An Ontario dealer association said its members are struggling to find skilled workers to fill service jobs and it wants the provincial government to provide more training.
Frank Notte, director of government relations for the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association (TADA), said Ontario dealers have largely been hurt by a shortage of people trained to repair increasingly complex vehicles.
The need to close this skilled-trades gap also extends to factory floors of parts suppliers and vehicle manufacturers.
The federal and provincial governments are aware of the problem. For instance, sharing best practices in skilled-trades education was a key component of an automotive memorandum of understanding that Ontario and Michigan signed in 2016. And in 2009, Ontario created its College of Trades, charged with regulating and promoting skilled trades work.
But Notte said that Ontario has not gone nearly far enough to promote skilled trades, and dealers are increasingly paying the price.
“We don’t think they’re fulfilling their mandate. The college is supposed to be a one-stop shop for enforcement, regulation and education. And it just hasn’t been that,” he said. “The government needs to reset and look at their priorities and put everything back toward education and connecting people with business.”
Auto dealers are in need of skilled mechanics to work on vehicles that have more computer technology than ever. As vehicles become more connected and autonomous, dealerships will need service staff who are comfortable working on cameras and software.
James Ricci of Roy Foss Automotive Group told an audience at the Automotive News Canada Congress in February that dealers are "reaching a crisis" when it comes to the shortage of technicians.
Dave Fraser, Ontario education coordinator at TADA, said the industry and governments were caught off guard by two concurrent shifts over the past two decades: the pace of technological advances in the average vehicle; and the shift away from vocational training in secondary education.
“I don’t think the employment environment has ever changed as much as it has over the past two decades,” he said. “We just didn’t send enough people through technical colleges.”
THE GAP GROWS
The resulting skilled trade gap costs Canadian businesses, including dealerships, millions of dollars every year and prevents them from hiring. For example, the WindsorEssex region loses an estimated $600 million every year, and 82 per cent of businesses said they struggled to find qualified workers, according to a report by the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The 2016 OntarioMichigan memorandum of understanding called on both sides to share best practices in promoting skilled trades. The two governments have said it is already bearing fruit in the form of more robotics competitions and other programs to get students interested.
“It’s a friendly competition,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder told Automotive News Canada. “Ontario is catching up pretty fast because they’re seeing the value. They’re running a lot of competitions. It’s not about the border. It’s how we see a common program, a common value that’s to the benefit of both of us.”
Douglas George, consul general of Canada in Detroit, said Canada must promote skilled trades if it wants to be a leader in automotive technology.
“If we want to remain globally competitive, we’re going to be competing for skilled people,” he said. “We’ve got some of the top-notch research groups around Ontario and Canada.
“Canada has two of the top [artificial intelligence] groups in the world. Part of my job is to say to Detroit that you don’t have to go to Silicon Valley. You just have to go up the 401 [highway] to Waterloo and to Hamilton.”
Fraser said one of the biggest challenges in promoting skilled trades to young students is overcoming a misconception that repairing vehicles is a low-paying, unexciting job.
That stigma “comes from parents, teachers, influencers and people who grew up with that so-called grease-monkey conception,” he said. “That’s deeply ingrained in a lot of people.”
Fraser said TADA has worked to encourage dealers to begin co-op and apprenticeship programs to bring young, skilled workers into the fold. And he said the dealer association has lobbied governments to put more vocational training back into secondary education and to change the notion that attending university is the preferred route.
“If we get students at 16, 17 or 18 years old when impressions have not yet been fully made for them, then we have a much better chance,” he said.