the co-owner of Ervine’s Auto Repair in Wyoming, says while she only has one opening right now, many other repair shops in the area have a great need.
“It could be weeks before you can get into your local shop because of this huge labor shortage,” Kooiman said.
The industry is working to educate young people about the opportunities working as an automotive technician can offer.
“I don’t think many students truly realize what this career truly looks like and so that’s where it’s important to reach young people, even at the fifth and sixth grade level, and change their mindset that maybe some of their parents and generations ahead about them have had about the automotive repair industry. We need to show them that this really is a high-tech career,” Kooiman said.
A Demand for Skilled Mechanics
While the industry is ever-evolving in terms of technology and efficiency, the foundations of automotive repair will remain the same. Service technicians will still be needed to perform basic maintenance and repair tasks, such as replacing brake pads and changing oil. Those skills right now are in big demand.
“There’s fairly consistently a shortage of qualified technicians in the field,” said Ben Smith, assistant professor in the GRCC Automotive Technology program. With about 70 people enrolled this year, Smith hopes to build numbers back up to about 100.
“I don’t think people always think of it as a career choice,” he said. “You do pretty high-tech stuff; it’s not just the grunt work you think of from a mechanic. It’s a challenging career.”
Many students are already working in body shops. “Most students, if they really want a job, there’s no doubt we can get them a job,” said Nathan Vannest, an instructor in the Tech Center program, where many students earn certifications for jobs and continue training at GRCC.
Instructors Chris Yetzke and Mike Pekrul teach in both the GRCC and Tech Center programs.
“The last time I checked, the average age of a technician in the U.S. was, I think, 53, so there’s a lot of people retiring,” Yetzke said.
‘Unlimited Opportunities for Pay and Growth’
GRCC partners with manufacturers to align curriculum with needed training, such as with Fiat Chrysler for the Mopar Career Automotive Program. In 2020, Mopar cited an increase in demand for 45,000 automotive technician jobs by 2026.
With a median salary of $20.24 per hour, the GRCC associate or certification programs are direct avenues to automotive careers. GRCC offers an 18-week program that covers four out of the eight certification areas. A one-year certificate program that instructs all eight areas, and a two-year associate degree program. The associate degree program transfers to a bachelor’s degree program at Ferris State University.
In terms of landing jobs, GRCC and the Tech Center’s auto tech programs have solid partnerships with employers. Matt Snyder, a corporate technical recruiter for Zeigler Automotive Group, works to find service technicians for 30 dealerships. He partners with both the Tech Center and GRCC to help Zeigler dealerships recruit service technicians.
“There is an unbelievable demand for skilled trades people in general. The automotive industry specifically is in dire need of service technicians,” Snyder said.
“The programs at Kent ISD and GRCC prepare students for an in-demand career with unlimited opportunities for growth and pay. A good technician can write their own ticket and live anywhere in the country they choose within reason. Top technicians are making anywhere from $80,000 to over $100,000 per year. The reality is that pay is not based upon degrees but upon skill set, certifications and work ethic.”
Snyder cited a major reason for the demand being so great is that for many years high-school students have been pushed toward pursuing a bachelor’s degree regardless of outcomes.
“There has been an idea/thought process that in order to be successful in life you had to have a four-year degree. High schools over the past 25 years have drastically reduced vocational education, cutting back or eliminating programs like metal shop, welding and automotive.”
But that shortfall has created opportunities for those with an interest in pursuing a hands-on career, he said.
“When the demand for your skill set is high and supply is low, that’s a winning combination for a person to have a great career outlook.”
The Tech Center and GRCC
The Tech Center and GRCC helps students build foundational skills so they can build on those certifications over their careers. “The technology changes, but the basics really don’t here; it’s more basic knowledge of the systems,” Yetzke said. “In this business you never quit learning.”
Added Vannest: “We can give them a good start to that; GRCC can give them a better start to that. At the dealership, the learning will never stop.”
For more information on the automotive programs offered at GRCC, you can visit its website. Auto Mechanics in Demand.