Need for Technology-Trained Workforce at Automobile Repair Shops

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Electric vehicle sales in the United States reached a record high last March, with 122,016 EVs sold. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, that month Americans purchased 75,959 hybrid-EVs, 33,370 battery EVs, and 12,687 plug-in hybrid-EVs. California accounted for almost half of national EV sales in 2021, most of which occurred in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, according to the California Energy Commission. Although EV ownership in the U.S. lags Europe and China, seven percent of American adults have an electric vehicle. Roughly 39 percent will likely consider buying one the next time they purchase a car, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. 

As the EV population grows, automobile repair technicians are steadily retiring, with new skills demanded from their replacements.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that by 2029 there’ll be a need for more than one million technicians, while the number of people entering the field is decreasing by roughly four percent a year.  According to a 2020 report by Tech Force Foundation, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based nonprofit that advocates for automotive technology education, the U.S. will be short approximately 642,000 automotive, diesel, and collision repair technicians by 2024 if current trends hold. A collision repair technician is experienced in accident-related repairs. 

To meet demand the transportation industry must fill almost 100,000 technician jobs a year, with automotive repair programs having mixed success educating students about hybrid and electric vehicles. 

In response to the growing labor gap, the owners of two Southside garages, Patrick Cadam, of Pat’s Garage at 1090 26th Street, and Carolyn Coquillette, of Luscious Garage at 475 Ninth Street, are working to increase the number of skilled automotive repair workers. Both shops service hybrid and electric vehicles. Competent employees are rare, while local interest in environmentally friendly vehicles is high. 

According to Cadam, whose shop focuses on repairing Japanese cars, the growing number of computer components in vehicles has created challenges. 

“I sit on the automotive service boards of City College of San Francisco and Skyline College,” said Cadam. “I share information about what we’re doing at the shop and what kind of technicians we will need in the future. As the types and functions of computers in vehicles increase, we’re reaching a tipping point. We’re going to need more technicians who understand how to fix these high-tech cars.” 

Electric and hybrid vehicles are built differently than fossil fueled cars. Technicians need to be aware of a range of fixes to address environmentally friendly vehicles’ mechanical failures. Education about such automobiles remains sparse. 

Cadam is president of Automotive Service Councils of California (ASCCA) Chapter 21 San Francisco, which represents independent automotive service repair professionals. He said City and Skyline colleges have held informational classes at his shop, where his four technicians explain how to repair EVs. 

“Shops need to charge their customers more money in order to pay their staff a living wage,” said Coquillette, who serves as ASCCA vice president, and chairs ASCCA’s Connected Cars Committee. A connected car is one that can communicate via technology with other systems. “At some point, we’re talking about market economics. If mechanics were paid $200,000 a year, there would be more mechanics.” 

In 2020 the median pay for an auto mechanic was $44,050 a year, $21.18 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Coquillette would like to increase ethnic and racial diversity in the workplace and make car repair more welcoming to women. 

“For decades, one of the concerns about the automotive repair industry is that women don’t see a pathway for themselves,” said Coquillette. “At Luscious Garage, we’ve established resources in-house to cultivate younger talent and ensure there is training and education for existing workers. New cars require more of an information technology approach, to understand what systems exist onboard and the updates they need.” 

Luscious Garage has a dozen employees, including Coquillette, four of whom identify as women and four as persons of color. All five of the technicians identify as male, with one paid technician intern who identifies as female. 

Dante DiLallo, an automotive technician at Pat’s Garage, said that a range of skills is needed to succeed in the industry.

“Before coming to Pat’s Garage, I worked at Enterprise in the automotive repair department. Then I joined the U.S. Coast Guard. Later, one of my teachers in automotive repair at City College of San Francisco told me to check out Pat’s Garage. I’ve been here ever since,” said DiLallo.

DiLallo said the education system is biased against jobs that include manual labor, in favor of more academic positions. 

“The teachers are all pushing for four-year degrees and suggesting that mechanics is not a stable career. But a skilled professional can make a good living as an automotive technician. Students from middle school to college need to be aware of that,” said DiLallo. 

According to DiLallo, there are significant differences between electric and gasoline-powered vehicles. 

“In a Toyota hybrid, the vehicle operates primarily off the battery. The gasoline engine acts as a generator to help keep the battery going. In a Honda hybrid, the main focus is on the gasoline engine. The battery is primarily for city driving and low speeds,” said DiLallo.  

Elena Engel, coordinating committee facilitator for the Bay Area climate activist group 350 SF, supports Cadam and Coquillette’s work to advocate for automobile repair training. 

“They are increasing awareness of what electric and hybrid vehicles have to offer, in terms of less pollution for the City and the state. If people like Pat and Carolyn don’t repair electric vehicles, people don’t see renewable energy as a viable solution. We need more education and outreach to students, teachers, and unions, all of whom can support training and equity measures to ensure there are enough automotive technicians in the City,” said Engel. 

According to Minnesota Street resident Peter McCandless, who owns a sports utility vehicle, Pat’s Garage provides excellent service. McCandless recently took his SUV for a checkup before making a cross-country trip. 

“Pat and his team found and repaired a lot of mechanical issues. I put 8,000 miles on the car, and all I did was fill up with gas and clean the windshield. Everything was flawless,” said McCandless. 

Cadam, who originally wanted to be a teacher, said automotive technicians need to learn soft skills to be effective at their job. 

“That’s why I work with my technicians on communication, like talking to customers and writing clearly. It helps us as a shop understand our base of approximately 1,500 customers throughout the City, the East Bay, and the South Bay,” said Cadam.

Cadam said another key to remaining successful in automotive repair is helping customers understand their vehicles.

“We continually offer Car Care workshops that include things like how to change a tire and jumpstart your car. These save customers in sticky situations. They really appreciate that,” said Cadam.

“By paying more for skilled labor and training technicians in environmentally friendly vehicles, we’re helping people afford to live in the City and protecting the air and water. We want to help California continue to lead the country in technology and climate change,” said Coquillette.