Survival tips for the skill shortage era

Two mechanics performing maintenance on a vehicle in a workshop.

Finding and holding on to skilled staff is a difficult chore at the best of times, but having to do it in the middle of a severe skilled labour shortage is forcing workshops to rethink their recruiting process and devise better ways to deploy the skills of existing staff.

Skill shortages in the auto aftermarket sector have worsened since the COVID years and no solutions are in sight. Border restrictions have made sourcing skilled technicians from other countries difficult and costly.

There are a few things a workshop needs to do to ease the strain on the business and ensure that it is getting the best out of existing staff levels.

Begin with your business model –identify the best direction for your future business, using the skills it currently possesses. This might involve serious training and technician upskilling, but before rushing headlong into this, the training chosen must match the future goals of the business for up to five years.

For example, workshops that see their role in electric and hybrid vehicle maintenance and repair would need to invest in specific training on electrics and hybrids. There are many specialised areas in automotive, but workshops need to first identify their current skills and culture to get the best out of the speciality they choose for the future.

In times when skilled staff become almost impossible to find, downsizing or streamlining the business might result in a more profitable and easier-to-run operation.

In the meantime, the skills of current staff need to be looked at more closely and applied as effectively as possible. This process begins with a detailed review of the strengths and weaknesses of technicians and senior staff who are the main generators of income. Be on the lookout for situations where skills are being wasted – such as the head technician working on jobs that could be delegated to a non-skilled worker or an apprentice without sacrificing quality.

Head technicians should be reserved for highly technical and complex diagnostic tasks, leaving the more general routine work to general staff or apprentices. To make this arrangement work for the bottom line, it is best to avoid adopting just one flat labour rate for all work performed in the workshop. The more technical and complex jobs, including diagnostics, should be charged out at a higher rate than routine repair work. This generates the income that can then justify an appropriately higher rate of pay for the top technicians – this in itself can be part of your plan to retain good staff in times of labour shortages.

Chores that don’t require the skills of a qualified technician, like cleaning, filing, book work or washing cars could be delegated to casual labour engaged for a few hours every day – hours that might suit someone who doesn’t want or need a full-time job.

The plan is to free up everyone in the workshop with a specific skill to get on with the productive work that pays the bills and generates profit.

Regardless of any of the above strategies, a workshop may be suffering through having a skill gap in the staff, perhaps to the extent that the only way to restore overall profitability demands hiring new staff.

In this difficult labour market, don’t expect the highly trained expert you need to just be waiting for your ‘help wanted’ advertisement to appear. New staff members don’t have to be the perfect fit, especially if your workshop has an effective learning and development program in place. Applicants with a good attitude and a willingness to learn could very well turn out to be just as effective as those with one hundred per cent of the appropriate skills. There can also be advantages in hiring candidates with little experience but plenty of knowledge and a bright personality.

Such people can often be more quickly trained in the ways and culture of the business.

The skills shortage is real and it won’t be quickly fixed. Workshop owners and managers need to think outside the box and embrace new ways of doing things. The trade has changed dramatically over the past decade. Maybe workshops need to change the way they do business as well.

This article was published 18/10/2023 and the content is current as at the date of publication.