Leslie Roberts, 30, is exactly the type of young person the auto technician trade needs. He arrives to his bay at an Acura dealership in Pompano Beach an hour before his start time to sweep his floor and organize his tools.
He works on cars in a fever-pitch pace, moving his short and stocky frame around the shop almost as fast as he’ll move his mouth to tell you about his passion for cars. He leaves work hours later than he should. At home, he spends his free time studying for certification exams and reading everything he can get his hands on about the latest in auto technology.
Roberts is — according to his former teachers, his managers and his coworkers — an anomaly. Unfortunately, that is precisely the problem for the larger industry he loves. “When the older guys retire and there aren’t many people like me around, it’s going to be a problem,” Roberts said.
There are roughly 750,000 auto technicians and mechanics in the country. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded the industry needs an average of 76,000 new employees in the field each year for the next decade to offset retirees and meet demands for new job openings.
Making things more difficult is a list of reasons people typically leave the field. Working on today’s cars, which have far more electrical parts than ever before, requires veterans to reinvent themselves as lightweight electrical engineers. Pay has been stagnant and requires a lot of overtime to make good money. In states like Florida, the work is done in balmy shops that often don’t have air conditioning. On top of all that, technicians are required to spend thousands of dollars on new tools each year.
The technician shortage is not just a problem for the auto industry. It is also a problem for consumers.
In states like Florida, where new highways are built instead of rail lines or bus routes, people are slaves to their cars. And while those cars may be smarter and more efficient than ever before, they still will break down — as all cars inevitably do.
The question is: Who will be around to fix them when that happens?
Roberts started his job at the Acura dealership only a year ago, but his love for cars and the auto industry always ran in his blood. His mother works at a dealership. His uncle is a master technician. His grandfather was “an electrical engineer without the degree,” he said.
After graduating high school, Roberts attended Broward College for four weeks. One day in class he had an epiphany. “I thought, ‘I could be earning money right now,’” he said. He got up and left. For the next seven years, Roberts waited tables, delivered pizzas and saved money. He also spent his free time fixing up old cars and selling them — a hobby of his ever since he was old enough to drive.
Eventually, Roberts learned about a service program at nearby McFatter Technical College, one of a few public technical colleges in South Florida region with a tuition of less than $10,000. When Roberts enrolled in the 18-month program, he sized up his classmates and learned there are two types of prospective technicians in the world.
“There were people who seemed like they were born with a wrench in their hand,” he said. “Then there were those who stared at the car like it was some alien technology.”
The latter group, he said, seemed to be in the profession because they heard there was money there. In 2018, the median annual pay for mechanics and technicians was close to $41,000, slightly higher than the median annual pay for all workers at $39,000. The highest-earning technicians make over $67,000. Some can get into the triple digits with overtime and bonuses.
But the pay does not come easy, as Roberts learned when he graduated and started at Acura making $11 an hour. However, he put his all into the job, impressing everyone around him with his ambition and drive.
Today, he makes double what he started at. He also works on a flat rate, like most advanced technicians, meaning he is paid per hour on how long the job is supposed to take — not how long it actually takes. When he finishes jobs faster, which he often does, he takes home even more per hour.
Roberts is proud of where he is, but stressed that it wasn’t exactly easy to get there. “It was a grind,” he said.
The main factor for his success, according to Michael Bloch, Roberts’ former instructor at McFatter, was his innate self-motivation — something that even the best technical college can’t teach. “A lot of students just don’t have his drive,” said Bloch.
There are a handful of public technical colleges in Florida, which many agree are the best and most affordable options for prospective technicians. Most, like McFatter, specialize in a general automotive program that serves as an introduction into the car technician field.
On a recent visit to McFatter, students were divided into two groups. One group was in the classroom, learning theory. The other group was in an attached shop full of used cars learning to apply the theory. “We hit them from all sides,” said Bloch.
Bloch said his school is often a feeder for advanced-level programs at other schools like Atlantic Technical College in Coconut Creek. Atlantic offers manufacturer-sponsored courses, which allow students to become proficient at working specifically on brands like Toyota or Honda, and get snatched up by a dealership after graduation.
Dealerships, Bloch said, are where the money is made. However, they require the most training and work to excel in. Something not all students are built for. The ones who are built for it, tend to come from families like Roberts’, where a love of cars was instilled from young.
Deavion Brown, standing under an old Toyota suspended into the air as impact guns buzzed behind, is an example.
He started at McFatter last year and will graduate soon. Brown, 19, said he grew up in his father’s transmissions shop in Lauderdale Lakes. As a young boy, he took apart his bicycles and recently changed out the engine on his late model Honda for fun.
Still, Brown said his mother was not excited about his coming to McFatter at first.
“She said a degree is better than a certification,” he said, adding that she hoped he would opt for a four-year college track. But eventually she dropped her case. “She knows this is something that I love,” he said.
“There is this mindset that everyone needs a college degree,” said Martin Jones, another instructor at McFatter. “Everyone still has the neanderthal idea that if you are a blue-collar worker, you’re stupid.”
Jones, who has been an instructor at the program for 27 years, said he has noticed a dip in students compared to 20 years ago. Mostly, it is hard to recruit people who don’t come from an automotive-inclined family. Though it is not impossible.
Solomon Cracchiolo, 30, was sitting in the classroom at McFatter, poring over a thick textbook. No one in his family is a mechanic. When he left high school and enrolled in Broward College, he was set on becoming a history teacher.
He graduated in seven years, paying for school out of pocket. But he was so beat by the journey and his lack of funds that he gave up on teaching and concluded something essential about life in Florida: Everyone drives and everyone is in search of a reliable mechanic.
Since enrolling at McFatter, Cracchiolo said he has fallen in love with the career and the cars, which change every year and require constant learning in order to fix them. “It’s like a puzzle,” he said.
Looking back on his choice to go to college, he said he wishes he would have started the program right out of high school. “I could have started my own business by now,” he said. “I would have had at least 10 years’ worth of experience.”
The affordability of technical colleges versus four-year schools, and the ability to draw a decent salary without a ton of schooling, have traditionally been all the marketing necessary to get students interested in technical colleges.
However, some, like Kenneth Bergmann, have leaned into newer strategies.
Bergman, the automotive department chair at Atlantic Technical College and High School, said he has made a point to target computer-savvy students who don’t see themselves doing web design or coding and like to get their hands dirty.
“If they like computers, we can show them what they can be doing with the computers in cars,” he said. “We try to turn on the light bulb in their mind.”
Bergman said he also has adjusted presentations he makes at high schools each year, many of which no longer have shop classes.
Instead of lecturing, he took a spark plug and a coil pack to a recent presentation and showed students how to energize the spark plug with a nine-volt battery.
“You have to show them something that is pretty cool about the field,” he said, “Because chances are they have never really seen it.”
Jorge Flautero, 61, has worked in dealerships all over Florida, as well as New York in his 39 years as a technician. He is a sinewy-muscled veteran that Roberts and everyone else in the Acura dealership in Pompano Beach admire like a guru.
Flautero has plenty to say about the problems attracting young talent into dealerships, but he has more to say about valuing the older veterans who end up teaching the youngsters and keep the dealership revenue coming in. “They have to pay us for what we do and what we know,” he said.
He pointed the blame specifically at manufacturers, which he said have failed to demand dealerships to pay master technicians such as himself higher wages and make them more of a priority.
Twenty years ago, Flautero said he worked for a Ferrari dealership in New York City and made $40 an hour. Today, he makes $34 an hour and has not gotten a raise in nine years. The discrepancy in pay and the lack of respect that he feels older technicians receive in dealerships leads to low morale, he said.
He looked at the three cars under his watch in the shop, including a late model Acura NSX (Acura’s most expensive vehicle), which he is the only person in the entire dealership certified to touch. “I’m doing all this stuff and it’s not easy.”
Behind Flautero was a toolbox that includes a makeshift shrine to all the certifications and awards he has picked up in his career. The drawers are full of tools he has accumulated, some of which are no longer manufactured. In total, he has invested more than $200,000 in tools over the course of his career. “I got money invested,” he said. “My knowledge, too.”
Flautero said the cars he grew up working on were almost entirely mechanical in nature. Today, cars can be 60% to 80% powered by electrical components. To keep up with the shifting nature of the industry, he recently spent his own money to go to school and study at an advanced electrical program for two years. “If you don’t know electrical as a technician, you might as well hang it up,” he said.
Unfortunately, Flautero said, many veterans in the field do hang it up because they don’t have the drive to continue to learn and change their habits, especially not in the face of a lack of pay.
“They say, ‘It’s not worth it anymore,’” Flautero said.
Donald Hanson, the service manager at the Acura dealership, made no qualms about acknowledging the technician shortage he and his competitors face in Florida. “We’re all beating the bush to try and get good employees,” he said.
Across the country there have been initiatives to stimulate hiring.
Job fairs advertise to hire technicians on the spot.
The National Automobile Dealers Association has conducted a dealership workforce study since 2012 to understand the nature of the shortage. This year, NADA announced a new initiative to help promote careers in the industry. AutoNation, the country’s largest automobile retailer based in Fort Lauderdale, recently put out a call to pay workers to serve as apprentices.
Start your day with the top stories in South Florida.
Hanson said the shortage hasn’t yet affected the quality of his service department severely, but he knows of a dealership in Tallahassee that is understaffed, and three weeks backed up on service orders and receiving negative customer service reviews online.
“You are stuck in between a rock and a hard spot,” Hanson said. Manufacturers want to see customer satisfaction, but that is hard to deliver without enough mechanics. “It is an impossible situation.”
Hanson said his dealership offers $6,000 signing bonuses to qualified technicians, as well as ample vacation time. But he believes manufacturers could do more to help as far as recruiting. One suggestion he had is for them to sponsor more shop programs in high schools.
“We’re all beating the bush to try and get good employees.”
— Donald Hanson
Charlie Myers, general manager of the Acura dealership, said dealerships and manufacturers paying for the tools of beginning technicians is also worth a shot. Many young technicians, he said, are turned off by having to invest upward of $5,000 in tools to get started in the profession.
Myers said that all the proposed solutions flying around — from manufacturers, mega-dealerships, schools and everyone in between — are a testament to the massive scale of the shortage. “I think it’s probably the worst that it’s been as far as technicians go,” he said.
Myers believes the solution must involve a lot of creativity, funds and storytelling to convince older generations to learn new technologies and younger generations to give the field a shot. He sighed shortly after this statement. He brought up Roberts, who is something of a gift to his dealership these days: a young, passionate technician who is invested in the career for the long haul.
“If I could replicate him five times over, I would do it,” Myers said.