Local Memphis Auto Dealers Rally to Address Service Tech Shortage

Stacy Ward
Editor in Chief

The Greater Memphis Auto Dealers Association’s (GMADA) membership is reflective of the change duplicated in many industries. Thanks to a massive wave of consolidation, public entities own seven of the 54 dealers that make up its membership, and 20 entrepreneurs own the rest. The call for more technology and innovation—on both the product and operations side—is dictating what’s required for future profitability and success while veteran service technicians are aging out of the industry faster than local dealers can recruit, train and retain new talent.

To fill the void, GMADA auto dealers will need about 200 readymade techs, according to feedback from members surveyed about the number of vacancies in their dealerships. Yes, the findings were alarming but not a complete surprise, considering the chronic shortage of service techs throughout the country, says Kent Ritchey, the association’s president as well as the president of Landers Auto Group, which operates six franchised dealerships in Mississippi and Tennessee. “Even though we knew this would eventually be an issue, we didn’t have the collective political will to do anything about it, he says. “We were not getting new interest in our industry and, at the time, high schools were not concentrating on technical jobs—so we poached talent from one another. We were all Type A’s that preferred to go it alone instead of getting in the boat and rowing to safety.”

Not anymore. The growing tech shortage was enough of a jolt to convince a majority that throwing thousands at even more on-the-job training and factory visits wouldn’t yield the crop of qualified techs needed to outpace the number of veterans exiting the industry—or the onslaught of future technology and trends. “For us, it had become about self-preservation,” says the head of the 103-year-old association. “Over the years, we had accumulated a lot of capital and we finally came to a point where we all agreed to agree, and the lightbulb came on.”

The consensus: GMADA had to take the lead in producing Memphis’ next generation of qualified service techs, which also meant building a program to educate them. After an exhaustive search for a partner with the resources to help it open an automotive technical school, the association broke ground on Moore Tech Automotive Technician School last May. “We started by going to every public school and government institution in the area that was doing tech,” says Ritchey, but none of them had the means to house GMADA’s vision, a state-of-the-art facility modeled after a modern car dealership and service center. “We’ve got tech schools in the area but they don’t turn out students that can handle the level of sophistication that’s being manufactured today,” adds Ritchey. “Most of the time when a car comes to us, the first thing we do is plug it into a handheld computer. As cars become more autonomous, the need for more skilled technicians will become even greater.”

So the association moved on to Plan B, which included purchasing an old Honda dealership that had been vacant for about five years, and transforming it into the first-of-its-kind automotive service training facility in Memphis. It also approached the president of the William R. Moore College of Technology about participating in a joint initiative to open the school. Decades earlier, the college had been forced to close its automotive-tech program because of a lack of funding.

“If you’re in the HVAC business, or the plumbing or welding business, you know Moore Tech,” says Ritchey. “They run seven trade schools in Memphis and they’ve been doing this for 100 years.” Which is why GMADA gave the college $500,000 in seed money to operate the joint venture and asked one of Moore Tech’s former directors to serve as its director of automotive service technology.

A First in Memphis
Last September, Moore Tech Automotive enrolled 30 students in its inaugural class. Currently, they’re in a temporary facility while the last phase of its $3 million renovation project is completed. Full enrollment is expected to open sometime this spring and attract as many as 200 students, says Ritchey. In addition to a two-year associate degree, graduates can earn certifications in eight categories. Students, who have completed one semester, also will have the opportunity to intern at a Memphis dealership. 

The tuition to attend for both years is roughly $21,000. The nearest for-profit tech schools, in St. Louis and Dallas, cost twice as much. “In their second year, students can apply for a local government empowerment program to subsidize part of their tuition,” says Ritchey, who is hoping to convince the state of Tennessee that Moore Tech Automotive meets the requirements for inclusion in its Tennessee Promise scholarship program. Eligible students receive free tuition to attend a community or technical college in Tennessee for two years.

“So far, dealers have had to spend a lot of money to get this done. We haven’t gotten any factory support but we think we will,” says Ritchey, adding that the association has “total buy-in from all the service directors” aligned with members’ dealerships.

Selling an Industry
An ad hoc committee of 15 GMADA service directors meets monthly to evaluate the school’s curriculum. The goal is to make it an attractive option for employees in service departments looking to speed up their ascension to master status, as well as for high school students contemplating their futures. For more than a year, GMADA members have been gaining ground in this area by visiting area high schools and talking up the pluses that come with an automotive tech career. Starting salaries at some dealerships are as much as $45,000 a year and techs that reach master status earn in excess of $100,000 annually.

“High schools have finally recognized that all of their graduates are not going to college,” says Ritchey. “It’s still in the formative stage, but some have agreed to participate in the school’s dual-enrollment program.”

 As far as prospective candidates within local dealerships, GMADA dealers have the option of sponsoring a student. “If they want to send them, we’ll take them,” says Ritchey. “If a dealership wants to pay the entire tuition, we’ll let them.” His company, Landers Auto Group, is leading by example.

“I have a student that’s 21 years old; he works in one of our Ford stores,” says GMADA’s president. “He approached me about going to the school and I offered to pay his tuition, but his parents said they wanted to pay it. I said, ‘Fine, you can come work for us when you graduate and we will reimburse you.’”

Graduates, of course, are free to work for their employer of choice. “In a couple of years, they’re going to be in high demand,” says Ritchey. “Any tech that leaves this school will be able to walk into one of our local dealerships and feel right at home because they will have worked on some of the same equipment in the same physical setting.

“When they write up a report, they will do it on a computer and they have to write it in a format the customer and the factory can understand. If they can’t type or communicate the problem in an easy-to-understand narrative, they can’t work in a modern dealership.”

He can’t wait until Moore Tech produces its first class of graduates. That’s when the fireworks are going to begin, thinks Ritchey. “It’s going to be interesting to see where they’ll decide to go,” he says. “Some dealers are going to regret not sponsoring a student.”