Nick Frost of Farmington reassembles an automatic transmission in the GM Drivetrains class at Lakes Region Community College. Frost works as a technician at a GMC dealership, and said he has chose his career because he has "always been a car guy. all my life. It's the best option for me right now." (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)
By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The prospect of a shrinking workforce, which has darkened the horizon for employers in the technology, manufacturing and health care sectors, has also cast a shadow on the automotive industry in the state, which could find itself with 900 unfilled positions by 2020, according to a report prepared by the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association and Community college System of New Hampshire.
The report drew from a survey of 151 new and used car and truck dealerships, which represented employed about 6,800 people, or about half the total employment of the industry in 2015. The survey focused on seven occupations — service advisors, service managers, parts staff, sales associates, collision repair technicians, and both entry-level and advanced automotive technicians — which currently account for 4,300 employees. This survey indicated that by 2020 there may be as many 900 vacant positions in these occupations, with entry-level and advanced automotive technicians accounting for nearly a third of the shortfall. The survey indicated that vacancies for technicians were the most difficult and took the longest to fill with nearly nine of ten respondents citing the low number of applicants as the primary reason.
In 2014, the automotive industry employed 817 people in Belknap County, less than the 891 employed in 2005 but more than the 763 employed in 2013, and represents 6 percent of the total employment in the county.
"It's very true that we could use some help," said Scott Ides, general manager of Belknap Subaru in Tilton. "There are always vacant positions in the industry and it's taking longer to fill them than it used to."
Ides was echoed by Andrew Hosmer of AutoServ of Tilton, who said that "there is going to be a labor shortage, which is reflective of New Hampshire's aging demographic. He said that many experienced employees are approaching retirement at a time when school enrollments are declining.
"We've been very fortunate," said Chris Irwin of Irwin Motors of Laconia, "but is there a problem in the industry? Absolutely."
The same auto dealers were equally unanimous about the importance of the automotive programs at the Huot Technical Center at Laconia High School and the Lakes Region Community College in developing the workforce the industry needs.
"We're blessed to have these two programs right in our back yard," Irwin said.
"They are wonderful assets," Ides agreed, "but underutilized.
Hosmer, who served two terms in the New Hampshire Senate, stressed the need for increasing investment in the programs both to expand their capacity to enroll more students and and lower the cost of their education. Noting the lower tuition for for similar programs in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, he said the state should ensure "competitive costs for training."
The Huot Technical Center has offered its automotive program since it opened and Laconia High School is one of 20 high schools with similar programs. David Warrender, director of the center, said enrollment has been steady throughout the years, explaining that teenagers have an affinity with automobiles and there are opportunities for employment in the industry whether new car sales are strong or weak. "It's a healthy program," he said.
Currently, Warrender said, 36 students are enrolled in the first year and 18 in the second, which he described as "pretty typical." With one instructor and an assistant, he said that capacity is limited because close supervision is required to ensure the safety of students working on vehicles in the shop.
"This is a much more challenging curriculum than people assume," Warrender said, explaining that as vehicles have become increasingly sophisticated, the program is much more science based than people think, and we do lose some students early because it is challenging."
Lakes Region Community College is on of four of the seven colleges in the New Hampshire Community College System to offer automotive programs, which altogether awarded 757 degrees and certificates between 2004 and 2015, including 103 at Lakes Region Community College. The college offers both the cooperative Automotive Service Education Program, a 21-month program undertaken in partnership with General Motors and its dealers, and the Associate of Applied Science degree in Automotive Technology. While students may pursue either, those completing the first earn the degree awarded by the second. Toyota Motor Corporation has invested $1 million in a partnership with the college, which this year will begin offering a similar program.
Mike Pakrer, who chairs the department, said that some 50 students are currently enrolled in the programs, but expected the enrollment to reach capacity of 70 with the introduction of the Toyota program. "It's a challenge," he said, explaining that high school enrollments in the region are shrinking and despite rising wages and richer benefits in the industry, interest in automotive engineering is declining.
Like Warrender, he said that as the technology has grown more sophisticated, the programs require a more demanding set of aptitudes and skills. "Today, repairing an automobile may mean reprogramming a computer," said Pakrer.
Peter McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association, said that with average annual incomes of $58,000 and technicians earning more than $75,000, the industry offers very rewarding careers. "We need to get the message out," he said. "There's more capacity in the pipeline. I know there is. These are great jobs. It's a matter of getting more men and women to hear the message."
He questioned the emphasis teachers and parents of high school students place on attending a four-year college and overlooking equally or more rewarding careers in the trades that can be pursued at less cost and in less time.
McNamara said the association and its members work closely with the high schools and community colleges. The association annually contributes $20,000 in scholarships, he said, adding "I wish we could give away more." The association has also worked with the 20 high schools to ensure their technical centers are certified while its members have contributed tools and equipment to their automotive programs. And the association has encouraged the Legislature to provide appropriate funding for the technical centers as well as for job training grants.
Referring to the aging of the state population and decline in high school enrollments, McNamara remarked hat employers, particularly those like auto dealers and manufacturers seeking similar employees with similar aptitudes and skills, "are fishing in a small pond and we've got to have better tackle to catch the fish."
Garrett Mayo and Axl Errington, both of Hardwick, Vermont, study an automatic transmission in the GM Drivetrains class at Lakes Region Community College. They said that the LRCC program is the nearest General Motors program for them. (Adam Drapcho/Laconia Daily Sun)