- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2007

The major U.S. automakers are cutting jobs across the country, but auto dealerships are begging for workers.

More than 108,000 jobs are open at U.S. dealerships, ranging from mechanics and salesmen to receptionists and bookkeepers, according to a study by Automotive Retailing Today, a coalition of major automobile companies and dealers.

“When you think of dealerships, you think of car showrooms; but it’s a business like any other business,” said Denise Patton-Pace, executive director for ART.

All those openings have affected dealerships.

The worker shortage has caused employees to work longer hours at Russel Toyota, said Mark Putnam, sales manager at the Catonsville, Md., dealership. The sales department is a bit understaffed at his dealership, since more cars are being sold. He said he may be hiring more salespeople this week.

For many dealerships, filling the service department has especially become a “struggle,” said Gerard Murphy, president of the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association.

Fewer workers in service and other departments often means less work can be taken on, said Bob Armstrong, business office manager at Patriot Buick-Pontiac-GMC in Williamsburg. To cope with the demand, his dealership has extended its hours by one hour every day.

“That has helped smooth out the workload,” Mr. Armstrong said.

The struggle to hire mechanics partially comes from a need for more skilled mechanics, especially as dealerships expand and car technology becomes more complex, said John Wheaton, vice president of College Park Honda.

“It’s not just a matter of taking apart an engine anymore,” Mr. Wheaton said. “It’s getting very complicated.”

Mr. Murphy said the difficulty in finding service employees could affect customer service if not addressed. But he said automakers have stepped up the quality of automobiles, meaning fewer technical and mechanical problems with vehicles. That increase in quality has resulted in fewer customers in the service department, he added.

In recent years, it has become even harder to fill technician positions, said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with Edmunds.com, a publisher of automobile pricing guides.

“In terms of technicians, there’s a strong growth curve because of a lack of qualified people,” said Mr. Toprak, who has been in the auto industry almost 13 years.

Reflecting that trend, the study found most available jobs were in the service and sales departments.

But sales-department openings are likely being caused by turnover, Mr. Toprak said. Although auto dealerships reported strong new-vehicle sales during 2006, the new-car department saw a 3 percent decrease, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, a McLean association for new-car and truck dealers.

That decrease in new-car sales has created high turnover in sales jobs at dealerships, Mr. Toprak said. Because sales have dropped, it means less profit potential for a salesman. Declining profits on new-car sales make sales careers look less attractive, he added.

“It’s becoming harder to make a decent living being a car salesman,” Mr. Toprak said.

To compensate, dealerships are focusing more on back-end profits that come from financing and insurance instead of just front-end profits, or selling the car, he added.

So far, those unfilled jobs have not affected customers dramatically, Mr. Murphy said.

“It hasn’t had a deleterious effect, at least to my knowledge,” he said. “It’s a potentially huge issue without intervention.”

This is the second study conducted by Automotive Retailing Today on job openings. The first, in 2006, found an estimated 104,803 job openings.

Carter Myers, chairman of the coalition, said he was surprised to see so many jobs available during the 2006 study. But this time around, he expected it.

In the new study, the most job openings — 25,149 — were in the South Atlantic region, which includes the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia and six other states. It is the biggest region in the survey.

In all job areas, dealerships are seeing the jobs becoming more computerized and professional, Mr. Myers said. Compared with the past, dealerships are hiring more people with college degrees or college experience.

“The Internet has helped us hone the sales process and it’s helped the buying process,” said Mr. Myers, who has been in the automobile dealership industry for nearly 43 years with Carter Myers Automotive in Charlottesville. “Customers are more educated, so we need to be more educated. It’s become a tool for both sides.”

The study, conducted by Harris Interactive, surveyed 742 franchised new-car dealers about the estimated number of vacant positions at their dealerships from March 28 through April 12 of this year.

Mr. Myers said jobs at dealerships will likely continue to be available, especially as the baby boomers start to retire.

“That’s going to become interesting when it starts in three or four years,” he said. “It’s a much more complex environment.”

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